Political satire is important but it is hard to do well. I can think of a couple of examples over the last fifteen years or so of entertainment that actually managed to pull it off. The Daily Show and the recently wrapped Colbert Report teased the twenty-four hour news cycle and politicians on a nightly basis, and Trey Parker and Matt Stone continue to find ways to make South Park clever and topical. But think about the last time a movie star — the American version of royalty — spoke truth to power.
I remember when Will Ferrell had the country in his pocket with his George W. Bush impression. I thought, “Oh, here we go! A comedian who a lot of young people look up to is going to stick it to a divisive president. Now this could get interesting!” Instead, it seemed that Ferrell made Bush more likable, something he’s been able to do with quite a lot of despicable people throughout his career. While, in theory, Ferrell and his frequent collaborator Adam McKay have tiptoed around the idea of topical, political satire in their film careers (Talladega Nights, You’re Welcome America – A Night with George W. Bush, The Other Guys), I would still argue that they actually really do want everyone to like them and so their comedy, even at its edgiest, always stops short of having any real bite.
Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg do not seem to be concerned with making sure everyone likes them and that makes me like them even more. It’s very important that The Interview, a political satire starring Rogen and James Franco on a mission to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, was made even though the studio who produced the film has caved to the demands of renegade hackers to not show the movie, and as a result, it will probably never see the light of day.
Speaking of political satire, a lot of people have pointed to Charlie Chaplin and his incredible comedy (it really is in my top 5 favorite movies of all time) The Great Dictator. While the film was a financial success upon its release and received five Academy Award nominations, it was hardly an easy road to release as Chaplin risked a lot by being a global movie star who spoke out against Adolf Hitler. Chaplin was also famously banned from returning to the United States a little over ten years later due to controversy and accusations surrounding his political beliefs. We can post this photo on Twitter and Instagram as much as we’d like, but let’s not act like it was so easy then, either.
The reason The Interview matters, and why films like The Great Dictator mattered before it, is because Seth Rogen is a movie star and movie stars, specifically white male comedic ones, aren’t supposed to have anything to say. Nowadays, it isn’t cool for them to have thoughts or feelings or read books or watch documentaries; what’s cool is for them to team up with Drew Barrymore and make a rom-com every ten years. Seth Rogen could have easily stayed very safely inside his lovable pot-smoking chubby guy schtick forever. Heck, he hasn’t really left that behind and that’s totally cool. But what’s also cool is that he took a risk.
The narrative that has been put forth from everyone involved with The Interview, even before the film was shut down, was “You’re crazy to do this.” Sony was crazy to give them the money and let them use Kim Jong-un’s real name. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg were crazy to want to direct this movie coming off of the heels of the delightfully silly This Is The End. But they did it anyway and with the blessing of the major movie studio, which is why it is extra horrifying to me that Sony would pull this movie from theaters and hide it away out of fear less than two weeks until its release. There’s nothing to be ashamed of here, in fact, up until the last couple of weeks, I would have applauded Sony for greenlighting such a risky movie.
If you saw Seth Rogen anywhere promoting this film, it was not something the team behind the film took lightly. They read books, watched documentaries, and heavily researched the very thing that they were lampooning. By the way, North Korea isn’t a rosy, sweet place that mean old Seth and Evan are picking on. Human Rights Watch (hrw.org) has said of North Korea, “The government continues to impose totalitarian rule. In response to the systematic denial of basic freedoms in the country, the United Nations Human Rights Council unanimously established a commission of inquiry in April 2013 to investigate whether such abuses amount to crimes against humanity and who should be held accountable.” So, yeah, I kind of support Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg calling North Korea out and drawing attention to the mistreatment of their people by way of goofy political satire.
I saw The Interview a few months back. Depending on who you are, it’s probably exactly what you think it is (totally filled with dick jokes and pop culture references) or not at all what you think it is (not just a disrespectful, black-and-white eff you to North Korea). Sure, the plot of the movie is to assassinate Kim Jong-un, but in a lot of ways it’s a satire on the entertainment news business first and deals with North Korea second. The Interview does its best to really paint Kim Jong-un as silly, kind of lovable guy, and for a while, James Franco’s Dave Skylark actually makes friends with the dictator. I mention this because I’ve seen a lot of comments on social media saying, “You Americans! You think you can just insult world leaders left and right and not face any sort of repercussions.” To that I say, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are Canadian, but more importantly, the idea of a bunch of disrespectful knucklehead comedians walking into controversy and straight up giving the middle finger isn’t quite accurate.
In any case, here’s the bottom line: the fact that Sony caved to a group of hackers who made casual threats is absolutely terrifying. Is The Interview worth people going to the movies on Christmas Day and being injured or worse due to a violent terrorist attack? No, absolutely not, I don’t believe The Interview, or any movie, is worth innocent people dying over. However, as far as we know, and that isn’t much, the Department of Homeland Security has found there to be “no credible intelligence to indicate an active plot against movie theaters within the United States.” So what did Sony do? They passively offered theater chains the option to not show the film. When the chains took them up on the offer, they bailed on the movie all together. There are now no plans to release the film at all, not even on VOD or DVD. Most people believe this is so the studio can claim insurance on the movie which is extra disgusting.
In an act of defiance, indie theaters around the country planned free screenings of Team America: World Police in place of showing The Interview, which Paramount Pictures later squashed, presumably also out of fear of reprisal. This is the precedent that has now been set. If a group gets upset about the idea of something, all they have to do is make a threat and they have a very good chance at getting exactly what they want. They won. The anonymous bad guys actually killed a $40M movie less than two weeks away from release because they didn’t like what it what they think it was about. Let that sink in for a moment. Where does that lead? What will be next? Steve Carell’s comedy Pyongyang which was slated to go into production next year has already been cancelled, and if any of you have strong feelings that the Big Bad Wolf was framed, I suppose there’s still time to contact Disney about his depiction in Into the Woods. But please don’t get Into the Woods pulled; I really want to see it. Perhaps take your thoughts on his innocence to Serial’s Sarah Koenig instead. I hear they’re going to do a season two sometime in 2015…
Certainly, every movie isn’t going to please everyone but the idea that a studio was willing to put a project away, theoretically forever, as USA Today confirmed with Sony that it has “no further release plans of any kind,” is outrageous in the literal sense of the word. Even President Obama thinks so. All I know is that I feel really uncomfortable with The Colbert Report going off the air last week in the midst of all of these fear-based censorship shenanigans. That puts a lot of pressure on The Daily Show and South Park to speak for the trees.