Why Kim Jong-Un was Really afraid of “The Interview:” A Humiliation Romp, not an Assassination Flick

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) —

N.B.: Contains spoilers; if interested in the film, go see or stream it first and then read.

There has been a lot of blaming the victim in the commentary on Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg’s controversial film, “The Interview” (2014). The premise, of an assassination plot against the North Korean dictator, has been called unseemly and it has been hinted around that trouble about it was foreseeable.

In fact, despite an unflattering depiction of the Central Intelligence Agency as manipulative and homicidal, the heart of the film isn’t about violent assassination at all. For all its juvenile potty humor and blue language, “The Interview” is an old-fashioned Hollywood piece of idealism. It is getting a 51% critics rating at Rotten Tomatoes, so let’s face it, it is a B movie, sort of an even more vulgar Harold and Kumar type of outing. But if, in the way of the structuralist critics who put aside questions of quality in favor of plot and theme, we consider the message here, it is one of ridicule for an extremely powerful and yet extremely absurd dictator and regime.

The rather fickle and volatile fictional protagonists, Dave Skylark (James Franco) and Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogan) put on a TMZ-like entertainment show that involves shocking interviews with stars wanting to come clean about some foible. Once they are invited to North Korea and are recruited by Langley, they bounce around from disgust at the idea of the CIA assassination scheme to tepid commitment to conviction that a better way could be found than political murder to change North Korean politics.

The “assassination” they conduct is therefore an assassination of character, in a live television broadcast. In other words, they use the tools of television sensationalism and celebrity gossip to ambush and humiliate the guest, pushing him over the edge and revealing his true character– and so destroying him politically.

When I was young, American television and film had an unwritten code that the protagonist cannot casually murder someone, even a very bad guy. The good guy or gal could kill, but only in self-defense as a court of law would recognize it. That code long since went out the window, in a way I entirely disapprove of, since having supposed heroes act sadistically and murderously is a pollution of our national ethics.

Ironically, in a film about an assassination plot gone awry, when the protagonists do blow Kim Jong-Un away, it is in self-defense not only of themselves but of the world. In this way, again, the film exemplifies an older Hollywood sensibility. The good guys are good guys in the end, they prefer non-violent means, and commit violence only when forced to deploy it to save lives.

Whether or not the North Korean government was behind the hacking of Sony Pictures and the threats against the theaters that showed the film, it does seem incontestable that Pyongyang is seized by a cold fury at its making.

Last summer the government said, “The US authorities should take immediate and appropriate action to ban the production and distribution of the film, otherwise it will be fully responsible for encouraging and sponsoring terrorism … [and] involves insulting and assassinating the supreme leadership… To allow the production and distribution of such a film on the assassination of an incumbent head of a sovereign state should be regarded as the most undisguised sponsoring of terrorism as well as an act of war.” Pyongyang threatened a “resolute and merciless response.”

The North Korean government, moreover, was likely much more afraid of the ridicule to which Kim Jong-Un is subjected in this film than of the silly assassination plot. That is, the charge of “insulting” should be taken more seriously than that of celluloid terrorism (no, that’s not a thing). Over and over again in recent years we have seen dictators fall, in part because their mystique was pierced and the people lost their fear. Muammar Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali all got that treatment. All of them were deposed by people suddenly more derisive of them than afraid of them. The fright at being laughed at on social media is a much bigger threat than mere imaginary death fantasies aimed at the supreme leader.

I think it is a great good thing that Sony decided to allow the film to be streamed at its own dedicated site, and at Google Play, Youtube, and on X-Box. I watched it on my laptop at Google Play for $5.99 and it was all very convenient, if a little awkward for a middle-aged intellectual to be subjected to the endless stream of poor taste here. Alas, it is a frat boy prank film full of dirty language and dirty scenes, so it isn’t for everyone. That is a shame, since I think if the movie had been cleaned up a little and if the falling dictator had been left alive, it really could have been an important political comedy on its own merits. As it is, the paranoid North Korean regime, by its thundering denunciations at the least, and perhaps by more sinister actions, has managed to make it important.

Related video:

The Interview Official Final Trailer (2014) – James Franco, Randall Park Comedy HD

12 Responses

  1. […] ‘When the protagonists do blow Kim Jong-Un away, it is in self-defense not only of themselves but of the world. In this way, the film exemplifies an older Hollywood sensibility. The good guys are good guys in the end, they prefer nonviolent means, and commit violence only when forced to deploy it to save lives.” Well, It Would Be A Spoiler In Most Cases, But… Juan Cole On The Interview […]

  2. Hilary Mantell, double Booker Prize winner, recently wrote a fictional short story about the “assassination” of Margaret Thatcher. There was a storm of protest from the political right in the UK about this story which they declarted to be in very bad taste. I believe it is a crime to even threaten to assassinate the …………well I won’t put that in print in case I get misinterpreted. A high propoertion of the people who criticise Ms Mantel’s short story, and obviously all those from government security agencies that work to prevent the assassniation of…..without any sense of irony are probably strongly in support of this film that centres on the plot to assassinate the Dear Leader, the head of state of a country who does not share their values. There were plots by the British to assassinate Adolf Hitler in the late 30s or during the war. Ms Mantell’s fantasy was written probably out of a secret and half suppressed wish that such an assassination had taken place. Many might argue that the achievement of political ends by assassination is never justified.

  3. I saw the film today and all I could think of is, “Man, I hope Mel Brooks gets to see it.”.
    Bad taste may be one of America’s great gifts to comedy and rather then bemoan it, we should celebrate it.

  4. Prof. Cole, I’ve no desire to see the film; I’m content to rely on your summary. Thanks for watching it so that the rest of us don’t need to do so. Earlier, commenting on your post about the NSA’s efforts to weaken internet security, I posted a link to an article in the Daily Beast, based on hacked emails, which indicated that at least two government officials had reviewed an early cut of the film and had given their ok. It showed how Hollywood and official DC can work together to “catapult the propaganda” as a former president would say. That’s no surprise. But I was surprised that the government would think it okay to portray the CIA as an agency that tries to arrange for the assassination of foreign leaders. I recall what led President Ford to ban that. That seems no laughing matter, in light of recent revelations about CIA activities, including the death of prisoners under torture. I fear that standards for our conduct have eroded to the point where our leaders no longer share older norms. I don’t see how this can be good for our country.

  5. martin stein

    If Little Kim is afraid of ridicule maybe he shd lose weight get a new hairstyle & stop being a poster boy 4 police state nepotism

  6. Mack Sennett brought to the silent screen in 1919 a comic film by the title of “Yankee Doodle in Berlin’. This movie depicted the Kaiser and the Germany army as being a bunch of buffoons. The film is about an American soldier disguising himself as a beautiful woman. Bothwell Browne who was a woman impersonator of his day played the lead. Yes, all the higher German command fell for this stunning woman impersonator. The movie makes no mistake at it’s propaganda value for it’s time.

    link to imdb.com

  7. Former President Carter has an op-ed about sanctions on Cuba and NK in WaPo. link to washingtonpost.com:

    North Korea is a difficult problem, given its nuclear capabilities. It has a terrible government. Still, while Hollywood defines North Korea for Americans in this movie, it may be useful to remember that from the perspective of North Korea, they have been the victims of gunboat diplomacy and worse by foreign powers, for a very long time. The U.S. role in “gunboat diplomacy” in Korea in the 19th and early 20th century was so minor that Americans aren’t even aware of it. To the extent that we remember the Korean War, we likewise don’t see our role as problematic.

  8. What do Americans know about Asia? What do they know about Vietnam? What do they know about central asia? What do they know about Ukraine and the NED? It’s just a little conspicuous that lots of Americans are suddenly having very vague notions of NK reinforced by some flick when they don’t know jack about anything else in Asia. No Le Carre plots; his last in the area is too far back in time. Anyone bother to ask Oliver Stone to make a film germane to the region?

    Of course, NK needs to loosen up, but what kind of policies do we tell our representatives to put into place to help this process…and how can we have any idea re how much pressure should be exerted if we’re blind, say, to what western Ukraine shock troops are perpetrating? I’d like to know more about these “ballistic missiles” Kiev’s firing off according to Pepe Escobar. Google the latter with “The Roving Eye,” Asia Times…and “plays Russian Roulette.”

Comments are closed.