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.