Imagine a comedy about the assassination of a sitting head of state. Drawing on cultural stereotypes about a country considered backward by much of the world, the film launches its heroes on a mission to kill a buffoonish tyrant. Hilarity ensues.
This, more or less, is “The Interview,” an upcoming movie starring James Franco and Seth Rogen as goofballs enlisted by the CIA to kill North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. North Korea wasn’t happy about “The Interview” — and may even have helped launch an epic hack of Sony, the company releasing the film, in retaliation.
It’s impossible to summon much sympathy for Kim Jong Un. But now imagine this assassination farce was made not in Hollywood, but in North Korea or Moscow, and the leader assassinated in the film was a president of the United States. Or imagine the film was made by Iran, and the leader assassinated in the film was the prime minister of Israel. Where “The Interview” draws on stereotypes about North Korea’s ridiculous, yet terrifying isolationism, this hypothetical film makes jokes about African Americans and Jews — perhaps about the incompetence of a black man in the White House, or about Israel’s right to exist.
Not so funny, is it? The North Korean, Russian or Iranian version of “The Interview” would be called racist. It would be called anti-Semitic. And some might even say it encourages psychopaths.
“The Interview” is not, of course, an act of war and/or terror. No missiles were launched in the making of this film; no commercial airlines were used as weapons; no troops were deployed into contested territory. “The Interview” is make-believe — and North Korea’s reaction to it predictably hyperbolic.
“The U.S. has gone reckless in such provocative hysteria as bribing a rogue movie maker to dare hurt the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK,” read a statement posted to the country’s state-run media Web site. “… Absolutely intolerable is the distribution of such film in the U.S. as it is the most undisguised terrorism and a war action to deprive the service personnel and people of the DPRK of their mental mainstay and bring down its social system.”
Okay: Pyongyang doesn’t have a sense of humor. But the annals of film history include few examples of movies gleefully imagining the demise of living foreign leaders — even Hitler. Movies like “The Great Dictator” took on fictional versions of the Fuhrer, but he didn’t die onscreen until after his death. “Inglorious Basterds” couldn’t have been made in 1942.
Of course, those America deems evildoers are humiliated in movies all the time. One need look no further than “The Naked Gun” (1988), in which Leslie Nielsen gets in a brawl with the Ayatollah Khomeini, Mikhail Gorbachev, Yasser Arafat, Moammar Gaddafi, Fidel Castro and Idi Amin.
But as much as Hollywood loves to hate bad guys — Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden — it rarely, if ever, imagines their demise before it happens. This seems an easy conceit for a film. Why couldn’t “Zero Dark Thirty” have been made in 2002, with the details of bin Laden’s death merely invented?
Perhaps because killing a rogue leader — even al Qaeda’s No. 1 — seems a bridge too far. Yet it is that bridge that “The Interview” appears to be the first to cross, even if the final version was edited after North Korea complained.
“We will make it less gory,” wrote Rogen of Kim Jong Un’s death in the film, as the Daily Beast reported based on e-mails leaked in the Sony hack. “There are currently four burn marks on his face. We will take out three of them, leaving only one. We reduce the flaming hair by 50% … The head explosion can’t be more obscured than it is because we honestly feel that if it’s any more obscured you won’t be able to tell its exploding and the joke won’t work.”
This is brutal. (You can see what Gawker, reporting on the leaked Sony materials, said is the ending here. Warning: It’s pretty graphic.) Even in “Team America: World Police” (2004) — with a song called “America F–k Yeah!” and copulating marionettes, no standard of good taste — Kim Jong Il didn’t die, but turned into an alien cockroach.
At the premiere of “The Interview” this week, Rogen and company were not nervous about their great leap into the cinematic — and diplomatic — unknown. “We just want to thank Amy Pascal for having the balls to make this movie,” Rogen said, praising the Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chair.
Notice the language: balls aren’t brains. Rogen already flipped when Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday linked his movie “Neighbors” to a mass shooting in Isla Vista, Calif. “How dare you imply that me getting girls in movies caused a lunatic to go on a rampage?” he tweeted.
All right: Perhaps Hornaday’s column — like Eliot Rodger’s rampage — came out of nowhere. But if a future North Korean missile test, naval exercise, trip across the DMZ or future act of terror is blamed on “The Interview,” Rogen can’t say he didn’t have fair warning.