The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

“The Interview” really does subvert North Korea’s regime.

REUTERS/Kevork Djansezian
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As a frequent advisor to filmmakers telling complex internationally-themed stories or needing to shoot in tough-to-access locations, I am one of a handful of people in Washington who has actually seen The Interview.

For starters, it is very funny, in the Seth Rogen foul-mouthed, silly way.

And while the propriety of showing a real world head of state being assassinated can be debated - the latest in a long list of political and social boundaries pushed by Hollywood - it also has moments that are surprisingly smart and politically astute.

That is why the North Koreans have reacted so aggressively. Because if this movie is seen by audiences around the world, and if copies are pirated in to North Korea, it is a very real challenge to the ruling regime's legitimacy.

In The Interview, Seth Rogen and James Franco, as celebrity interviewer and aspirant hard news producer invited to question Kim Jong Un on live TV, openly ask why the country can spend billions of dollars on a nuclear weapons program but needs $100 million in UN aid each year to feed its people.

The hagiography of Kim Jong Un is relentlessly mocked - the idea of the Dear Successor as superhero meets military genius with a little style icon and dolphin whisperer thrown in plays for big laughs.

North Korea's domestic narrative, where the calendar begins with the birth of Kim Il Sung, the country's founder, and now lives in the year 103, is explained to show how disconnected the place is from the rest of the world.

There are serious riffs on North Korea's gulags and horrifying human rights record, decades of famine, brainwashing propaganda, and cartoonish self-importance.

When The Interview veers in to these sociopolitical realities and with some 45 million people worldwide having watched Rogen’s last two movies, it becomes quite subversive to the Pyongyang government.

Think of the movie as Chernobyl for the digital age. Just as the nuclear catastrophe in the Soviet Union and the dangerously clumsy efforts to hide it exposed the Kremlin's leadership as inept and morally bankrupt, overseeing a superpower rusting from the inside, so does The Interview risk eroding the myths, fabrications and bluster that keep the Kim dynasty in power.

Rogen and director Evan Goldberg intentionally did not avoid dangerous content. They could have fictionalized an authoritarian country and an egomaniac leader, they could have played Kim Jong Un as bland and one dimensional, or given him a life-saving epiphany. It would have been safer that way, but not credible, and critics who now see the movie as reckless would have seen a vanilla version as naive and apologist.

After well publicized threats from North Korea, Sony Pictures had pulled the film from all distribution but is now rolling out The Interview in a number of independent theaters and online beginning Wednesday at 1 pm. That is the right thing to do because the issue is so much bigger than a poop-jokes-and-politics movie. This was a chance to shine a spotlight on a very dangerous and insecure North Korea, and to catalyze a renewed debate about how to responsibly engage the country.

Consider the real world North Korea: a country that has long threatened the world with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles now adds a new and dangerous form of asymmetrical warfare to its arsenal. Exposing Americans to the true, repressive nature of the North Korean regime, which has been catalogued in horrifying detail by a recent UN investigation, and pressing our foreign policy community to improve the lot of the North Korean people would be a worthy outcome from The Interview.

Satire is a legitimate way to challenge ideas. See films like Bulworth, Three Kings, Dr. Strangelove, Being There or a long list of others that pushed people to think beyond the movie screen, even if uncomfortably, and put issues in front of audiences thousands of times bigger and more diverse than the most widely read op-ed or human rights report. The past weeks have introduced us to a serious new threat which should spur multinational efforts to resolve longstanding Korean Peninsula frictions and hostilities.

The Interview has more smart and substantive moments than most would rightfully expect. The world should see it now, putting the sting of isolation on Kim Jong Un and his government, not the filmmakers behind this subversive and damn funny movie.

Rich Klein is managing director for film and media at McLarty Associates, a strategic advisory firm in Washington, D.C.