“Undisguised terrorism.” “A hostile act.” “A war action.”
Or, you know, just a movie.
The Interview, an upcoming film starring Seth Rogen and James Franco as two talk show hosts hired by the CIA to assassinate Kim Jong-un, doesn’t come out until October. But the trailer just hit the theaters. And in Pyongyang, the shoot just hit the fan.
I received a few phone calls about it. Not because I have anything to do with the movie. I don’t.
And not because I’m a talk show host hired to assassinate Kim Jong-un. I’m not.
Movies are a particularly touchy subject for the Hermit Kingdom. But everybody just eat a goober and relax.
But I have written for quite a few talk show hosts, comedians mainly. And last year, I did go on a mission to North Korea, with Gov. Bill Richardson and Google’s Eric Schmidt, a month before Dennis Rodman made it look easy. (And silly.) When I got back, a few friends made the obvious joke: I am an agent of the CIA, with the craziest cover—Comedy Writer. (For the record, I’m not a CIA agent. Or at least, I don’t think I am. Or if I were I wouldn’t tell anyone. Okay look, from what I’m allowed to say, I’m a professional smartass with some foreign policy experience and a well-stamped passport.
Our delegation’s mission was clear, despite reservations voiced repeatedly by the U.S. State Department: we were there to try to negotiate the release of a Korean-American detainee named Kenneth Bae. We met with a gaggle of foreign ministers for hours over days. But yeah, ours was a humanitarian mission, not a Mission: Impossible. (Although it certainly wasn’t Mission: Likely.)
The Interview is, it would appear, a comedy. Not a documentary. But predictably—
despite it being one of the more unpredictable societies on earth—North Korea doesn’t find it funny. At least, its leadership doesn’t. Officially they say it’s a terrorist act, and that Franco and Rogen are mentally ill “gangster moviemakers.” (They must be thinking of Tarantino?) As for Kim Jong-un himself, it’s safe to say the Supreme Leader is more upset at Franco and Rogen than he is at his own meteorologists. He dispatched a spokesman of the foreign ministry to call the movie “a wanton act of terror and act of war.” (He must be thinking of Jersey Boys?)
I don’t know if the man behind that quote is one of the ministers we met; we spoke with quite a few, and I didn’t bring my iPhone to snap a selfie with each one. (On Eric’s advice, we left our technology in a much safer place: China.) But let’s take a quick breather. Everybody eat a goober and relax.
For two reasons. First, one of the main functions of North Korea’s foreign ministry is to preach to its people that foreigners are out to get them. That fear keeps the population devoted to the Juche cause—the political religion supporting the Kims. So it’ll aim high, it’ll aim low, but that’s its aim.
And second, movies are a particularly touchy subject for the Hermit Kingdom. During the reign of Kim Jong-un’s grandfather Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-un’s father Kim Jong-il was such a fan of the silver screen—especially kaiju and westerns—he built his own movie studio and kidnapped directors to work there. As Gov. Bill Richardson and I landed in Pyongyang last year, the governor told me of a previous trip when he brought the Dear Leader a copy of the Mel Gibson western Maverick as a gesture of good will. (And, if you ask me, a gesture of good movie.)
But despite a family history of devouring eastern and western film, the Kim family has a hard time separating fact from fiction, at least according to their spokesmen. Of The Interview, they insist that “The enemies”—referring to either Rogen/Franco or, for all we know, Obama/Lohan?—“have gone beyond the tolerance limit in their despicable movies”—which proves that taste is subjective, because I for one adore those Despicable Me flicks—“to dare hurt the dignity of the supreme leadership.” Okay, you lost me there. (Even M. Night Shyamalan would be surprised: They were dignified all along?!)
I grant you The Interview does precisely what the spokesman says it does, and for all we know does it well and hilariously, but here’s the big twist: it doesn’t take much for the leaders in North Korea to feel tweaked and aggrieved.
They’d watch Transformers and say it was the American Imperialists, not the Korean Workers Party, who ushered in this much-lamented “age of extinction.”
They’d watch How to Train Your Dragon and use it as an excuse to test new anti-dragon nuclear missile technology.
They’d watch The Fault in Our Stars and accuse us of ruining the stars.
We can’t win. So we might as well make a few funny movies about it.
Luckily, this saga is just beginning to unspool. According to North Korea’s foreign ministry spokesman, The Interview demands “a strong and merciless countermeasure.” How cool would it be if they fast-tracked their own unauthorized sequel: The Interview, Part 2: I Know You Are But What Am I?
Then our move would be obvious: The Interview Part 3: We Have No Idea What You Are Because You’re the Most Secretive Country on Earth.
And so on. I’m launching a Kickstarter campaign today.