by Isaac Butler
Over at The Atlantic, Adrian Hong would like us to know that The Interview, the recently canceled film starring Seth Rogan and James Franco about a hapless talk show host and his haplesser producer who get embroiled in a plot to kill Kim Jong Un, is not funny, likely racist and is "not an act of courage."
There's just one problem. He hasn't seen it, a fact which he never explicitly states, only half- acknowledging it in a parenthetical clause a full four paragraphs into the piece:
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.
There's all sorts of assertions I disagree with here, in particular the odd idea that because something is "simply" a comedy or "intended... to earn money," it can't have anything of value to say. Comedy, however, is often the genre where writers can, in fact, be their boldest, particularly when it comes to politics. Dr. Strangelove was simply a comedy intended to earn money, it was just other things as well. Measure for Measure is perhaps Shakespeare's most politically astute and cutting play. It was also simply a comedy intended to earn money. In theatre, no play other than Angels in America addressed the AIDS crisis as boldly, as powerfully, or as intelligently as Nicky Silver's Pterodactyls, a slamming door farce. For years now, we've watched shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report (RIP), both politically trenchant, both comedy programs intended to make money.
But it's not worth arguing about, because Hong has no evidence to back up his assertions. He hasn't done the work. In this particular case, it's because that work is somewhat impossible to do. He can't go see the film. But there are other ways to talk about the political purposes of comedy as it might relate to North Korea without making assertions about a film does or doesn't do/say/mean based on a trailer and some advance interviews.
Meanwhile, others have seen the film, and they are writing about it, and their writing complciates the notion that The Interview is just a simple, stupid pointless farce. Here's The New Yorker's Richard Brody by way of example:
What follows is a lot of clattery, only intermittently funny comic riffing by Rogen and Franco as they play bumbling but well-meaning bourgeois nerds who are forced into physical action. Yet Rogen and Evan Goldberg—the movie’s directors and the co-writers of the story, along with Dan Sterling (who wrote the screenplay)—take seriously, in their own soft-handed way, the movie’s underlying question: When is it legitimate to kill the sitting leader of another country?
“The Interview” is a post-9/11 and, especially, a post-Iraq War meditation on a pre-9/11 theme: What should be done about a belligerent government (as opposed to an Al Qaeda-like non-state group) that poses a threat to the United States? More precisely: At what point is an act of war—because, of course, that’s what the planned assassination is—justified?
(There are apparently other major thematic concerns to the film about the relationship between the media, freedom and power, but you can read on here for more.)
Hong goes on to articulate a very narrow spectrum of comedy that is acceptible when dealing with totalitarianism, namely, subversive comedy made from within the totalitarian states themselves. He's definitely right that that is braver, but I can't go with him in his argument that films like The Great Dictator are inappropriate because they are lampooning the people in charge of horrors while the horrors are happening. And I don't buy his argument that films like The Interview
may ironically benefit those in charge in Pyongyang. It serves to buffer and obscure the sheer evil of a regime that enslaves children and sentences entire families to death for crimes of thought, while building ski resorts, dolphinariums, and other luxury escapes for elites with funds that could feed its malnourished people for several years. How many people would have watched The Interview and concluded that they should do something to help change this odious regime and bring about human rights for North Koreans?
But I don't have to buy it, or even necessarily make this case, because his argument has no evidence. Increasingly, it seems, you don't need to have evidence for your arguments about a work of art. You don't need to be able to quote accurately from the text, or explain the basis of your interpretation. You don't need to know anything about form and how it relates to content. You don't even need to have seen it. All you need is a reason to claim it failed you.