DECEMBER 30, 2014 — We all know how the release of “The Interview” turned into a real-life Cold War thriller: North Korea hates the movie, lashes out at Sony Pictures by hacking its computers and threatens movie-goers, an act of state-sponsored cyber-aggression. At least that’s the story from the U.S. perspective.
Many aspects of this strange conflict remain a mystery — presumably they’re playing out on secure computers at the Pentagon and CIA. But there is one detail we could research ourselves: Is the movie any good?
Actually, yes. “The Interview” is a buddy movie that succeeds despite its outlandish premise: James Franco and Seth Rogen as lightweight TV journalists who score an interview with reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and then accept a CIA assignment to kill him.
The best thing about the film is … you can see it. When major movie theaters balked at releasing “The Interview” because of the threats, independent movie houses stepped in. Sony followed by arranging to rent or sell digital downloads.
We understand why the big movie theater companies got nervous and why Sony bought time to assess the situation. But the movie opened on schedule, and the intimidation tactics ultimately failed. Score one for free expression. The film has pulled in more than $15 million in digital revenue in just a few days.
Still, if the film had been a stinker, people might have felt dispirited. Who would want to say they risked their lives to go see “Police Academy 5”?
Not to worry with “The Interview,” which we watched via Apple’s iTunes service.
Some reviewers have called it a modern-day Bob Hope-Bing Crosby comedy. That’s a canny comparison, except for the film’s reliance on raunchy humor. It’s not for kids.
But here’s the surprise: The movie works well as an absurdist, low-brow satire of the bizarre and dangerous regime that controls North Korea.
Understanding the tragedy of North Korea is tricky even for the experts. Very few outsiders are allowed to visit the country, while its citizens, excluding a small number of elites, are kept in extreme isolation. Do most North Koreans understand they are veritable prisoners of their leadership? They probably suspect as much.
Like the worst dictatorships, North Korea exists to preserve the regime. It uses brinkmanship, lies and a cult of personality to keep threats at bay. The country lives in a perpetually trumped up state of near-war, investing in nuclear weapons at the expense of food production. To ensure loyalty, Kim Jong Un, like his father and grandfather before him, is glorified as godlike. If he cannot be questioned, he cannot be accused of starving his own citizens.
You can get this insight from a close study of North Korean affairs … or watch “The Interview.” It nails the small details and the big picture of an immature tyrant using a nation as his plaything.
In the movie, Kim Jong Un — who in real life befriended basketball personality Dennis Rodman — invites vapid TV talk show host Dave Skylark (Franco) to Pyongyang. Viewers who are familiar with the region get some pretty quick confirmation that the filmmakers did their research: One of Pyongyang’s lifelines to the outside world is the Chinese border town of Dandong, and that’s where Seth Rogen’s character, Aaron Rapaport, is told in a cellphone call to show up for a preliminary interview. When Rapaport takes the call, he looks at his phone to identify the caller but sees just a mysterious set of zeros. That’s exactly what you see when you send a fax to Pyongyang: 00000.
Once in North Korea, Skylark falls for the party fiction that the nation is affluent and Kim is benevolent and misunderstood. Pyongyang looks nice; a supermarket reminds him of Whole Foods.
All visitors to North Korea struggle to process this lunacy: broad highways without cars, department stores without customers. Pyongyang truly is a stage designed to fool outsiders. Skylark eventually figures out he has been taken.
It’s no wonder North Korea is fit to be tied. The movie nails it.