I watched The Interview on Christmas. I was alone, away from my family on the holiday for the first time. But even had I been in Detroit with my mom and my sister, I probably would have seen The Interview, because we’re bad Catholics and non-Catholics, my family, and once the Christmas portion of Christmas has concluded, we venture out to the multiplex to see whatever’s playing. Of course, the big deal about The Interview is that it wasn’t playing at so many multiplexes, yanked from the slate of Christmas releases by fear and paranoia that North Korea, the supposed perpetrator of the cyberattack that so hobbled and embarrassed Sony Pictures, might up the ante by bombing any theater that dared screen the film. The Interview stopped being a Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy and became a free speech issue. It was one of the highest rated films on IMDB, a constant source of Facebook chatter, and an issue large enough for President Barack Obama to voice his displeasure over. It became our duty, as Americans, to see this dumb movie about dumb people attempting to assassinate a dumb dictator. Or it was our duty, as Americans, to remind other Americans that it was nobody’s duty to see anything.
Well, I saw this movie. I saw it on Christmas, as I said, and I read a number of very good articles about why The Interview, as a bastion of free speech, was problematic at best. I also saw Seth Rogen reply to earnest, well-intentioned, well-written criticism of an otherwise forgettable film by pouting and tweeting “Go fuck yourselves” at websites like The Verge. All of it seemed surreal and stupid, and I felt pretty good about my decision to not write about The Interview because it is a very dumb movie, which is fine because it had no aspiration to be anything else, at least not until the rest of the world started to address it as a capital-I Issue. Watching this movie with my dog curled up in my lap, I felt very ill-prepared to talk about The Interview as an Issue or as a misfire by a comedic team whose work I frequently enjoy. I feel very ill-prepared now, but I will try, I suppose, to say something.
The particulars of The Interview are common knowledge, but here they are: David Skylark (James Franco) is the host of Skylark Tonight, a popular-but-empty Hollywood talk show on the order of Extra or Entertainment Tonight. Still, he has an uncommonly good rapport with his guests. Rob Lowe is willing to come out as bald on his show, and Eminem tells the world that he’s gay like it’s no big thing. This is big money stuff in entertainment journalism and “real” journalism, which are often the same thing, but Skylark Tonight is looked down upon by more respectable media establishments, and this eats at its producer, Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen). When the two hear that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un (Randall Park) simply loves Skylark Tonight, they drunkenly send a flier out to his camp to see if he might want to appear on the show, lending them the serious journalistic credibility Rapaport has always wanted. When it turns out that, yes, Kim Jong Un would like to appear on American television, they are roped into a CIA plot to assassinate the dictator, thus liberating the state from the tyrannical reign the Kim family has long enjoyed.
To Rogen and co-director/writer Evan Goldberg’s credit (I suppose), The Interview pays lip service to the idea of America as an agent of democracy, and to Hollywood’s interest/involvement in traumatic global crises. It also stands firm and states that enjoying margaritas does not make a man gay. Beyond that, however, and beyond whatever pleasure there is in the notion of riding around in a Soviet tank that is blasting Katy Perry’s “Fireworks,” The Interview seems content to laugh at North Korea from a safe distance, taking the same shots at the country, its leadership, and its people that the American media has taken for decades. Part of the hysterical response to the Sony leak, I’m convinced, was the latent fear that an aggressive, fear-mongering country might not be the hapless cartoon our own media built in the collective consciousness.
If North Korea is responsible for the Sony leak, and if they did it in response to this film, that ultimately changes nothing about its merits, which are few and fleeting. Having journeyed far and wide with their bro comedy tropes, from high school to the apocalypse, Rogan, Franco, and Goldberg elevating them to an international stage doesn’t suddenly validate their material. Rape jokes are rape jokes. Gay panic is gay panic. Asian stereotypes remain Asian stereotypes. In any other context than the one conjured up by the hacking of a multibillion dollar entertainment company, all of this is obvious. I’m not saying anything new here, I know, but I feel like I need to repeat this in my own voice, to hear how it sounds coming from me.
The Interview is an issue of free speech because it is a film created by straight, white men at the expense of an oppressed people who do not have the right to free speech. This film is an issue of free speech because it is easy for us, as a nation dominated by straight, white men, to look at something like the release or censure of a stoner comedy produced and made by millionaires as a test of our moral turpitude, to see whether or not our country will stand up to a menace whose only definition, for the majority of us at least, is that it is not-white in origin. This film is an issue of free speech in the same way that, say, erecting a “Pants Up, Don’t Loot” billboard is an issue of free speech, only many of us decry the billboard because the trauma it mocks is local while The Interview is quite harmless because it’s only North Korea, whose traumas aren’t even ours, let alone local. So we stood up, valorized this movie and those who made it, spent weeks rallying around the flag. That it was pig-headed and frequently racist wasn’t an issue. This was an American movie, and it was our right as Americans to see and forget about it in any fashion we chose.
Sure. I agree. And I also agree that this film should have been released as originally planned, in as many theaters as could be booked to play it. That The Interview came, went seen or unseen, and slipped quietly onto home video would have been a blessing. Circumstances dictated that we were to be given something else on Christmas, something precious and in need of protection. That’s fine, too. But now we’re in a situation like 2012, when we spent the summer debating whether or not it was okay for victims of rape to be offended by rape jokes, or right now, when we’re blindly posting Jui sui Charlie on our Facebook walls as if it’s impossible for a progressive publication to also be horrifically racist. Soon, we’re going to have to come to the realization that the “free speech” we’re so thoughtlessly protecting is only free because of its gender, race, and class status. But that requires thinking inwardly. It requires a satire willing to punch upwards instead of at those who are already down. Finding someone who supports the idea of satire is easy. Where are the people who are dedicated to making it?
The Interview. With James Franco (David Skylark), Seth Rogen (Aaron Rapaport), Lizzy Caplan (Agent Lacey), Randall Park (President Kim), and Diana Bang (Sook). Directed by Rogen and Evan Goldberg, from a screenplay by Rogen, Goldberg, and Dan Sterling.