David R. Henderson  

Thumbs Up for "The Interview"

The implications of zero inter... Rejoinder to Weeden...

Warning: Multiple spoilers ahead. I won't even try to avoid them.

Over the holiday, I rented the Seth Rogen movie "The Interview" on On Demand. I liked it. I didn't love it and I could have done without most of the bathroom humor, but there were some serious messages in it. I can see, obviously, why the totalitarian leader of North Korean, Kim Jong-Un, would not like it. But I can also see why various U.S. neoconservatives and advocates of an interventionist foreign policy would not like it. For both sets of reasons, I liked it.

Begin with what I liked about how it portrayed North Korea and Kim Jong-Un. Kim Jong-Un is, plain and simple, evil.

In multiple scenes, there is luxury in the midst of poverty. Everyday North Koreans are notoriously poor and underfed. Kim Jong-Un lives a life of luxury. In one scene, one of the two Americans sent over to assassinate Kim (I'll call him that for short rather than repeating his name every time) wanders outside the palace and finds that the apparently abundantly stocked supermarket is completely phony.

Throughout, one gets a sense of how afraid people are to contradict Kim. They could lose their lives. Contrast that with here: Any aide to Obama who contradicts him could well lose job but would not lose his life and would not even lose his livelihood.

Now what I liked about what it portrayed about the U.S. government.

First, the CIA comes off as an incompetent heavy. Its goal is to have two amateurs assassinate Kim. That makes zero sense. Which doesn't mean that it's implausible. Think about the multiple amateurish attempts the CIA made on Fidel Castro's life.

Second, in one scene, someone (I've forgotten who) talks about how the U.S. government tries over and over to win by killing people and trying to overthrow governments and how it rarely works.

Third, think about how Dave Skylark (played by James Franco) and his producer Aaron Rapoport (played by Seth Rogen) decide to try to get rid of Kim: not by killing him but by putting him on the spot in a tough interview that everyday Koreans will see (although I don't quite understand how they understand English). In other words, the best way to get rid of Kim is to undercut him with information. I'm not saying that this is a sure way. But it certainly helped end totalitarianism in the Soviet Union as Scott Shane showed in his excellent 1990s book Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union.

Fourth, in one scene, one of the good guys (if I recall correctly) comments that it's alright with Kim to destroy a city full of innocent people in order to accomplish one of his narrow goals. This is obviously a hit on Kim, which puts it in the list of reasons that Kim wouldn't like it. But for those, say, 10 percent of American viewers who are really paying attention, it's also a hit on our own government. Think about what Madeleine Albright, then Secretary of State, said when asked by CBS reporter Lesley Stahl, whether it was worth it to kill half a million children in Iraq with the 1990s sanctions.

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CATEGORIES: Political Economy

COMMENTS (9 to date)
Russ Roberts writes:


I don't have much respect for Madeleine Albright; her response is shocking but typical of politicians eager to justify their actions. What really surprised me was her willingness to leave unchallenged the claim that sanctions killed 500,000 children.

Most studies that I have seen find little effect of sanctions in general. I would be shocked if they had a significant impact on Iraq. See this article in Reason for skepticism.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Russ Roberts,
I agree with your skepticism. As I’m sure you could tell from what I wrote above, that wasn’t the point.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Russ Roberts,
Also, while Stahl’s number was exaggerated, according to John Mueller the actual number, though lower, was still quite high. See this post I wrote.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Russ Roberts,
I checked the article by Matt Welch that you referenced above. The expert whom Matt Welch tends to agree with is Richard Garfield. After criticizing all the exaggerated estimates, which, as I said above, I agree are exaggerated, here’s what Welch wrote:

Garfield concluded that between August 1991 and March 1998 there were at least 106,000 excess deaths of children under 5, with a "more likely" worst-case sum of 227,000. (He recently updated the latter figure to 350,000 through this year.) Of those deaths, he estimated one-quarter were "mainly associated with the Gulf war." The chief causes, in his view, were "contaminated water, lack of high quality foods, inadequate breast feeding, poor weaning practices, and inadequate supplies in the curative health care system. This was the product of both a lack of some essential goods, and inadequate or inefficient use of existing essential goods."

Ultimately, Garfield argued, sanctions played an undeniably important role. "Even a small number of documentable excess deaths is an expression of a humanitarian disaster, and this number is not small," he concluded. "[And] excess deaths should...be seen as the tip of the iceberg among damages to occur among under five-year-olds in Iraq in the 1990s....The humanitarian disaster which has occurred in Iraq far exceeds what may be any reasonable level of acceptable damages according to the principles of discrimination and proportionality used in warfare....To the degree that economic sanctions complicate access to and utilization of essential goods, sanctions regulations should be modified immediately."

Richard Besserer writes:

Glad you liked it. Ordinary north Koreans, from what little is known, appear less impressed, irritated that they, not just Kim, were portrayed as buffoons. Not the sort of thing anybody need risk his life watching on a pirated DVD from China.

Let's be honest---whatever else The Interview might be, it's a Seth Rogen farce, not Hunt for Red October.

Thomas writes:

I didn't think ordinary North Koreans were portrayed as buffoons. There were very few of them in it, except for a crowd scene at the beginning (no buffoonery there). And it's claimed that there's a significant opposition to the leadership.

Shane L writes:

I haven't seen it but from what you describe here I'm reminded of another Seth Rogen flick "This is the End".

Tremendously silly, and mostly a string of jokes about drugs and sex, it still pokes fun at Hollywood actors' own culture in an occasionally clever way. The actors each play a caricature of themselves. At one point they discuss their concern that they might be experiencing the Apocalypse, with the good people ascending to heaven and the doomed remaining below. Jamie Franco objects that all the actors hiding in his house are good people, who after all "bring joy to people's lives". Jay Baruchel patiently responds that:

"Yeah but we don't do it for free. We get paid handsomely, much higher than the average professional."

I thought this was pretty clever and interesting, poking fun at actors' pretensions. For a movie with so much comedy based on masturbation, that's more than I had expected!

Ray Lopez writes:

Information did kill the USSR, but the nail in the coffin (the triggering act) was I believe a miscommunication if I read a BBC article correctly. An East German official misunderstood that the border with West Germany would be not opened, and they mistakenly said it would be open, which caused a rush out of the country. But at that point the Polish Solidarity movement and the Russian Jews and others leaving the USSR had already weakened the state years before (as well as, some say, an unwise tax on vodka, a kind of opium for the masses)

David R. Henderson writes:

@Ray Lopez,
There were multiple triggers. One that preceded the wall coming down was the Hungarian government, earlier in 1989, ripping out the barbed wire fences separating Hungary from Austria.

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