by Valentina Milanese
Depicting the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un in a movie is nowadays considered an act of war against the country, as the regime in Pyongyang apparently does not kid around or like jokes. Sony Entertainment, the producer of the movie The Interview, learned this the hard way, as the comedy featuring Seth Rogen and James Franco became the unexpected trigger of one of the hottest controversies of late 2014. This wacky film about two journalists’ hired by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to assassinate Kim Jong-Un is hardly a thought-provoking satirical masterpiece. Yet, it has managed to become the symbol of the fight for freedom of expression against censorship, and incidentally one of Sony’s most profitable releases.
The fight began when, in reaction to the movie being produced, the authority of North Korea declared it an act of terrorism and promised harsh consequences if the movie was released. Three months later, Sony systems were hacked by a mysterious group going by the name Guardians of Peace. An enormous amount of data was stolen and made public, and the hackers demanded that The Interview’s release be cancelled. They went as far as threatening to attack movie theatres where the film would be premiered. Some of the major U.S. theatre chains eventually backed out of screening the comedy. As a result, Sony chose to pull the movie from its scheduled release.
The decision by the entertainment company enraged the public and was harshly criticized by the media, by Hollywood personalities and even by U.S. President Barack Obama. “I wish Sony has spoken to me about it first [before withdrawing the movie],” said President Obama in a press conference in December. Pulling the film was seen as bending the knee to the cyber terrorists and to North Korea, accused of being behind the attack by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). This controversy did eventually reach extremely worrying proportions with politicians getting involved, President Obama promising retaliation against North Korea and two countries almost going to cyber war over a Seth Rogen movie. Yet, despite the fact that this affair was ludicrously blown out of proportion, at the heart of the matter lied a heartfelt battle for the protection of the freedom of expression against the perceived imposition of censorship by a foreign dictatorship.
One could argue that choosing to depict the unceremonious slow-motion assassination of a living dictator (with the U.K. pop-star, Katy Perry singing in the background) might not have been a tasteful, or even clever artistic choice. Yet when it comes to satire, it seems that the general public holds that there is little that can’t be or shouldn’t be said and done. Humour and ridicule are subversive and yet acceptable ways of handling even the most delicate topics while still getting a “get out of jail free” card. The general opinion, as presented by the media, was that although the creators of the movie could have handled the death scene better, ultimately they had a right to create it as they pleased.
With millions wanting to see the movie, Sony ultimately decided to release the action comedy in a limited number of theaters and online platforms. As people rejoiced for the victory of freedom over oppression, watching The Interview became almost a matter of principle.
Ironically, this comedy is so innocuous that, had it not been for the controversy, it would have been forgotten before one could say “Pyongyang.”
As a satire, it actually fails to strike any blows against the North Korean leader. The movie addresses only a few times the terrible situation of the population in the country and the oppression they suffer under the rule of their supreme leader Kim Jong-Un. Moreover, by blowing the dictator up in the grand tank versus helicopter finale, the movie ends-up creating a fictional solution to a real-life hurdle: as the dictator is dead, one has the feeling that all of North Korea’s problems have been solved. Wtih this sense of closure, instead of reflecting upon the cruelty of this leader (as a good satire should have you do), you might feel excused from having to think about the people of North Korea ever again. In the end, The Interview is exactly what is expected from a Seth Rogen’s comedy: it’s lowbrow, it’s naughty, it’s dumb, and it’s toothless.
With so many people having spoken out to defend a film as utterly trivial as The Interview, it hardly seems like an epic battle. Yet, even if the comedy is not worth much as a movie, fighting for the freedom of expression is never a worthless cause. As Sony discovered, killing Kim Jong-Un onscreen can actually be a surprisingly remunerative business since the controversy earned the company almost $40 million in online sales alone. Surely the producers of The Interview have dedicated one of their New Year’s Eve toasts to the Guardians of Peace.