The Tiger’s New Stripes
— I have no idea whether all of the fuss about The Interview, Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen’s new idiot comedy, was a true international incident or a brilliant publicity stunt, but I do know that the ride I took to Missouri, the next state over from my home town in Illinois, to see it was well worth the shockingly cheap gasoline it took to get me there. The film has reminded us that what intellectual and artistic freedom means is that all expression, inane as it may be, needs to be protected and cherished. I frequently tell my students that the publication of the cartoons of Mohammed in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten in 2005 was one of the most important events of the 21st century. If we are to bequeath a future to our children that forwards the values of civilization, we must be able to create images that describe our world, in both a positive and negative sense. Anyone who censors image creation—from religious lunatics (Muslim and Christian alike) to people who get upset at protests during which the American flag is burned—have missed the point of modernity: we, the civilized fight barbarism by manipulating metaphors rather than fighting each other in the real world. Metaphors, no matter how offensive to us, cannot hurt us in the way that weapons can.
Like many people who were told that we wouldn’t be able to see The Interview because Sony did not want to expose itself to liability for showing the film under a terrorist threat, I went as an act of resistance to censorship. I fully expected to loathe the film; Seth Rogen’s previous outing with James Franco, This is the End (2013) was execrable. And, indeed, there’s plenty to hate about The Interview: Franco is as terrible as usual, winking at the camera at how funny he is for being so beautiful and hip while at the same time, so self-aware of how constructed he is. The film’s homophobia is hard to swallow: Franco’s character, Dave Skylark and Rogen’s, Aaron Rapaport carry on about how much they love each other, in pure fraternity style, to deny that any human contact between men can be anything other than hilariously inappropriate. The film begins with an unendurable sequence in which the sexist rapper Eminem declares that he is gay, to the delight of Rapaport and Skylark, shock television makers from the Maury Povich and Jerry Springer mold.
But despite the many flaws, the film’s project, to build comedy out of the assassination of Kim-Jong Un, the world’s most horrid dictator, is carried off with great panache. Completely unexpectedly and delightfully, The Interview offers a 21st century take on Ivan Reitman’s Stripes (1981), the foundation of the New Hollywood action comedy. In that earlier film, Bill Murray led a rag-tag group of Army recruits into Czechoslovakia to fight Soviet communists. In the film’s wonderfully funny first half, Murray and the lame-brain recruits make a mockery out of basic training clichés in the cinema, and in doing so, show how absurd militarizing human beings truly is. In the action film second half, Murray and crew fight their way out of Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia in a souped-up military RV turned assault vehicle.
For its part, The Interview mixes its action and comedy more organically and thoroughly than Stripes. However, the basic spirit of mocking militarization is kept intact. In Stripes, Murray accomplishes in one night what their drill instructor, Sergeant Hulka could not do: he whips the unit into shape so that they can deliver a wonderful performance (boom chug-a-lug-a) of soldiering at the graduation military parade. In The Interview, Skylark accomplishes in his own way the liberation of North Korea from its dictator, rejecting every single piece of advice and help from the film’s two CIA agents. The CIA asks Skylark to kill Un for them because he will be the only American ever to be in the same room with the dictator. However, when he arrives in North Korea, Skylark botches the entire operation. But, by the film’s end, Skylark has used the media, not assassination to destabilize Un’s regime. To boot, he successfully escapes from Pyongyang in exactly the ways the CIA declared ridiculous: he survives a gunshot from Un by wearing a bullet-proof vest, he walks out of the presidential palace in a secret tunnel, and he is whisked away to safety by Seal Team Six.
The Interview completely one-ups Stripes. While still making fun of the military-industrial complex, The Interview demonstrates that recent U.S. foreign policy, built on military violence, is the wrong strategy. Instead, Un’s regime is toppled internally when Skylark exposes the dictator’s emotional instability during a global television broadcast. There was no such critique of U.S. policy regarding the Soviet Union in Stripes: as in almost all other American films, despite the idiocy of the U.S. military, it goes unchallenged that American values are far superior to Soviet ones.
The Interview more thoroughly questions U.S. military values, destabilizing the celebration of violence in the canniest way. The film is a parody, not just of easy targets, such as dictators, but of the very notion of epic bellicose quests. The basic structure of the film is in fact built out of jokes about The Lord of the Rings, of all things. When they are offered the opportunity to travel to North Korea to interview Un, Skylark tells Aaron that they are like the hobbits who travel to Mordor. By film’s end, Aaron fights with a North Korean television control booth operator, and severed fingers fly in a way that ridicules Suaron’s and Frodo’s loss of their digits in Tolkien’s epic.
In short, The Interview is a better film than it ought to be. When Skylark hops into a tank to begin battling Kim-Jong Un and his military dictatorship, he continues the battle against Americanism fought by Bill Murray in his far more ridiculous tank, a recreational vehicle in Stripes. But furthermore, The Interview critiques such Americanism. At one moment, an absurdly young soldier in Nevada—he looks like a teenager playing a video game—pilots a drone carrying the deadly poison ricin to our intrepid heroes. Miraculously, the metal tube falls out of the sky, impaling itself into the brain of a tiger who is about to maul Aaron to death in a North Korean field. A leopard might not easily change its spots, but this cinematic tiger has found beautiful new stripes.
– Walter Metz