Monday, December 29, 2014

Opinion: Free Speech and Bad Taste in re The Interview

I watched The Interview last night. It’s a silly movie with a ridiculous plot, but it’s funny in a way that only dark humor can be. I had decided that I wanted to watch it long before the controversy began over the movie. (I wouldn’t call it a film. That’s a highbrow word used to define art-house/Oscar contenders.) I like Seth Rogan and James Franco. Always have ever since their Freaks and Geeks days. I enjoyed Pineapple Express and This is the End. So I was looking forward to spending my Christmas day in a movie theater enjoying the two of them being ridiculous together. That’s it. I had no political agenda, and I didn’t assume the movie had one either.

Now, I’m not going to bother analyzing or deconstructing the free thought issues or the geo-political ramifications of Sony buckling under to hackers who may or may not have been acting on behalf of the North Korean government. Rather, I’m going to answer an annoying meme which has been riding coattail on the political discussion associated with Sony’s decision to yank the movie from most movie theaters. That meme being that the film crossed some imaginary line by making a joke of the assassination of a living political leader.

Crossed a line? What line? It was an American comedy movie. A farce. It was over-the-top, socio-political mockery. There is no line.

Did it cross a line because it was a comedy about murdering somebody? If so, then a lot of American movies have crossed that line over the years: Arsenic and Old lace, The Trouble with Harry, Throw Mama from the Train; and some of them were about true stories where actual people were either murdered or attempts were made: I Love You to Death, The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, Fargo, Bernie. Comedies about death and suffering are as old as comedy itself. Humour noir can be found in the writing of Voltaire (Candide,) Edgar Allen Poe (The Cask of Amontillado,) even as far back as Aristophanes (The Frogs.)

So what line does The Interview actually cross? Did it cross a line because it suggests that governments make assassination attempts on foreign dignitaries? Because it is not the first movie to make that claim: Inglourious Basterds (American service men attempt to assassinate Hitler,) Assassination Attempt (Germany conspires to kill FDR, Churchill, and Stalin,) JFK (movie which posits that the Kennedy murder was a giant intergovernmental plot and cover-up.) Or is it simply wrong to spoof the leaders of foreign governments? Because that has been done before as well by everyone from the Three Stooges to Charlie Chaplain to Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase.

Perhaps it crossed a line because it suggests that the American government utilizes celebrities and other non-government persons to do its dirty work. If so, somebody should have told George Clooney he was off base when he made Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. And nobody better ever make a movie about the 1960 plot to kill Castro where the CIA asked for mob boss Sam Giancano’s help. And speaking of celebrity spies, Mata Hari anyone?

Or maybe it crossed a line because since 1976 it has been American policy that we do not assassinate foreign leaders. “Yeah, right,” said Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, and Hugo Chavez.

Was it line-crossing because Kim Jong-Un is a living person, and it’s wrong to make a comedy movie about a real person’s fictional death? If so, this is the second time Rogan and Franco have made that gaffe. In This is the End Michael Cera playing Michael Cera is impaled by a light post, Rhianna as Rhianna falls into an abyss, and Jonah Hill as Jonah Hill is engulfed in flames among others. Other movies where actual living persons are fictionally killed include Bill Murray in Zombieland, and Alec Baldwin in Team America: World Police. There was also a film made in 2006 in Britain about the fictional assassination of then living and acting US President George W. Bush. The film was called Death of a President, and it pissed off a lot of people, but nobody tried to ban it, and it got little attention because – frankly – it wasn’t that good a movie.

The bottom line is that The Interview doesn’t really break any new ground nor does it flout any unfloutable taboos.  It’s satire and it’s a black comedy, and whether it’s a good or bad movie doesn’t really matter. They had a right to make it, and we have a right to watch it. Good taste, bad taste, appropriate or not, that’s a personal matter for individuals to decide for themselves. 

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