Why what The Interview says about North Korea actually matters (an analysis)


I saw The Interview because I was curious. Amidst the complete ridiculousness of the past few weeks, thoughts and feelings have been flying around about the film. Outside of the few who had attended pre-chaos press screenings, no one was really qualified to speak to the film’s quality. I frequently disagree with the press at large, but I still wasn’t expecting particularly good things. That was the impetus behind my thinkpiece from last week, because let’s be honest: A Seth Rogen comedy shouldn’t be the film to set off a public debate. It should be some deeply serious documentary set in North Korea’s concentration camps that make people incapable of looking away from it. I mean… right?

Well… not necessarily. Having now seen (and enjoyed) The Interview, I realized that this is about as close as we’re going to get to a public discussion about the horrors of North Korean life. So let’s take advantage of that and see what it’s got to say. 

The Interview

I feel like Flixist has become an inadvertent “Interview Defense Force.” Between Nick’s glowing review of the film and… well, this article you’re reading, it seems like we’re one of the only places that legitimately thinks it’s a film worth watching. I don’t like it as much as Nick does, but I’d be a dirty liar if I said that it didn’t make me laugh a whole lot.

I also think that if all of this hadn’t happened, the film would have gotten a somewhat more favorable reaction. A lot of people went into it with the same mindset I had when I wrote “Why did it have to be The Interview?” and their experience was colored by that. I’m more easily won over by stupid jokes than they are, clearly, but it’s a bad mindset to start from. And speaking of mindset: If you went into The Interview expecting The Great Dictator, you were just being dumb. I’ve seen this comparison made (obviously with a “Chaplin made a good satirical film, so this has no excuse” bent), and I think it’s ludicrous. Although both of them share a conceptual similarity (lampooning one of the most dangerous men on earth), the work of Charlie Chaplin was always holding a mirror up to society where Seth Rogen’s films rarely have much to say at all. They’re funny. That’s all they’ve got. If The Great Dictator hadn’t been a scathing indictment, that would have been more surprising. But the minds behind The Interview have no such reputation. 

Even so, The Interview is different. When you take on a dictatorship, you have to go beyond the surface. Seth Rogen was one of the final guests on The Colbert Report, and the interview came before the shitstorm that saw the film blocked and then canceled and then uncanceled and then released on VOD and in theaters simultaneously.

(Quick aside: The ludicrously high piracy numbers are unfortunate not because they represent stealing work from a company that was so afraid of this film that their name doesn’t appear anywhere in the credits (though Columbia, whose name does appear, is a Sony subsidiary), but because the idea of VOD day-and-date releases has just been set back at least a couple of years by this. Companies will (not wrongly) use those numbers as evidence that the public can’t be trusted. That is a shame. Now, back to your previously scheduled programming:)

During that interview, Seth Rogen talked about the research that went into creating this film, where he and others in the creative team read pretty much everything there was to read about the experience of living in the country. He said that they wanted to show, in some small way, just how terrible a place this was. And if we’re being totally honest, they don’t actually show it, but they do make their feelings on the atrocities clear. 

This film is more than just a film about killing Kim Jong-un. Not much more, but more. Those who say it belittles some of the real human tragedy won’t be wrong, but the film still deserves at least a little more credit than it’s gotten. know enough about the fake presentation that North Korea puts on for the rest of the world, with the exact sort of not-real grocery stores that the film portrays, because I find it fascinating. Does your average person, the person most likely to go see a movie starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, know about that? Be honest with yourself. The answer to that question is No, they don’t. This will be the first exposure a lot of people have to that. Maybe they’ll see it and be interested, going off to read more in-depth books or see other films. It may be used for comedic effect, but it’s just something that’s inherently bizarre. I can imagine a lot of people looking up whether or not those fake grocery stores exist, and then they go down the rabbit hole.

You can argue that that’s not enough, and I would acknowledge that the true horrors of the regime are referred to rather than actually seen. But let’s go back to the simple fact that this film is a comedy. And ask yourself this question: Would you feel better if a comedy had James Franco running around a concentration camp mugging for the camera? Or actually seeing the millions of starving people? No. Instead of complaining about the film not doing enough, people would be arguing that it’s exploitative or whatever. There was no way for this movie to win. It could have gone farther and still functioned, sure, but it’s an extremely fine line, and for the purposes of mainstream entertainment, The Interview stayed on the safe side of it. I’m not going to blame them for that.

And as mainstream (keyword) entertainment (also keyword), The Interview always had the potential to reach millions upon millions of people. And with all of the insanity that surrounded it, it has likely already been seen by more than a million (legally or not). That fact is worth acknowledging, if not applauding. No film that hoped to document the true tragedy of the North Korean experience could ever hope for that kind of reach. And let’s be honest: As it was, this film barely came out. Even in its current form, Sony CEO Kaz Hirai personally stepped in to tone the film down. If it had gone farther, the project wouldn’t have gone further. Gore Verbinski’s Pyongyang was canceled. It shouldn’t have been, but that’s fear. The same fear that Sony felt with the film as it is. And as it is, it’s pretty tame. 

Kim Jong Un

But tame or not, let’s think about how it could actually make a difference: The most interesting internal email from the Sony hack regarded someone deep in the government who saw potential for The Interview to be used as propaganda. There are entire groups of people who work to bring foreign films into their borders, at literal risk of death. This is a film that will undoubtedly make it into North Korea. People will watch this film there, and they will see not just a vision of the outside world, but the outside world’s vision of North Korea. They will see how the world perceives them, but they may also see something that they recognize, something that rings true. Hell, that’s what the entire third act of the film is about. It’s about belittling the government in the eyes of it’s people. It’s about subversion in order to begin the revolt. It’s about getting people to see Kim Jong-un not as a god but as a fallible man, one who loves Katy Perry and has the same bodily functions as the rest of us.

And that matters, no matter what else the film does or doesn’t accomplish. Team America (a better film than The Interview) took on North Korea before, but this goes so much further, and so much harsher. As I’ve said already, we don’t see the true horror of North Korea, but we see a mastermind of manipulation, a man who will kill people at a moment’s notice to prove his power. (Of all the things the film doesn’t show, that’s the one I most wish it had. But then again, public executions aren’t much funnier than concentration camps.) And we do hear some shocking numbers, the number of hungry people, the number of workers in concentration camps. It may be more effective to see than to hear, but have the people inside of North Korea heard those numbers? Probably not. They know they’re starving or may know others in their community who are, but they don’t necessarily know just how horrible conditions are for everyone.

Look at this as a film for the North Koreans, and suddenly things change. It becomes a film that is far more subversive than people give it credit for. There are serious problems with its depictions of pretty much any group of people, and there are arguments to be made that it’s racist, sexist, and homophobic (though not maliciously so), but it still has the potential to reach people and make them think about the North Korean regime. People see Kim Jong-un as silly, not dangerous. The Interview portrays him as both. That may not be enough, but it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. That is something to be celebrated. So let’s celebrate.

Who brought the fireworks?