In the latest example of the world turned on its head, President Donald Trump decided to deal with the escalating crisis in North Korea by calling Kim Jong-un “Rocket Man.” This was not a one-off hasty text hurled into the night; it was also the phrase Trump used as he spoke at the United Nations this week. Apparently Trump thinks that calling Kim Jong-un “Rocket Man” is a useful strategy in a conflict that only shows signs of getting worse.
In the Trump era the norm is weird, uncanny, strange. What’s even weirder is that what once seemed over-the-top and ridiculous often seems a lot more normal. How many of us see cameos by George W. Bush and feel nostalgic for a clueless president we could understand? Bush couldn’t pronounce the word “nuclear” and he led us into unnecessary wars, but at least he wasn’t hurling infantile insults at world leaders and threatening to “totally destroy” their nations. Trump has made Bush look “normal.” And that is weird.
Given the way that Trump makes the ridiculous seem reasonable, it makes sense to look at the ridiculous for insight. That’s why I recommend a second look at a ludicrous film about assassinating Kim Jong-un to see what it can teach us in the face of Trump’s escalating conflict with North Korea.
In 2014 Sony Pictures was set to release “The Interview,” featuring Seth Rogen and James Franco as two celebrity journalists trying to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The basic idea is that Kim Jong-un is a fan of a celebrity interview show that features Franco as Dave Skylark and Rogen as his producer Aaron Rappaport. Skylark and Rappaport decide to elevate the status of their show by asking to interview Kim Jong-un, who they figure craves attention just enough to accept. Once the interview is set up, the CIA steps in and asks Skylark and Rappaport to assassinate Kim Jong-un while in North Korea. They accept the mission, go to North Korea, have a series of hilarious mishaps and eventually succeed in killing their target.
Everything about the film is completely absurd. The idea behind the plot, the behavior of the main characters and the Hollywood ending are all totally insane. And yet, three years later, this silly, over-the-top film is taking on new meaning. Now it isn’t only Kim Jong-un who seems like a toddler despot, both silly and terrifying. Today he has an equally immature and mercurial nemesis in Trump.
The key difference in the Trump era, according to many political commentators, is that North Korea has often gone on public tirades, but now our nation’s leader is responding in kind. Using phrases like “locked and loaded” may play to Trump’s base, but such tactics also signify a major policy shift from Barack Obama’s approach of “strategic patience.” From the moment of his inauguration, Trump has repeatedly used incendiary language, like “fire and fury” to threaten North Korea to get in line.
Despite the fact that members of the Trump team are suggesting that phrases like “Rocket Man” are effective, the critical response to Trump’s outbursts on North Korea has been uniform. Former Ambassador Dennis Jett notes in a story for Fortune that “it would be hard to recall the last time an American president resorted to that kind of childish name-calling.” CNN’s Chris Cuomo wondered if "using language that sounds like the title cards for UFC fights" was the best approach to diplomacy.
In 2014 “The Interview” poked fun at a world where an insecure narcissist had his finger on the button and an insatiable need for attention. Now the world has two. And they each have plenty of ammo to make things a mess.
"The Interview” takes a lot of risks and may well glamorize the very stereotypes it is trying to challenge. I’m not saying it is a perfect film, but I am saying that it may offer some useful lessons as we think through the current crisis.
1. Hyper-masculinity may be hilarious, but it’s also terrifying.
If there is one central theme to “The Interview,” it is that hyper-male culture may be hilarious but it’s also terrifying. From the start, the film emphasizes the fact that it is as much about masculinity as it is about an assassination plot. As the film opens, Skylark is interviewing rap star Eminem, who casually admits that he only uses homophobic lyrics in his songs because he is gay. Franco, typical to his identity in many of his films, plays Skylark as an over-the-top horny male who can’t stop obsessing about sex.
Whether or not this sort of mockery works for the viewer, there is little doubt that the film wants to parody the cult of masculinity.
It then moves on to do the same thing with the figure of Kim Jong-un, played brilliantly by Randall Park. In one scene Skylark tells Kim Jong-un that it is perfectly fine to like Katy Perry and drink margaritas, even if Kim Jong-un’s father had said it wasn’t manly. Moments later they listen to Perry’s song “Firework” and ride around in a tank shooting missiles into a forest. A sweet moment of male bonding becomes highly disturbing, making it increasingly clear that the extreme cult of masculinity is not just harmless posturing.
The silliness really turns sour when Kim Jong-un loses his two top security guards. As Kim Jong-un launches into a violent tirade threatening to kill his enemies as well as his own people, Skylark has to contend with the reality that his celebrity despot buddy is actually a real-life terror.
And that’s where Trump comes in. Watching the film again three years later it is hard not to see the pattern-match between the farcical Kim Jong-un and some of Trump’s most extreme displays of hyper-masculinity. From brags about accessible women to the desire to flaunt a luxury lifestyle, the Kim Jong-un character in the film has a lot that is eerily in common with our current president.
While the film finishes Kim Jong-un off in a display of humiliation and violence, the Hollywood ending doesn’t eclipse the fact that it draws a connection between braggart masculinity and crimes against humanity. Unlike most stories of tyrannical leaders that pit a good male against a dangerous one, this film suggests that what might seem like inoffensive posturing can’t be separated from the potential for violence.
Watched today it is easy to see ways that the Kim Jong-un character seems a lot like Trump: two bloviating, paranoid narcissists with daddy complexes and military arsenals.
2. Americans are not the only ones who think they are exceptional.
This is a film that imagines that two untrained American guys can travel to North Korea and topple Kim Jong-un. But the story is not a simple pro-America piece. In fact it does a fairly smart job of both conforming to Hollywood expectations and troubling the idea of American exceptionalism.
In an early scene Rogen answers a call from a North Korean only to think that it is Franco messing with him. He begins the conversation using a terrible Asian accent and invoking cultural stereotypes. Once he realizes his mistake he then apologizes for his mocking, but the message is clear: He really is a cultural bigot. His cultural othering of North Korea is so complete that the moment he meets Sook-yin Park, the North Korean chief propagandist coordinating the interview, he immediately swoons for her as the “hot” Asian chick.
Franco and Rogen play the classic dumb Americans who have absolutely no clue about the world and think their country is superior. As they take on their mission they have a patriotic sense of their righteousness. And when Franco’s Skylark becomes disillusioned with his despot friend and discovers that the North Koreans have hidden the difficult realities of their country, he becomes even more determined to complete the mission.
It would all be typical Hollywood but for one key moment in the film that undercuts the American exceptionalist arc of these sorts of stories. In their showdown interview, Skylark calls out Kim Jong-un for not feeding his people: “You spend $800 million on nukes every year and you have 16 million people who are starving?” To which Kim Jong-un counters, “Perhaps the question you should be asking me is how do I manage to keep my country so well nourished despite the harsh economic sanctions imposed by the United States?” He goes on, “Don’t you know that the United States has more incarcerated people per capita than North Korea?”
It’s a brilliant moment that exposes American hubris and one that reads with even more intensity after Trump’s UN speech where he mentioned sovereignty 21 times while also saying that he would totally destroy North Korea if he wanted to.
“As president of the United States, I will always put America first,” Trump said in his UN speech, “just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first.” And yet, he failed to imagine that Kim Jong-un might feel exactly the same way.
Carla Anne Robbins, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, explains that Trump’s belligerent rhetoric did nothing more than “crank Pyongyang up and not offer a huge amount of assurance to the allies and certainly no way forward.”
3. Satire can really bother insecure leaders.
At one level “The Interview” is fascinating because it doesn’t really need to exaggerate North Korean rhetoric. Part of the fun of the parody is that merely repeating the same sort of language offered by the North Korean government is absurd on its face. It’s the exact same technique that is used by the satirical twitter account @DPRK_News, which regularly tweets pretending to be the North Korean News service.
Similarly, Alec Baldwin’s impersonations of Trump for “Saturday Night Live” were often only slight exaggerations of the exact sort of inane things Trump says.
Both Kim Jong-un and Trump already seem like they are farcical parodies of world leaders themselves. That makes making fun of them both really easy and really complicated.
As seen in this tweet, @DPRK_News does a good job of exaggerating the sort of rhetoric common from North Korea.
Impotent threats by international shouting magnate Donald Trump are dismissed, as the twitchings of a Dog licking its flea-riddled scrotum. pic.twitter.com/XaOWulh3Yo
— DPRK News Service (@DPRK_News) September 19, 2017
But Trump and Kim Jong-un not only share the experience of being the butt of an amazing amount of parody and mockery; they both bristle at it. While each leader wakes up every day to a world that largely thinks they are unfit for any sort of leadership, it is satire and parody of them that really stings.
As Michael Moore has explained repeatedly since Trump was elected, "His Achilles’ heel is his very, very, very thin skin." That is why comedy is even more effective than other forms of critique. In an interview with Stephen Colbert, Moore explained, “All we need is like a thousand or a million little comedy shivs — just, you know, non-violent, don’t hurt him,” he added. “But just under his skin, because he can’t take being laughed at.”
Trump has repeatedly shown that he can’t take a joke. But in this area Kim Jong-un bests him. He has done far more than launch petulant tweets through the night.
Prior to the release of "The Interview," North Korea stated that they did not appreciate the sentiment of the film, denouncing it as a “most blatant act of terrorism and war” and threatening to undertake “a merciless countermeasure.”
Then in November 2014, a month before the release date, a group largely considered to be connected to North Korea hacked the computer networks of Columbia Pictures' parent company Sony Pictures Entertainment. They leaked internal emails, employee records and several recent and unreleased Sony Pictures films. They also threatened additional attacks, perhaps on theaters themselves, if the movie was released.
The hackers later conceded that Sony had "suffered enough" and could release “The Interview,” but only if Kim Jong-un's death scene was not "too happy."
So one further lesson from “The Interview” is that as bad as it is living under our own reckless, narcissist leader, at least he isn’t engaging in the sort of full-on censorship common in North Korea.
4. Don’t underestimate North Korea.
Sony never released “The Interview” in theaters, citing that the threat to viewers was simply too high. That decision led to a number of theaters and production houses pulling other films featuring North Korea from big-screen release.
While many, including President Obama, thought that the decision to pull the film was a mistake since it sent a message that North Korea could affect freedom of speech in the United States, Sony defended the decision by saying that they had simply responded to theaters canceling the film.
Either way, the story of “The Interview” is a cautionary tale. While the filmmakers saw the film as just a good laugh at North Korea’s expense, the North Korean government called the hack a “righteous deed.” To them, a film making fun of the grotesque murder of their leader was akin to a terrorist threat.
Fast-forward three years and we now have the leader of our own nation saying this: “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”
Even national security adviser H.R. McMaster has said that Trump’s use of the epithet “Rocket Man” seems to forget the reality that Kim Jong-un actually has rockets, making the nickname seriously unfunny: “Rockets, though, we ought to probably not laugh too much about because they do represent a great threat to all." As former ambassador Jett explains, the U.S. clearly has the capacity to destroy North Korea. “But it could not do so without provoking the destruction of South Korea and much of Japan.”
And that’s the last lesson from “The Interview.” The movie’s depiction of Kim Jong-un is actually pretty funny; Trump’s attacks, in contrast, are not.