On Wednesday, Sony pulled the plug on the latest Rogen/Franco buddy comedy, The Interview. The trailer promised a Jonathan Ross-esque TV host and his producer bumbling through international espionage on a quest to kill Kim Jong Un. As the film’s release date approached, a Sorkinsian plot of email hacking, bomb threats, and business decisions all careened downhill like the Grinch’s sled. The top five theatre chains in the country declined to screen the movie, and Sony, realizing no one was going to see the film in a mass release, spurned DVD and VOD, took its toys and went home.
And oh, the firestorm that ensued. People took to Twitter to lament that they’d planned on seeing the movie, and now “the terrorists have won!” Artists in all fields decried this “censorship” and warned about the doom that awaits on the horizon for all creatives. And of course, many insisted that the way to topple Kim Jong Un’s regime is through relentless mocking, pointing to the anti-Hitler comedies during World War II that helped bring the Third Reich to its knees.
Excuse me if I look past this for a second to concentrate on something that appears to be missing from this conversation. It seems to me that in all our demands for “free speech” (a phrase that has been tossed around needlessly; the United States government did not censor The Interview), we’ve overlooked the people of North Korea, and how our American thirst for jokes erase them from our consciousness.
Movies like The Interview and Team America: World Police don’t often show the realities of life in North Korea and the human rights violations perpetrated by the government there. The joke is often, “Check out this guy! He is short and portly, and he thinks he’s important! His country lacks the basic luxuries we take for granted!” We find these dictators hilarious because they seem to be lacking self-awareness, a cardinal sin in our culture, which demands everyone know and understand their place. Our enjoyment of mocking Kim Jong Il and his successor, Kim Jong Un, comes from a mild second-hand embarrassment that anyone would think they were influential when their country is so backwards by U.S. standards. We’ve depicted these men as powerless bunglers throwing useless temper tantrums and dreaming up Acme brand schemes that never pan out. But the punchline is never that either dictator committed atrocities against their own people. We stick to digs at physical appearance and inflated self-importance, and top them off with offensive “Asian” accents straight out of Breakfast At Tiffany’s.
Maybe it’s too difficult to make involuntary human medical experimentation and multigenerational prison sentences a catchphrase. Within his own borders, Kim Jong Un is far from powerless. He and his cabal of generals and high ranking officials have continued in his predecessor’s footsteps with regards to mass executions, paranoid surveillance, and other assorted atrocities. Our popular media seems largely unconcerned with this; we’re only interested in a dictator whose evil springs from harmless, grandiose self-vision and funny foreign outfits.
Occasionally, the horrors of life in North Korea do show up in our American satire. 30 Rock, for example, featured a running plot line in which a major character’s new bride was kidnapped by Kim Jong Un and forced to serve as the anchor of an all-propaganda news channel. Viewers could chuckle at allegations of torture, dismal living conditions, and the poor quality of life that comes from living under constant government surveillance, as long as we were assured that it was happening to an American character whose rescue was in the works.
In that way, life imitates art; we only seem truly concerned with the atrocities in North Korea when Bill Clinton is flying over to rescue a United States citizen from them.
Some have argued that films like The Interview or Team America: World Police serve the same purpose as the Warner Bros. and Three Stooges comedies about Hitler. It seems like an apt comparison, until you apply context; Larry, Moe, and Curly were lampooning Axis Powers while the Allied Forces were fighting them. Franco and Rogen are assassinating Kim Jong Un while the United States continues to ignore the real abuses the North Korean government perpetrates against its people. It’s hard to imagine that Bugs Bunny tormenting Hitler would still be a point of pride today if we’d continued to let the Nazis murder millions of people without lifting a finger. If we aren’t going to do anything about Kim Jong Un’s government, what purpose does our satire serve, beyond providing American audiences with cheap laughs at the expense of people who are suffering tremendous injustice?
Cries of censorship are equally puzzling. Sony pulled the movie when major theatre chains, concerned about possible terrorist threats–or the effect rumors of those threats might have on their weekend take–refused to run the movie. Already embroiled in conflict over hacked emails and facing projected financial losses as a result of their December movies being leaked online, Sony made the decision to pull the film. While many are pointing to this as a battle lost in the war on freedom of expression, Sony has acted in their own self-interest, influenced by the actions of, but not due to a direct threat from, North Korea. Meanwhile, U.S. retail super giant Wal-Mart openly exerts pressure on the recording and publishing industries to produce content and packaging that fit strict criteria in line with the company’s moral standards. When record and book companies bend to their whims, we have no problem seeing it this as business as usual, not capitulation to conservative Christian terrorism. We simply accept that no major corporation will throw away potential revenue; The Interview will likely release in the future to overwhelming commercial success.
Maybe this is, as Newt Gingrich prophesied, America’s first loss in a “cyberwar.” Or it could be a strategic move to draw out the controversy and boost the film’s box office totals when it ultimately does release. But one thing is certain: it took the threat of losing Christmas day with our two favorite stoners to make many of us give a damn about North Korea and their evil, freedom-crushing ways. Whatever counteraction is taken, it will be in the name of U.S. commercialism, without a thought to the people suffering the brutality of Kim Jong Un’s regime. So you’ll have to pardon me if I’m not up to waving a banner for my imperiled American freedoms right along with the rest of the crowd.