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January 9, 2015

Strategic Satire

On Christmas Day, I saw The Interview.

In all, I found the film thoughtful and funny. Though there is obviously a strong element of fantastical fiction to the film, it gets the facts that matter right while still being funny—very funny. Though there are the not-so-subtle sex jokes that come with any Seth Rogen feature, its political humor is sharp and to the point, rivaling that of even The Daily Show’s best bits. Then there’s the beautiful cinematography, well-crafted set, and costume design, and modern yet fitting soundtrack. In concert, these elements—artistry, research, humor—help create the unexpectedly compelling, subversive satire that makes the film so great.

The opening scene captures this approach perfectly. In it, a beautiful young North Korean girl is shown against the backdrop of Pyongyang’s Monument to the Workers’ Party. “Our beloved leader is wise,” she sings to a crowd of government officials. “He is good, kind, and strong. We wish him joy. We wish him peace. We wish him love.” Nothing we wouldn’t expect.

Then she continues in that same, cheerful voice, “And the one thing in our time, we wish more than this is for the United States to explode into a ball of fiery hell!.... May they drown in their own blood and feces!”

Far cry from reality? Far from it. In North Korea, kindergarten school posters regularly promote such activities as “playing military games knocking down the American bastards” alongside images of bloody U.S. soldiers.

By using the premise of a satirical film, The Interview cleverly points out that some of the elements that might seem the strangest or most inconceivable are often of the most true. North Korea isn’t even the only country The Interview pokes fun at—though Kim’s Korea is certainly the main act, Rogen and Franco’s characters are nothing if not compelling satires of our own selfie- and celebrity-obsessed homeland.

That said, Rogen and company could have easily played it safe by, for instance, setting the film in a fake country, or by not making its current ruler’s assassination the centerpiece of their plot. Sacha Baron Cohen set his film The Dictator in the made-up Republic of Wadiya. The West Wing’s terrorism subplots center around the nonexistent state of Qumar. DC and Marvel don’t even think about letting their series use a real country for plotlines hinting at leadership assassination.

But the creators of The Interview did all of this and more. They chose North Korea by name. They made a complete fool of its godlike leader Kim Jong-un, while eating away at the dangerously both one-dimensional images of perfection and characterless tyranny that media outlets in North Korea and United States have, respectively, cast him to out to be.

Then they killed Kim off, brutally, both as a physical human being and, even more importantly, as a symbol—a figurehead. Both times to the tune of Katy Perry’s “Firework.”

By casting the powerful and feared Kim as a humanized caricature of a repressed young man with unresolved daddy issues, The Interview points out the leader’s inevitable complexity. Even if this complexity does not necessarily align with what is presented in the film, the mere suggestion that Kim is more than a cold robot with a bad haircut is at odds with virtually all popular representations of him today. In doing so, the film points out Kim’s inevitable humanity—a humanity that, like all human things, is flawed. The film drives home this point in its conclusion, which shows the success of a North Korean people’s revolution—a sort of proof that this, too, is human, fallible, and will too succumb to the reality of our shared human condition.

Through these and other strategic decisions, the filmmakers successfully challenge the very principles of the Kim dynasty’s horrifically corrupt and hypocritical reign. By opting to communicate through the accessible humor of a Hollywood comedy, they moreover ensure that their message can reach as wide an audience as possible, engaging and staying with that audience.

This humor—and its indisputable reverberating sociopolitical impact worldwide—is a testament to the movie’s success, illustrating how comedy, especially satire, is perhaps the quickest conversation catalyst we have.

It’s certainly one of the most underappreciated—without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, few would have predicted the astounding success of shows like Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show, movies like Dr. Strangelove, publications like The Onion and Charlie Hebdo, and countless viral videos (and the like) at not only generating laughs, but also at very effectively communicating specific messages.

Time and time again, these and other productions have often made controversial social commentary not only more accessible (indeed, appealing) than in typical news sources—thereby reaching a much wider audience—but also more interesting, memorable, and ultimately provocative than in opinion pieces.

That’s precisely why The Interview inspired such a strong, aggressive reaction from the North Korean government—a feat millions of prior anti–North Korea media have failed to do.

In the weeks leading up to the film’s global release, the communist dynasty went so far as to hack and leak among Sony’s most sensitive employee data, including internal communications, private documents and passwords, salary records, social security numbers, and the like. The hack affected everyone from high-level chief executives and actors to low-level administrators and personnel.

It’s also why South Korean activists are dropping DVDs of the film into North Korean territory by balloon. In border areas and major cities where such balloons are being dropped, leading North Korean scholar Andrei Lankov wrote of the country in 2013, “one out of every three or four families has a DVD player nowadays.”

Though reviews of the film have been mixed, it’s been remarkably successful in achieving its satirical purpose: forcing us to have a conversation. Pushing us to pay attention. Pushing everyone, global leaders and average audiences alike, to pay attention.

Kim Jung-un clearly got the joke. Do you?

Anastasia Golovashkina is a fourth-year in the College majoring in economics and public policy. Follow her @golovashkina.

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