I’ve seen worse movies than Sony’s “The Interview,” starring James Franco and Seth Rogen as two bumblers enlisted by the CIA to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie this mediocre that had more real-world repercussions. According to US intelligence officials on Wednesday, the $44 million movie, which North Korean officials deemed an “act of war,” instigated a full-on cyberattack linked to the North on the Sony motion picture company, leaking sensitive and incriminating e-mails and effectively shutting down its computer systems. Hackers threatened the theaters playing the film with 9/11-style violence, forcing the studio to cancel distribution of the film on all platforms. It was scheduled to open Christmas Day, no less.
[Editor's note: Sony later changed their position, releasing the film digitally and to independent theaters on Dec. 25, though most major theater chains declined to screen the film.]
What was Sony thinking? In the history of corporate bonehead decisions, the financing and distributing of a slobbola comedy about the assassination of a sitting world leader has to rank right up there with the New Coke.
I saw the film last week at a press preview before Sony pulled the plug. A brief summary: Franco plays Dave Skylark, a self-infatuated TV talk-show host specializing in ratings-grabbing celebrity sleaze. Rogen plays Aaron Rapaport, his best friend and producer. Despite his commercial success, Aaron craves respectability. His opportunity arrives when Kim is revealed as a Skylark fan who will consent to an exclusive interview – provided the interview is conducted in Pyongyang and he controls both the answers and the questions. Hearing this, the CIA persuades the duo to do their patriotic duty and dispose of Kim (Randall Park) with a ricin-laced handshake.
Once in North Korea, however, Skylark and Kim hit it off, so the hit, for a while, is off. They carry on like a pair of frat-boy bromancers, shooting hoops, boozing, womanizing, smoking dope. When reality strikes – Skylark is reminded that the Katy Perry-obsessed Kim starves his people, has nuclear ambitions, etc. – the deed is carried out and Kim, fleeing in his helicopter, is last seen being blown to smithereens.
As you can probably surmise from this, “The Interview” is not exactly hard-hitting political satire. It’s more like a gross-out jamboree with just enough political window-dressing to make it seem “daring.” (Much is made of the fact that the Supreme Leader is reputed by his people to be so superhuman he has no need to go to the bathroom.) But even if the film were sharper, even if it was made by satirists on the order of Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern in their “Dr. Strangelove” days, I would still argue that greenlighting such a film is a blunder. The exercise of free speech does not exempt one from the consequences of stupidity.
I remember seeing a movie at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival called “The Death of a President,” a British faux documentary about the assassination of then-President George W. Bush and the ascension of Dick Cheney, whose rise was viewed almost as alarmingly as the assassination. As with “The Interview,” many of the major US theater chains refused to show the film, and it rapidly vanished.
The opposite is true for “The Interview,” which has moved to the nation’s front pages without ever having been released at all. My guess is that Sony greenlighted this movie simply because they thought it would clean up with the gross-out crowd and, besides, Kim Jong-un, with his funny haircut, was a safe target. (Added bonus: Unlike China, North Korea is not, to put it mildly, a huge potential movie market.) Would Sony have made a thriller in which, say, Vladimir Putin was assassinated? More to the point, imagine the outrage that would ensue if the North Koreans or the Russians or the Iranians made a movie – a comedy, no less – about the incineration of President Obama.
Movies, even dumb movies like “The Interview,” are staged in the world arena, and it’s clueless for Hollywood to pretend otherwise. Those who denounce Sony for setting a terrible precedent by pulling the film are only half right. What about the precedent of making the movie in the first place?