How “The Interview” Handled the Assassination of Kim Jong-Un
By Richard Brody
Seth Rogen, center, with James Franco and Diana Bang in “The Interview.” Seth Rogen, center, with James Franco and Diana Bang in “The Interview.” Credit PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY ED ARAQUEL/CTMG, INC..
There’s no way to talk about “The Interview” without discussing in detail the dénouement and the ending. Those are the crucial parts of the film, the best parts of the film, and the ones that have reportedly aroused the most controversy within Sony, the film’s producer and distributor. It’s unclear how many people will even get to see “The Interview.” As I write this, Sony has cancelled the release of the film and North Korea has been linked to the Sony hacking by the U.S. government.
The subject of the movie, as everyone knows by now, is an entertainment reporter and host of a celebrity-centric talk show, Dave Skylark (James Franco), who learns that he’s a favorite of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Skylark and his producer, Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen), a tabloid-TV adept who aspires to serious journalism, get in touch with a North Korean office in the hope of interviewing Kim. When their plans are approved, the two are contacted by the C.I.A., whose agents persuade them to accept the mission of killing Kim.
This bare-bones synopsis doesn’t do justice to a story that is as much about the policies of the United States as those of North Korea. The film’s comic setup is built around the unfunny idea of North Korea’s ramped-up nuclear arsenal and the notion that its missiles can reach the West Coast. As Kim’s threats grow increasingly hectic, the C.I.A. asserts that a moderate dissident faction within the regime is ready to take over, but doesn’t dare act against Kim personally. What follows is a lot of clattery, only intermittently funny comic riffing by Rogen and Franco as they play bumbling but well-meaning bourgeois nerds who are forced into physical action. Yet Rogen and Evan Goldberg—the movie’s directors and the co-writers of the story, along with Dan Sterling (who wrote the screenplay)—take seriously, in their own soft-handed way, the movie’s underlying question: When is it legitimate to kill the sitting leader of another country?
“The Interview” is a post-9/11 and, especially, a post-Iraq War meditation on a pre-9/11 theme: What should be done about a belligerent government (as opposed to an Al Qaeda-like non-state group) that poses a threat to the United States? More precisely: At what point is an act of war—because, of course, that’s what the planned assassination is—justified? As it turns out, the Rogen-Goldberg standard is a very high one (when the U.S. is in grave, imminent danger), and a counterfactual one (in the service of comedy, the film overhypes the North Korean threat). The filmmakers have talked about the research that went into their construction of the comic portrait of Kim and the movie’s depiction of North Korean society, but most of the film’s action—and, in particular, the film’s climactic events—are utter fantasy.
Spoilers, as promised: Dave Skylark and Kim hit it off—they have a sort of bromantic connection—and Kim presents himself as a kind of Red Star frat boy, an unhappy heir with unresolved daddy issues. Skylark comes to recognize that their emotional bond is a ruse—that he has been seduced by the dictator, whose sympathetic personal self-presentation is a smoke screen to obscure his policies—but he doesn’t take the chance to kill Kim.
Instead, Skylark and Rapaport take action against Kim only in extremis, when he’s in the midst of an actual, literal, finger-on-the-trigger countdown for a nuclear attack against the United States. Here’s what happens: Kim is in a helicopter, in contact with his nuclear-command center. The directors show a military officer with his finger poised above the launch button, and intercut to Kim counting down with his orders. Skylark and Rapaport are in a functioning, weaponized tank (a gift from Stalin to Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung) and, to prevent the nuclear attack, they launch a shell from the tank that incinerates Kim’s helicopter—and Kim.
That climactic scene is the one that was at the center of controversy between the film’s directors and its producers at Sony. The shell that’s launched from the tank flies toward Kim’s helicopter in super-slow motion. When the shell strikes, the helicopter bursts into flames (again, in slow motion). Then there’s a cut to Kim, whose countdown is about to reach zero. What results is a moment of grotesque comedy that shocked me with its gory audacity: the wave of heat and shock makes Kim’s face waver—then his hair, eyebrows, and even skin begin to catch fire.
Apparently, Rogen and Goldberg had gone further: the New York Times reports that Kazuo Hirai, Sony’s C.E.O., “insisted over the summer that a scene in which Mr. Kim’s head explodes when hit by a tank shell be toned down to remove images of flaming hair and chunks of skull.” In the cut that I saw, at a press screening last week, there was a little bit of flaming hair and even flaming flesh—but no chunks of skull or other mutilations.
Rogen and Goldberg offer a comedic dramatization of a political principle that would pass muster over craft beers in a liberal barroom: the killing of a foreign leader, or an act of war, would be justified if and only if an attack were verifiably imminent. In effect, the filmmakers are responding to the past decade of American foreign policy. They are retroactively opposing the Iraq War without declaring themselves absolutely opposed to war. They’re asserting a liberal muscularity of readiness to take action in the face of a verifiable immediate threat. They don’t involve the U.N., they don’t invoke diplomacy, they don’t assert a principle of pacifism but affirm a policy of prudent and patient but ready and robust defense.
On the other hand, the filmmakers have other arrows in their quiver—the ones provided to them by Hollywood itself, the power of the mass media—and this power is the main subject of the film. Once inside North Korea, Skylark and Rapaport decide to combat Kim not with the literal poison that the C.I.A. has provided but with their own skills—the power of the poison press.
The condition placed on their interview, of course, is that the questions be scripted. Kim will answer the softball questions in such a way as to present himself internationally as a reasonable and regular guy, and to present himself simultaneously at home as an internationally respected figure. But the American duo discover that they have a friend inside Kim’s regime—their official handler, Sook (played by Diana Bang), who is actually a secret opponent of Kim and who, at the critical moment, takes Skylark and Rapaport’s side (indeed, with an act of violence).
So, under the protection of Sook, who is in charge of North Korea’s TV studio, the interview that Skylark administers to Kim actually becomes a hard-hitting interview (of sorts). Although Kim manages to parry questions of policy, his character is held up to ridicule, which is no news around the world but a shock to his subjects. The result is in an instantaneous nationwide revolt. The subject of “The Interview” is the political impact on North Korea of a worldwide media event such as “The Interview” itself.
The threat posed by “The Interview” to the real Kim Jong-un isn’t just that it holds him up to ridicule, but that it could subject him to ridicule at home—not least, by dramatizing that prospect. Before the movie’s release was cancelled, news broke that human-rights activists were planning to airlift DVDs of the film into North Korea, via hydrogen balloons, when the disks came on the market. Park Sang Hak, who runs Free North Korea, the organization behind the plan, is, according to the Hollywood Reporter, “a former government propagandist who escaped to South Korea.” He is perhaps uniquely placed to recognize the power of such ridicule.
Which leads to another question: Why isn’t the movie actually very funny?
Rogen is, to my mind, an authentically, irrepressibly funny person—who at times tries to do too good a job of repressing it. His comedic inclinations seem even to trouble him. He sometimes performs with an angel perched on one shoulder—a triumphant angel who knocked the devil off the other. The ethical strain in Rogen’s comedy is central to his persona. Judd Apatow has made decisive use of this side of Rogen’s character in “Knocked Up” and “Funny People.”
In “The Interview,” Rogen deals with power even at its most extreme—international politics, nuclear weapons, the global media—yet there’s something inescapably small, even embarrassed, about the movie’s approach to it. The movie isn’t reduced just by its sketch-like comedy but by its ingratiating tone. It reflects an absence of temptation, an aversion to anarchy, overflow, id. It’s a comedy of responsibility. The irony is how its one moment of recklessly ecstatic excess—the sadistic destruction of Kim’s face—seems to have led to its downfall.
Richard Brody began writing for The New Yorker in 1999, and has contributed articles about the directors François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Samuel Fuller. He writes about movies in his blog for newyorker.com.