Sony’s 2014 film The Interview was one of the most talked of movies last year. The criticism by North Korea, the hacking of Sony Pictures’ database, the withdrawal of the movie from the theatres which was later reversed, and the big debate on the freedom of speech, all this drama has material worthy of being made into a movie in itself. One other point which was talked about was the comparison of The Interview with an old classic The Great Dictator. Both political satire comedy films, both mocking a dictatorial regime, so is the comparison justified? I do not think that beyond these points there is any similarity between the two movies, and terming The Interview as The Great Dictator of our generation is putting the former on a higher pedestal than it deserves.
In October 1940, Charlie Chaplin released The Great Dictator, one of his greatest films, but at a time when the world was a scary place to live in. Mankind was in the midst of World War II, and even though the USA had not yet entered the War, the bloody battles being fought across Europe were only increasing. In such a time, Charlie Chaplin, through his work of art, condemned Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini and their fascist regimes. He mocked them and parodied them, and even though The Great Dictator is a comical film, Chaplin gave us heartfelt moments of pain and despair when he highlighted the plight of the Jews under the Hitler regime and the thuggery of the S.S. troops. Years later Chaplin said that he would not have made this movie if he would have known the extent of atrocities committed on the Jews by the Nazis, for the horrors were so grave that they could never find a place in a satirical film; nonetheless, Chaplin was genuine in his attempt to bring out the difficulties of the Jews as well as make them the heroes of his movie. The Great Dictator is an extraordinary and brave film which deserves all the plaudits that it has received.
To make it a complete parody, Charlie Chaplin tinkered around with the names of the people he was mocking. Adolf Hitler was called Adenoid Hynkel, who makes long passionate speeches that puts him in coughing fits. Hynkel’s homeland was called Tomania. His closest ally was Napaloni, who was meant to be Mussolini. While there was no hiding the fact that Chaplin was mocking the Nazi regime, the altered names added an additional humorous element to the movie. Compare that with The Interview where no such attempts were made. North Korea remained North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong-un remains unaltered too. It was quite bold on the part of the makers of The Interview, one has to admit, for even though other movies in the past have had anti-Russian and anti-North Korean themes, I cannot remember any one (apart from biopics) which did not even partly disguise the name of the political person who was shown as the antagonist.
While The Interview was bold in one aspect, it eventually turns out to be nothing more than an attempt at a R-rated comedy film. Therein lies the greatest distinction between these two movies set 74 years apart. The Great Dictator had the difficulties of the Jews central to its theme; the scenes where the Jews run helter-skelter as the SS troops approach or the one where they are made to paint the word “JEW” outside their shops were heart-moving. The Interview has nothing of that sort; it talks about concentration camps, about famine and poverty, about injustice in North Korea, but there are no scenes to capture any of this. There is just one shot in which James Franco discovers that a grocery store shown earlier as a sign of the abundance of food in North Korea is a fake. That’s it. The Interview could have been the story of the assassination of a political leader of any country, or rather any other country harbouring an anti-American attitude. It went out of its way to actually name North Korea, but then chose not to build on it. Chaplin’s The Great Dictator though was the story based on the Nazis and could not be swapped with any other regime. Chaplin’s physical resemblance with Hitler, especially the famous moustache, was also one of the reasons why this story could have been about Hitler alone.
Both the movies do make quite a mockery of their main antagonist. Hitler dancing with a globe-like balloon is a memorable scene from The Great Dictator, and in similar fashion, Kim Jong-un weeping to the words of a Katy Perry song was the highlight of The Interview. But while Charlie Chaplin made a mockery of the totalitarian regime in itself and ended his movie with a stirring speech, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (directors of The Interview) manage to get laughs out of their antics and silliness, while never really scaling to a direct attack on the working of the regime itself.
Hitler had The Great Dictator banned from Germany and other Nazi occupied areas, but this movie nonetheless became a massive financial success, earning $11 million worldwide against a budget of $2 million which Charlie Chaplin had put in himself. The film had great propaganda value among the Allies like the British and was a success there; later on, when it was released in France in 1945, the film was so much loved that it became the most popular movie of the year among the French. Switch over to the present times. I can easily understand North Korea’s ban on The Interview and I would not have blamed them for stopping free speech (their leader is killed in a slow-mo scene after all). But to threaten the US with “merciless action” and to call the movie an act of terrorism was taking it too far. The subsequent hacking of Sony Pictures’ database and the release of sensitive information was bullying in another form in this digital world of today. The movie could not get a wide release in theatres, but this publicity did play a part in making it the highest grossing movie of Sony in online format.
The Interview is no where close to The Great Dictator in terms of cinematic quality, in terms of the class of acting and direction, in terms of story-telling. But just like The Great Dictator holds a special place in cinema for its subject matter and the timing of its release, The Interview too will be distinctly remembered in cinematic history for the debate on free speech that it stirred. And we can hope that art form of any kind is not curbed as we move forward, but allowed to be expressed freely; after all, isn’t a free society what we all seek?