In recent months, the uproar over The Interview, a comedy about assassinating North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, has triggered an escalating set of reactions: retaliatory threats from North Korean officials; a sophisticated cyberattack on Sony Pictures, reportedly orchestrated by North Korea; a pledge by the hackers to physically attack theaters showing the film; and now, on Wednesday, Sony’s decision to cancel the movie’s December 25 release altogether, as movie-theater chains began backing out of screenings. The latest development is an act of craven self-censorship and appeasement—a troubling precedent by the Free World’s leading culture-makers. But rightful calls to defend freedom of expression and go ahead with the movie are also mixing with a far more dubious strain of thinking: that the film itself is a form of defiance against a dictatorial regime. It is not.
In The Interview, directed by the Canadian comics Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, a celebrity journalist (James Franco) and his producer (Rogen), tired of producing meaningless content, score a major scoop: an interview with Kim Jong Un (Randall Park). The CIA learns about the trip and recruits the two to kill the leader—a task that, judging from reports and leaked footage, someone eventually succeeds in doing.
The subject matter and backlash against it have prompted some to compare The Interview with Charlie Chaplin’s seminal The Great Dictator, a 1940 film that many believe courageously confronted a rising Hitler who had not yet openly challenged the United States. “As with Chaplin’s ballet with a globe, the hijinks of Rogen and Franco will also have a deadly serious subtext,” wrote Mark Davis at U.S. News & World Report. “Rogen, Franco and Sony Pictures are doing a brave thing. They are turning the weapon of ridicule on a regime that rests on the twin pillars of absolute worship of the Kim dynasty and sadism.” Rogen himself has thanked Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures, “for having the balls to make this movie.”
This film is not an act of courage. It is not a stand against totalitarianism, concentration camps, mass starvation, or state-sponsored terror. It is, based on what we know of the movie so far, simply a comedy, made by a group of talented actors, writers, and directors, and intended, like most comedies, to make money and earn laughs. The movie would perhaps have been better off with a fictitious dictator and regime; instead, it appears to serve up the latest in a long line of cheap and sometimes racism-tinged jokes, stretching from Team America: World Police to ongoing sketches on Saturday Night Live.
Humor can be a powerful tool for surviving in a closed society, and lampooning dictators can lend latent popular movements the confidence they need to challenge their oppressors. In Libya, dissidents heaped mockery on the Qaddafi family in the early stages of their Arab Spring revolution. In the Soviet Union, activists like Natan Sharansky employed dark humor to weather persecution and labor camps. In a “confrontation with evil,” Sharansky once observed, it is important “to take yourself and everything that’s happening very seriously, to understand that you are part of a very important historical process, and that’s why everything [that] you’ll say and do has tremendous importance for the future.” Nevertheless, he added, “it’s very important not to take anything seriously, to be able to laugh at everything, at the absurdity of this regime, at this KGB prison, and even at yourself.”
Yes, North Korea has long been ruled by an eccentric dynasty of portly dictators with bad haircuts. Yes, the propaganda the regime regularly trumpets to shore up its cult of personality is largely ridiculous. And yes, we on the outside know better, and can take comfort in pointing fingers and chuckling at the regime’s foibles.
But it takes no valor and costs precious little to joke about these things safely oceans away from North Korea’s reach. When a North Korean inmate in a political prison camp or a closely monitored Pyongyang apparatchik pokes fun at Kim Jong Un and the system he represents—that is an act of audacity. It very literally can cost the person’s life, and those of his or her family members. To pretend that punchlines from afar, even in the face of hollow North Korean threats, are righteous acts is nonsense.
What’s more, crowding the North Korea “story” with anecdotes of nutty behavior and amusing delusions may ironically benefit those in charge in Pyongyang. It serves to buffer and obscure the sheer evil of a regime that enslaves children and sentences entire families to death for crimes of thought, while building ski resorts, dolphinariums, and other luxury escapes for elites with funds that could feed its malnourished people for several years. How many people would have watched The Interview and concluded that they should do something to help change this odious regime and bring about human rights for North Koreans?
In Charlie Chaplin’s 1964 autobiography, the star discussed the backlash that he faced from Hollywood and the German and British governments when plans for The Great Dictator’s release were announced. He moved forward with the project despite these concerns, but years later suggested that he regretted that decision: “Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator; I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.”
Kim Jong Un is human, too. I am sure he is, as executives and actors involved in The Interview tried to portray him, a “complex” and “multidimensional” man. But he and his barons are also representative of a singularly horrific system, one in which the scale and scope of suffering among 25 million North Koreans does not, as a recent United Nations inquiry noted, “have any parallel in the contemporary world.”
North Korea is not funny. It is hard to imagine a comparable comedy emerging about quirky Islamic State slavers or amusing and “complicated” genocidaires in the Central African Republic. The suffering in question is happening now, as I write.
The day will soon come when North Koreans are finally free, and liberated concentration camp survivors will have to learn that the world was more interested in the oddities of the oppressors than the torment of the oppressed.