The Interview begins with a thought experiment. What if, tomorrow, North Korea demonstrated that it had nuclear missiles that could destroy the US from across the Pacific? The resulting movie is a mess, but as a political satire it obviously hit its mark. Here's why such a terrible flick started a culture war.
Yes, there will be major spoilers ahead. This is an analysis, not a review.
Yes, It Really Is a Pro-Assassination Movie
Let's set aside the obvious failings of this movie, which critics have gleefully elaborated already. What's more relevant is that The Interview inspired a pretty successful digital attack on Sony's computer systems, allowing a group of (possibly North Korean) hackers called Guardians of the Peace (#GOP) to release several upcoming Sony films on BitTorrent — as well as reams of private email from Sony employees.
That said, it's interesting to compare critical reception of The Interview to that of Salman Rushdie's arguably overrated book The Satanic Verses. After Rushdie's novel came out in 1988, the author had to rely on police protection for years because Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwā calling for Rushdie's death. At that time, critics fell over themselves to say how amazing a literary achievement The Satanic Verses was. Consensus seemed to be that Rushdie was suffering political persecution for his art.
Seth Rogen and James Franco, however, are suffering for a shart. Nobody wants to stick up for a butt-obsessed bromance like The Interview, which is all about how the host of a dumb celeb interview show named Dave Skylark (James Franco) and his geeky producer Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen) are tasked with assassinating Kim Jong Un. It turns out that the pop culture-obsessed Kim is a major fan of the Skylark show, and invites the two to North Korea for an exclusive interview. When the CIA gets wind of their project, Dave and Aaron are given a Get Smart-style assignment to take out the dictator during the interview.
Hijinks ensue. It turns out that Kim really is kind of a cool guy, and that his PR chief kind of has the hots for Aaron. Kim and Dave spend the day together bonding over their mean dads, their secret love of Katy Perry, and partying their faces off with booze, pot and naked ladies.
Unfortunately, Kim is also a brutal dictator who puts his people in death camps and promises to crush his enemies with nukes. But Dave has seen the real Kim, the vulnerable guy who can't live up to his dad's expectations. During their live interview, Dave is able to make Kim cry so hard over Katy Perry lyrics that he sharts his pants.
It seems like the movie is going to go in a predictably light satire direction at that point. Kim has been revealed as a human being, and nobody in North Korea will ever take a sharting Katy Perry fan seriously as Dear Leader. Dave and Aaron have bungled their assassination attempts, but Aaron's roll in the sheets with Kim's PR manager has helped start a coup, led by the now-machine-gun-toting PR manager herself. You can imagine the movie ending with Kim in prison, being tried by the new, democratic government — all thanks to those goofy guys whose love of pop culture and butt jokes somehow prepared them to save the world.
But that's not where the movie winds up. Instead, due to more hijinks, Dave and Aaron have to kill Kim in a grisly, genuinely disturbing scene, where we watch in slo-mo as Kim's face is distorted by an exploding tank shell, melting into fire and eventually ripping apart. It's a bizarrely serious moment and — as one character says later, about something related — "kind of fucked up, no?"
You can see why Sony hackers Guardians of the Peace considered the movie a cultural attack. No, it wasn't the "honey dicking" jokes, the dramatic anal penetration scenes, nor even the "me so solly" racist bits. It's because, as I said earlier, the movie is a serious argument for the assassination of Kim Jong Un. There is a deranged and violent political message in this film, and it apparently translated pretty damn well.
And so the Guardians of the Peace countered with a cultural attack of their own.
It's About Us, Stupid
Here's the thing that everyone seems to have missed about The Interview, though. It's mostly a satire of U.S. media, not North Korean dictators. All of the best jokes are about how the media covers politics, with Dave standing in for "news is entertainment" tabloid types and Aaron standing in for the reporter with a conscience. I loved this bit (I'm paraphrasing):
DAVE: That's the first rule of journalism! Give the people what they want!
AARON: That's not the first rule of journalism! That's like the first rule of circuses or something!
Later, when Dave tries to tell Aaron that Kim is really a great guy who is just misunderstood, Aaron reminds him: "This guy is a master of manipulating the media — and you are the media!"
The Interview is full of funny asides like that, reminding us that what we're really watching is a story about how political debates have been reduced to entertainment debates in the U.S. media. Even Kim's greatest political vulnerability is actually tied to entertainment. He sings Katy Perry when he thinks that nobody can hear him!
Indeed, media conflicts are what inaugurate most of the action in The Interview. We first meet Aaron when Dave is conducting an interview with Eminem (playing himself in total deadpan mode), where the notoriously homophobic rapper comes out very casually as gay. It's the biggest interview scoop of their lives, and the two are utterly beside themselves — they've hit the journalism jackpot! But then, at the celebratory party thrown by the network, Aaron runs into an old buddy from college who is working as a producer at 60 Minutes. The guy obviously thinks his job is far more important than Aaron's.
"But we have the same job! We are both TV producers!" Aaron says, flabbergasted.
"We do real news — and you do silly fun stuff," the guy sneers. "Nice job with whatever it was that you just did."
It's only after this moment of professional media snarkery that Aaron decides it's time to do something "important." So he puts in a call to the North Korean embassy, because he's heard that the dictator loves the Skylark show. Once they've secured the interview, Dave tries to get the CIA to let them broadcast the assassination live on TV. Which the CIA refuses. But of course, due to shenanigans, the whole thing does wind up on TV, making the whole deal more like the first rule of circuses rather than the first rule of journalism.
Still, no matter whether it's a sharp media satire or one long, awful ass joke, the movie is finally about solving political problems with murder. And it's still a failure as a story, because it's so uneven and badly plotted.
Culture Wars Are Never Where You Expect Them
So the question is, why did this mediocre satire of American media become the flashpoint in a culture war? Many of us found ourselves asking a similar question many months ago during the height of Gamergate, when videogame fans unexpectedly became central to a national debate over gender roles and feminism. Why does one piece of pop culture arouse our rage while another doesn't?
In the case of The Interview, I think the simple part of the answer is that it explicitly endorses killing a political figure, with no irony whatsoever. So it's easy to see why the Sony hackers might claim it as a trigger. But the complex part of the answer is that this is a movie about how the U.S. media manipulates people. It's about American corruption. Kim even gets a few lines about how the U.S. embargo has dramatically worsened the situation in North Korea.
This is a movie about the ugliness of media hypocrisy, and on a meta level it actually exemplifies that very hypocrisy. It's a terrible flick, released entirely to make money for a company, Sony, that has routinely victimized consumers with vendor lock-in bullshit and awful DRM that makes many of its products unwatchable unless you use "authorized" devices. There's a reason for all the half-hidden glee people have felt watching the Sony leaks. It's not because we're evil bastards who want to hurt people by reading their private email. It's because we all — Americans and North Koreans alike — hate the way corporations manipulate us into buying their shit because we just want to have a little fun with our stories and games before we fucking die.
Somehow, it its lameass way, The Interview managed to capture everything that is wrong with the way American corporate media and politics affect the world. It's ground zero for our current culture wars — not because it's a good movie, but because it is bad in an unexpectedly revealing way.