As far as international incidents caused by stupid movies go, the North Korean declaration that The Interview, a new film by James Franco and Seth Rogen, is “an act of war” is probably the most newsworthy since The Innocence of Muslims kicked off anti-American riots in the Middle East and Europe in 2012. In the Western media, this latest story has gone viral because of North Korea’s “overreaction” to a goofy movie. Kim Jung-Un’s government’s claims have been treated with the patronizing tone that colors every story about “zany” North Korea—precisely the sort of orientalist “comedy” that Franco and Rogen’s film already trades on in its trailer.
The Interview, for those who’ve missed this story, is a film in which Franco’s character, a TV tabloid show star, and his producer (played by Rogen) score an interview with Kim Jung-Un (no stand-in fake dictator here—he’s named and played by a lookalike). The CIA, learning about the interview, then recruits the two of them to assassinate the dictator. Wacky hijinks ensue.
If the North Korean government’s threats are genuine, it is obviously overreacting. But if, instead, North Korea is playing on their image as a crazy rogue state in order to maintain the major diplomatic leverage they have—namely, that they’re capable of anything for any reason—their response instead becomes a kind of American-orientalism-exploiting realpolitik. Either way, it raises some important questions about the power and the role of Hollywood in the foreign policy realm. Maybe it’s not actually that crazy to see a film as a soft act of war, or as an act of imperial control.
This is not to say that the film is a government product. (When the Pentagon actually produces their own movies, like 2012’s Act of Valor, the products are totally transparent failures.) The Interview is not propaganda in the same way the newsreels made by the state department during World War II were. But it is precisely in these technical gaps between art and state that film critics and moviegoers alike will rest their refutations of this argument. We might, instead, think of Hollywood filmmakers as contractors akin to Halliburton or Academi (formerly Blackwater)—people with their own agendas and their own goals, goals which coincide happily with the number one American foreign policy objective of opening foreign markets to American products and production. Or, as Philip Strub, the director of the Pentagon’s Entertainment Media Office, “laughingly described” it in a 2012 article, the relationship between Hollywood and the Pentagon is “mutually exploitive.”
This relationship is also nothing new: Hollywood has a long history of working with the state on its foreign policy agenda . As I’ve written before, the Department of Defense has had a motion picture section since 1916, back when it was the Department of War, which from the start hired Hollywood directors, producers and actors to make its films. Harry Truman explicitly recognized Hollywood movies as a vital tool to pacify the Japanese and West German populations and make them receptive to the American occupation after World War II. George W. Bush famously convened a think tank of Hollywood filmmakers to prepare for the next terrorist attack. And so on.
In fact, there’s a way in which the plot of The Interview accidentally illustrates, through a fictional scenario, how this process works in the real world. Under the guise of entertainment, the state gains access to an otherwise inaccessible space and uses that access to push an ideological line or foreign policy agenda. In The Interview, that access is taken to the extreme; the entertainers literally murder a world leader. In the real world, the entertainment industry does not use its product or process to murder heads of state. Nor is the relationship portrayed in Argo, where Hollywood filmmakers are used to extract agents trapped in a hostile nation, the norm. But the entertainment industry does give the U.S. state access—mediated of course by the culture’s producers—to foreign populations, who consume the movies, games and TV shows produced here.
Entertainment has long been America’s second export industry, after food. But a shift in consumer habits and distribution in the last decades has seen many Hollywood films making the majority of their profits overseas. Thus, the content of Hollywood films is being increasingly consciously pointed at foreign markets, designed explicitly for export.
China’s film market, for instance, which has quickly become the second biggest in the world, is heavily censored and controlled by state bureaucracy. The Chinese government only allows thirty-four foreign films into the country each year, and screens them for nudity, political content, and extreme violence. Django Unchained, only made it fifteen minutes into its Chinese premiere—when a moment of full-frontal male nudity occurs—before the screening was stopped and the film was pulled from theaters. However, it reappeared in Chinese cinemas a month later, with most of the sex and extreme violence cut out. So why did it get the eventual nod? Some speculate that, because it portrayed a nasty moment in American history, China was willing to overlook some of Django’s censorial red flags in order to score some anti-American-foreign-policy points.
Along with the globalization of film distribution and marketing, today’s film productions are also increasingly funded by overseas investors. Chinese ownership of film studios and production companies is growing to reflect the increased role of the Chinese market in international cinema. Transformers 4, which features Chinese film actress Li Bingbing and pop-star Han Geng, recently had its world premiere not in Hollywood but in Hong Kong.
The impact of all of these shifts on Hollywood’s portrayal of global politics remains to be seen. Will we start to see more films critical of American history and foreign policy, films designed explicitly to enter the Chinese market? Or will American politics win out, with Hollywood toning down the outright violence and nudity but maintaining the same American ideological objectives? Will we start to see subtle competition between and within Hollywood firms as to whose policy interests—the American or the Chinese, say—their narratives represent?
In any case, there is nothing innocent about a Hollywood comedy that takes foreign policy as its subject. The North Korean government may be overreacting to The Interview, but it is also right to recognize that entertainment is a tool of American statecraft. It’s only Americans who pretend otherwise.