‘Dumb and Dumber,’ ‘Ace Ventura,’ ‘The Naked Gun’ … America certainly loves its slapstick comedies. And given the success of 2004’s ‘Team America: World Police,’ it seems audiences are also pretty comfortable with films that denigrate political figures and national leaders – especially when those figures are known to brutally tyrannize their people.
Even with our more light-hearted, non-war-related ethnocentric comedies, it’s not uncommon for other countries to register upset and suspicion with the insulting motion pictures we crank out in the West. Take ‘Borat,’ for instance. After the film’s release, Kazakh foreign ministry spokesman Yerzhan Ashykbayev stated, “We do not rule out that Mr. Cohen is serving someone’s political order designed to present Kazakhstan and its people in a derogatory way.” Few took Kazakhstan’s response to heart or believed that such a vulgar appropriation could be considered political propaganda.
But with Sony Picture’s soon-to-be-released ‘The Interview,’ things are a bit more serious. Following news of the unabashedly anti-North Korean film, an entity calling itself Guardians of Peace carried out a massive hack into Sony Pictures Entertainment, culminating in the release of hundreds of damaging emails volleyed around by Sony executives.
And now, there is a threat that the theatres screening the film will be struck by violent attack. In a leak of files published the morning of Tuesday December 16, the hackers warn:
The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September, 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time. (If your house is nearby, you’d better leave.)
Some suspect that the hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment was orchestrated by North Korea. North Korea did deny the cyber-attack, yet praised those who were behind it. North Korea has also publicly attempted to halt the movie’s release through threats of aggression. In June, the North Korean state news agency KCNA claimed, “Making and releasing a movie on a plot to hurt our top-level leadership is the most blatant act of terrorism and war and will absolutely not be tolerated.”
We consider entertainment to be a sort of free speech zone where we can say anything. But some could argue that this film is a bit too inflammatory, too provocative, too taunting of the nuclear-weapons-aspiring, seemingly-war-thirsty autocratic regime for comfort.
In the film, an anchor and his producer, played by James Franco and Seth Rogen, are recruited to assassinate North Korea’s leader Kim Jung Un. Not only is the premise of the film in and of itself offensive to North Korea, which is built around an intense cult of its divine leader, but the film also does not bluff in following through on its promise. Kim Jung Un is indeed killed in the movie. His head is exploded into bits.
The hacked and leaked emails illustrate that even Sony executives have registered concern with the film. There appears to be, for example, lots of agreement with executive Peter Taylor that the last twenty minutes of the film, which feature the head explosion, contain ‘a level of realistic violence that would be shocking in a horror movie.’ Among the numerous files uploaded by hackers on Tuesday is the original death scene, which has since been goried-down by request of Sony.
On top of the movie being intensely violent, it might be a critical flop, too, as the graphic punches seem to land stronger than the punch lines. In some of those released emails between Sony executives, the sentiment that the movie is ‘desperately unfunny’ is echoed by many. Franco is called ‘irritating’ and his acting is panned. Only one foreign SPE division, Australia, showed any interest in releasing the film.
More important than the movie’s success is perhaps its potential impact on international affairs. And given the now larger-than-Hollywood kerfuffle over the film, the whole situation begs the question: did the American government green-light this movie?
It has certainly been done before, the intentional use of Hollywood film as a propaganda tool. In America, the persuasive value of films had been acknowledged since World War I, with both the German and American sides experimenting with the new medium. Charlie Chaplin was perhaps the most notable star of the art form in this period; his 1918 propaganda film The Bond was created in association with the Liberty Loan Committee to help the US sell Liberty Bonds during the war.
During WWII, Roosevelt had no direct power over Hollywood but nonetheless pressured the industry to release content that would help the war effort. He realized that direct propaganda would not win over the public, but that emotionally charged aesthetic pieces could shape morale and cultivate a shared vision for the country. Walt Disney and the Looney Tunes were also known for providing political commentary and helping support US war efforts; Disney’s 1942 animated movie ‘Food Will Win the War’ attempts to persuade the nation that its agricultural prowess will aid its eventual victory. In this film, the weapons are food; spaghetti, pie, eggs and bacon, and at one point a giant ear of corn are seen bolstering a map of the US and then looming like missiles over Nazi territory. Another example of Hollywood’s participation on the entertainment front lines is 1942’s Casablanca, in which an American expatriate falls in love with a woman while in the Moroccan capital fighting Nazis. The film remains a classic and is considered one of the best American films of all time.
If Hollywood produced lots of pro-America propaganda during the Second World War, then the Cold War brought on slightly more explicit and violent films. Of those, perhaps most prominent was 1984’s ‘Red Dawn,’ starring Patrick Swayze, in which the US is invaded by the USSR, Cuba and Latin American nations; the Communist invaders are eventually defeated by a group of high school student guerilla fighters.
There are few examples, however (aside from the aforementioned Team America) where Hollywood films openly featured the assassination of a political leader who is still alive and in power. Which brings me back to the question I keep wondering: did the government know this movie was in production?
If the White House sanctioned this film, there must have been some perceived international value to releasing it. Of all of the potential political reasons for supporting such a film, the only reasonable one I could come up with is this: North Korea’s regime is predicated on the airtight isolation of its people.
With no access to the internet and no freedom to travel, the country has little idea of what goes on outside its borders. The exceptions of course are the occasional consumer products that come into the country, as well as the leaks of information and tales of outside life through the few ex-patriots and defectors who communicate with folks still in the country. If somehow this movie made it to North Korea, and ordinary people saw such an unfavorable depiction of their leader, and a representation of their own nation as the most oppressed in the world, then it might stoke the flames of revolt.
Will the film be released? Things are looking, er, complicated, in light of the recent terror attack threat. And a North Korean spokesperson has said, “If the US administration allows and defends the showing of the film, a merciless counter-measure will be taken.”
Regardless of who is behind this hack, this film has caused an unprecedented amount of controversy prior to its release. Whether that political turmoil is good for Rogen and Franco, or for film-goers, or for American interests, remains to be seen. What is evident is that even the most debased, thoughtless, vulgar forms of entertainment can have massive, powerful, resounding geopolitical implications.