By James M. Perry
"The Interview" is a second-rate comedy about the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
It must have occurred to Sony Pictures Entertainment, the producer, that Kim Jong-un, who is clearly evil and may, like so may tyrants before him, be just a little crazy, would not be pleased. In fact, the North Korean government vowed "merciless actions" if Sony went ahead with releasing the film. Not many days later, Sony's computers were hacked by an organization that U.S. authorities say is somehow connected to North Korea. The film was finally released over the Christmas holiday.
"The Interview" purportedly is a comedy, starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, two whacko journalists charged with assassinating the North Korean leader with a strip of ricin hidden for a handshake, during an interview with the mad dictator. The movie ends, preposterously, with the two crazy Yanks in a tank, from which they shoot down and kill the North Korean despot circling overhead in a helicopter, scrambling to arm his country's nuclear arsenal.
As far as I can tell, no major studio has ever made a movie in which an active, ruling head of state is actually assassinated. "The Interview," therefore, is the first to do so. (There have been a dozen or more movies about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but they were all made after his tragic death. In "The Day of the Jackal" (1973), a paid assassin, played brilliantly by Edward Fox, comes within seconds of killing Charles de Gaulle, the president of France. Mr. De Gaulle, though, had died peacefully months before the movie was released.)
Assassinations, it seems to me (I was in Mr. Kennedy's motorcade the day of his death, a searing experience) are not funny.
Reading about the plot of this movie reminded me of the Three Stooges (Moe, Curly, and Larry) in one of their 190 slapstick short features (No. 44, actually) called "You Nazty Spy," in which they became, improbably, the rulers of Moronica. Moe looks and acts like Adolf Hitler, Curly seems to be Hermann Goring and Larry seems to be Joseph Goebbels. They indulge in the usual slapstick that amused millions of fans for 25 years.
"You Nazty Spy" was released in 1940, when the United States was technically neutral. It was the first major film satirizing Hitler.
Curiously, the Hays Code, which censored all Hollywood productions, pretty much forbid movies satirizing world leaders, no matter how evil. But, says one observer, the censors may have paid little attention to short subjects, such as those churned out by the Three Stooges.
Charlie Chaplin's celebrated "The Great Dictator," spoofing Hitler in his role as a barber who becomes dictator of Tomainia, came out nine months after "You Nazty Spy." Jack Oakie plays Napaloni, dictator of Bacteria. Pouty, posturing Benito Mussolini was often seen in real life as a comic figure, but rarely satirized in film. Mr. Chaplin supposedly said years later he never would have made a comedy about Hitler (in which storm troopers attack Jews) had he known about the horrors of concentration camps and the extermination of millions of innocent Jews.
Once again then. Assassinations are not funny.
Note: I confess I plagiarized the idea for this blog from David Rogers, ace congressional correspondent for Politico.
James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, contributes regular observations to post-gazette.com. Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.