North Korea isn’t funny, but Sony should still release “The Interview”

I think it was a bad idea to make the movie The Interview.

I think it was a worse idea to pull The Interview.

I think that those statements are not mutually exclusive. Let me explain.

The movie shouldn’t have been made

As background, actors Seth Rogan and James Franco made a comedy about an attempt to assassinate Kim Jong-un, the leader-for-life/dictator of North Korea, who runs likely the most repressive regime on the planet.

The North Korean government freaked out, someone hacked into the computers over at Sony, the company that made the movie, and among other things, published private medical data they found on Sony’s employees. Someone also started threatening to kill any theater goers who went to see the film. As a result, Sony pulled the film entirely.

(Update: Sony has just announced (on Dec. 23) that it will have some limited screenings of the film on Christmas day.)


Seth Rogen and James Franco in “The Interview.”

Now, making a movie that depicts the assassination of a current world leader is relatively unprecedented. We’ve made fun of dictators before — including North Korean ones — but The Interview steps over prior lines of satire in having a plot centered around the live-action killing of Kim Jong-un at the behest of the CIA. People looking for highbrow comparisons, such as Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, are fishing for an analogy that doesn’t hold water.

To the extent that the analogy is apt, it’s that North Korea, like Nazi Germany, isn’t funny. Charlie Chaplin himself said that had he known the extent of the horror that was Hitler’s regime he would not have made the movie. We don’t know the full extent of North Korea’s human rights abuses, but I’d be willing to bet that if and when we find out how evil their regime is, we’ll wish we hadn’t laughed so hard.

Furthermore, when one considers how intertwined our public and private sectors are, both broadly and in this specific instance (Sony sought and received the approval of the Obama administration for the film’s controversial ending), we shouldn’t be at all surprised that North Korea responded as strongly as they did. After all, this is a regime that survives on three things: guns, prestige and China. Combine that with the fact that, as far as North Korea is concerned, the actions of American actors that have the approval of the American government are the actions of the American government, and it isn’t so hard to believe that Kim Jong-un considers the release of The Interview an act of war — even if we don’t consider their hack one. We shouldn’t have been surprised at North Korea’s act of “cybervandalism.”

So, all in all, making The Interview seems like a bad idea. It’s wading into uncharted and likely inappropriate comedic territory, all the while provoking a militaristic despot with a particularly touchy ego.

That being said…

Once you make it, you have to release it

The Interview can’t be un-made, and its insult has already been delivered.

The comedic lines I mentioned above have already been crossed, and there now exists a movie in which a current world leader is “taken out” — rather unceremoniously, at that. The question now becomes whether we are scared of the dictator we have, until now, been willing to make fun of from afar.

I mentioned above that North Korea’s regime survives on guns, prestige and China. While China’s relationship with North Korea rules out the use of hard power in weakening the North Korean regime, much of our foreign policy in Asia revolves around the use of soft powerIf being the subject of the first live-action assassination on the silver screen was a blow to Kim Jong-un’s prestige, caving to his threats and pulling the movie is the biggest boost in prestige he could have hoped for. It shows him that if he makes enough noise, we’ll do what he wants. We have chosen to take him seriously in a way we haven’t previously.

And even with the “proportional response” we saw yesterday, in which all of North Korea’s Internet was disabled for nearly ten hours, military-on-military cyberattacks are a political responses to cultural blows. While the Obama administration can’t make Sony release the video, Sony’s choice not to release it means that Kim Jong-un, and future squat maniacal dictators like him, will have the upper hand the next time our cultures clash.

I think it’s telling that the threats of violence from North Korea, and the subsequent canceling movie’s release, have only made Americans more interested in seeing it. Equally telling is that a wide plurality of Americans disapprove of the decision to pull the film. We feel that we have a right to know what all the fuss is about and, on some level, our curiosity, even for something as silly as Seth Rogen making fart jokes halfway around the world, trumps what we consider to be an illegitimate threat. In America, everyone is supposed to be able to take a joke — even a bad one. We tell ourselves that this is one of the things that separates us from Kim Jong-un. But Sony (which, in fairness, is not an American company) is proving itself unwilling to live up to that ideal.

The most unfortunate part of all of this is that, in the long run, canceling the release over threats of violence haven’t necessarily made us any safer. All we have done is show the world that anyone can get us to do anything if they threaten us when we embrace even the most frivolous aspects of our culture. That will only lead to greater threats over smaller insults.

One of the most important parts of living in a liberal democracy is defending the right to make misguided, insulting, bad jokes. Without threats from North Korea, the story we’d be telling about The Interview could easily be how bad of a movie it is — again, North Korea isn’t funny.

If we’re going to have a bad movie spark a conversation about our national identity, let’s make sure we use that conversation to remind ourselves what that identity is in the first place.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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