MovieMonday: The Interview

This 2014 film is a hybrid — an “action adventure comedy” about a pair of television celebrity promoters who get sent to North Korea to assassinate a real person, the hermit kingdom’s pudgy dictator, Kim Jong Un.

The television dudes are on-camera talent Dave Skylark (James Franco) and producer Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen, who co-directed) of “Skylark Tonight,” a low-brow product that revels in gotcha revelations, as when (then-accused) homophobe Eminem says, “I like men,” on camera.

“We could be serious,” Aaron, the serious one, says.  “I can’t keep doing this, okay?  We have to change.”

Out of the blue, opportunity knocks.  It turns out that Kim Jong Un is a big fan of “Skylark Tonight.”
He invites the pair to Pyongyang, where Kim will sit for his first live global television interview.

We know why this idea occurred to screenwriter Dan Sterling.  In 2013, Dennis Rodman, the flamboyant NBA star, visited a fan of his, Kim Jong Un, three times in North Korea.  At least once, Rodman was asked to seek the release of a Korean-American missionary held in a North Korean prison.

In this story, the celebrity-promoting journalists are invited to meet their fan, Kim, and are contacted by the CIA before they get on the plane.  A comely spook summons David and Aaron to remind them that North Korea is not a nice place because its ruler “is willing to let millions and millions of his own people die.”

“We want you to take him out,” she says.

She outfits the two with a well-concealed, slow-acting poison that can be administered very subtly and that will do its work only after Dave and Aaron have left the country.

This is a big job, and of course the effort goes wrong almost immediately — but not before a stern but beautiful Kim lieutenant takes an interest in Aaron.

Meanwhile, Dave and Kim get on like long-lost brothers. They both love Katy Perry, and Kim assures Dave that, “We have many fat children in North Korea.”

The two take a ride in the tank that Kim tells Dave was a gift from “Uncle Stalin.”

“Oh, we call him Stallone,” says Dave.

The dialog and humor are good here — adolescent, yes, but not nearly as vulgar as has become common in recent years.  And, while honest, the film doesn’t bludgeon home its message.  Audiences understood long before 2014 that North Korea was not a really nice place to live.

Ultimately, Dave and Aaron prevail in their mission.  The film ends on a hopeful note.

Problems Releasing a Film Then and Now

The Interview was edited and ready for an October 2014 theatrical open when a wrinkle arose.

Turned out that little fatty Kim was thin-skinned.  We in the US are happy to disparage our leaders, although the assassinations of four presidents have perhaps made us less eager for domestic entertainments about same.

And, to be fair, the international community would not weep bitter tears even now if Kim Jong Un were to leave this earth.

But when this movie was being promoted for wide release, it did attract attention and resentment in North Korea.  Threats from an organization called Guardians of Peace (“possibly” linked to North Korea, said the FBI) were issued.  Sony Pictures, which had undertaken to distribute the movie, was the subject of an enormous IT hack.

In addition, the amusingly named Peace Guardians threatened to bomb movie theaters that dared to show the film.  Wise international security experts pooh-poohed the idea.  They acknowledged that the Norks had sunk a non-military South Korean ship and also had launched a long-range but not nuclear missile just to show they could  attack Japan or other distant targets.  But the experts said these provocations were not serious and were merely efforts to gain attention.

In short, people probably wouldn’t be incinerated while watching The Interview at the cineplex, experts assured.

Sadly, the “probably safe” reassurance wasn’t entirely convincing to major theater chains or to potential viewers.  Most of the chains refused to book the film.

The solution was one that didn’t optimize sales but did salvage the film.  It presaged the situation we are observing today.

The Interview was introduced in fewer theaters, most of them independents, on December 24, 2014.  It also was released on Christmas Day on a pay-per-view basis. which allowed families who traditionally attended a movie on the holiday to watch it on the big screens in their homes.

Now, when the fear is indoor exposure to Covid-19, similar film rollout plans are being tried.

Theaters that open will sell tickets for fewer seats.  Home viewing options, for pay or on streaming services, will be available earlier and perhaps at higher prices.

Now, as then, we are feeling our way through hazards that we had never been anticipated before.

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