In a week that has at long last seen the tortured release of the North Korea–set black comedy The Interview, I sat down to interview the film critic and frequent TV talking head Myself about the movie and the surrounding brouhaha. An edited transcript of our discussion — which contains some spoilers — appears below:
You saw the movie after its release, correct?
Yes. I missed the early screenings and suddenly it was pulled, leaving me bereft — which didn’t stop me from talking about it on CBS Sunday Morning, CNN, and MSNBC, by the way. Because there were principles at stake. By the time I saw it I was certainly expecting something momentous.
Was it momentous?
Absolutely. Yes. It lives up to the hype. Critics who say it’s little more than a smutty “bromance” that happens to feature a caricature of Kim Jong-un don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. It’s certainly smutty — and infantile. Maybe half the jokes miss. But it is a truly savage work. It means not just to expose Kim Jong-un as a fraud but to emasculate him, which is about the most punk thing you can do to a repressive, totalitarian, murderous, self-proclaimed god of a closed but increasingly porous state.
How do you know what happens in North Korea?
There’s a book that just came out called Without You There Is No Us by a woman who taught the sons of North Korea’s elite — she was at a university run by Christian evangelicals who were horrified when she wrote about her experiences — and the cultural insularity in this day and age is mind-blowing. I also recommend people watch the terrific documentary Kimjongilia, which explores the beyond-Soviet-style propaganda of North Korea under Kim Jong-un’s father. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so tragic — and in The Interview it’s hilarious and tragic. This is an insane country. In the opening of the film, a little girl sings at a formal North Korean ceremony and calls in beauteous tones for the women of the United States to be raped by the beasts of the jungle — and that’s one of the nicer phrases. When TV host Dave Skylark and his producer arrive in North Korea, Kim puts a fat kid on a street corner to wave at them and thereby demonstrate that kids in the country aren’t starving. There’s also a Potemkin Village grocery store in which the shelves of food turn out to be painted on a cloth.
That’s barbed, all right, but how is it “savage”?
That’s an ahistorical and rather ignorant question, David. If you draw a phallus and tits on a poster of a leader who’s supposedly descended from heaven, you’re committing an execution-worthy crime. But the movie goes deeper. Randall Park plays Kim Jong-un as a devious child-man who still rages over his dead dad’s refusal to treat him like a man. He weeps and shits himself when confronted about it on live TV in the title interview with James Franco’s Skylark — which triggers the climactic bloodbath in the control room, when the technicians try to terminate the broadcast and Skylark’s producer Seth Rogen gets his fingers bitten off in close-up. Anyway, men with daddy issues who feel they have to prove their masculinity start a lot of pointless wars. Just ask George W. Bush.
There are a lot of dick jokes, right — embarrassing erections and so forth? And there are many references to the hotness of Lizzy Caplan as a CIA agent and Diana Bang as a North Korean propaganda minister.
Your point being ... ?
Well, it’s not exactly sophisticated satire. It’s not Duck Soup. It’s not even a Hope and Crosby comedy.
It is in its way a modern Hope and Crosby comedy with gross-out gags and no songs. Another obvious comparison is the South Park guys’ Team America: World Police, which features an outrageously racist portrait of Kim Jong-il as Cartman with nukes. In any case, there’s a great American tradition of tasteless, righteous, violent satire against political leaders, and, to repeat the point, when they’re totalitarian dictators of repressive states whose people don’t dare satirize them, it’s all the more righteous.
How is The Interview on a technical level?
It’s very well made. I do wish Franco had toned down his performance just a smidge. It’s not just that it’s a caricature of a dumb showbiz blowhard, it’s that he’s always contorting his face so you can’t see him. Franco tends to play his characters in quotation marks these days, as additions to his Renaissance man repertoire. He’s inventive, though, and made me laugh a lot. Rogen — who directed the film with Evan Goldberg — is a good straight man, and Park is inspired. The women have less to do.
Why do you think Sony pulled the film and then released it after all in some theaters and on VOD?
They were really hurt by President Obama’s public shaming. I mean: Et tu, Brute? With all respect to the president, it’s naïve to think Sony was just backing down out of fear of foreign dictators. It was an economic decision. All the major exhibitors pulled out, not just because of safety concerns but because peoples’ perceptions might have kept them away from the multiplexes, which would have really hurt the all-important holiday movie season. But after what Obama said, it became easier for small theaters and chains like the Alamo Drafthouse to step up and make a statement. Needless to say, I applaud that.
Will this still have a chilling effect on political satire?
Of course. Political satire is rare in Hollywood to begin with and the idea that a country or even a radical group in this country could make meaningful threats might be the final straw. Best to throw the occasional, veiled barb into a superhero picture and leave it at that. Not enough people have pointed out, though, that this was more than an attack on the U.S. Sony is a Japanese company, and any chance North Korea has to stick it to the Japanese, they’ll take — probably in concert with China. And given Japan’s actions in the early part of the 20th century, who can entirely blame them?
Finally, about those Sony hacks: Would you have printed the emails if you were in charge of the media?
Without question, no. I’d have done everything to suppress them. Stealing them was a crime and this wasn’t about larger political questions. I’d have certainly published Snowden’s and Assange’s revelations, for example. Having said that, I am, like many other self-appointed ethicists, torn in two directions. Once the emails were out there I read them avidly. And in general — apart from those moronic, racist exchanges about Obama’s taste in movies and the pay disparity between women and men — the level of discourse was higher than I expected. These weren’t just businesspeople. They cared about the art, too. If Amy Pascal loses her job over this, it will be an outrage. The only thing about which we disagree is The Interview. She hated it; I think it’s a blast.