The Interview: Rude, crude, sexist, racist … with a modicum of political propaganda value

Discussing "The Interview" on CCTV.

Discussing “The Interview” on CCTV.

Like many a TV pundit in our 24/7 news world, I was asked to comment on the movie “The Interview” before I saw it. My words of purported wisdom aired on CCTV’s “Dialogue” program on Jan. 2.

Now, through the wonders of Netflix, I’ve finally seen the movie that launched a thousand schemes. Here’s what I thought:

It was rude, crude, puerile, tasteless, sexist, racist, unsophisticated … and better than I thought it was going to be.

You can guess that this isn’t my kind of movie. I don’t like potty jokes. The movie’s fixation on the bodily functions of the North Korean dictator, not to mention the human orifices of its protagonist, are suitable for seventh grade boys, not (chronologically) adult moviegoers. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the execrable movie “The Love Guru“: “This film could have been written on toilet walls by callow adolescents. Every reference to a human sex organ or process of defecation is not automatically funny simply because it is naughty.”

But “The Interview” offers much more to loathe. Its treatment of every one of its female characters as sex objects is odious. Its replaying of decade-old Hollywood Asian stereotypes is retrograde racism. Oh, the movie also was way too long and self-indulgent.

Those are some of the less objectionable elements of “The Interview.”

I don’t know about you, but I have a fundamental problem with a movie about the assassination of a living leader. It just crosses a line in my mind. Imagine what Americans would say if a Pakistani … or French … or Chinese … or Canadian “comedy” centered on a plot to kill the U.S. president. I don’t care how odious a leader is. You just don’t make a movie about assassinating living characters. (Remember how “The Manchurian Candidate” disappeared for two decades after the Kennedy assassination. And it was fiction.)

One more thing: “The Interview” is completely unbelievable. I am a big believer in “suspension of disbelief” for Hollywood fantasies. I’ll play along with the far-fetched concept that a CIA “babe” convinced two sex-crazed journalists to join an assassination plot. But they lost me when they got to the North Korean palace and kept talking openly about their assassination plans. OK, buddy, if the movie is about this paranoid North Korean dictator, don’t you think that he might just have been bugging your room and listening to your every word? Don’t you think you might be a wee bit careful discussing your murderous plans in loud voices? That may have gone over the heads of the potty-humor gang, but the other 99.9 percent of us are going to have a problem with it.

“The Interview” may be without redeeming social value, but it does have a bit of political propaganda value. The movie was at its best when it skewered the Kim dynasty for its gulags, its decision to focus on nukes, not nutrition, its overblown rhetoric, its paranoia and personal quirks. The transformation of the Kim Jong Un character from personable Dennis Rodman road show buddy to Stalinesque maniac was, from the perspective of political propaganda, quite effective.

I can understand why (alleged) North Korean hackers didn’t want the world to see this depiction of their dear leader. But I still can’t buy a movie that makes the dear leader into the dearly departed leader.

If you want to see the segment of CCTV’s “Dialogue” program in which I discuss “The Interview” with Tsinghua University colleague Shi Anbin, here’s the URL: http://english.cntv.cn/2015/01/03/VIDE1420295520064235.shtml

CCTV Dialogue program on “The Interview”


Movie night at Tsinghua: All the President’s Men

An exact replica of the Washington Post newsroom was built in Hollywood.

An exact replica of the Washington Post newsroom was built in Hollywood.

I held my first “movie night” for my Chinese journalism grad students on Sunday night. After considering a few journalism-related classics (you can probably guess which they are), I chose one that highlights the best of journalism: “All the President’s Men.” It’s not just a journalism movie, of course. It’s a great detective story and an all-around outstanding movie with crisp writing, superb acting and tension-inducing directing. “All the President’s Men” is important journalism history. It’s also important American history. But I discovered as I played the video that many of the uniquely American topics (and 1970s cultural norms) contained in the movie were difficult to understand for my Tsinghua University students. So, in addition to playing the movie with English subtitles (do you realize how quickly Dustin Hoffman speaks, with that nasal accent of his?), I occasionally paused the movie for verbal annotations. Here are some of the important points I needed to explain to the students:

What is that machine those actors are using? And who is Robert Redford?

What is that machine those actors are using? And who is Robert Redford?

Newspaper references:

  • Why Ben Bradlee and many American journalists curse a lot
  • How Ben Bradlee cursed on live national TV when I hosted him as a speaker at a National Press Club luncheon in 2005
  • What kind of a boss Ben Bradlee was to my wife Pam Tobey
  • Who Deep Throat was and what motivated him to leak
  • Where the real Bob Woodward/Mark Felt garage was located
  • How the movie’s producers created a replica of the Washington Post’s newsroom in Hollywood for the movie — and the Post newsroom looked exactly the same when my wife Pam began working there in 1984
  • Why reporters call the targets of their stories for comment before publishing the story
  • Why it was unethical when Carl Bernstein called the secretary in the Miami prosecutor’s office and pretended he was someone he was not
  • Why Watergate motivated me (and the entire Woodstein generation) to become reporters

Cultural references:

  • Why all of the editors in the Post’s budget meetings were men
  • What a manual typewriter is (or was) and why they were all over the newsroom
  • Why I took Mrs. Wolin’s typing class at Central High when everybody said that typing was for girls who wanted to become secretaries. (Of course, I wanted to learn to type so I could become a reporter.)
  • Who Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman are
  • What the movie “Deep Throat” was about and why Woodward’s editor chose it as a code name for Mark Felt
  • What John Mitchell was talking about when he said Katharine Graham would get a certain part of anatomy caught in a wringer
  • What a “creep” means and why CREEP became the acronym for the Committee to Re-elect the President
  • Why so many people smoked in public spaces

Political references:

  • Who John F. Kennedy was and why his photo was in Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate
  • The fact that JFK and his brother Bobby were assassinated
  • Why the Vietnam War was so unpopular and why American society was torn apart by war, riots and civil rights struggles
  • What the Pentagon Papers are
  • Richard Nixon’s unique definition of “plumbers”
  • Who Daniel Ellsberg is and why he had a psychiatrist
  • Who George Wallace and Arthur Bremer were and how Woodward worked with Felt on stories about the Wallace assassination attempt
  • Who the anti-Castro Cubans in Miami are
  • What the Bay of Pigs is/was
  • The long and sordid history of CIA scandals
  • Why there is tension between the FBI and the CIA
  • Why Nixon hated and feared the Kennedys
  • What Chappaquiddick was
  • Why George McGovern asked Tom Eagleton to leave the ticket in ’72
  • Why Nixon wanted to run against McGovern and not Ted Kennedy or Edmund Muskie
  • Why Ed Muskie “cried” in New Hampshire
  • What a “Canuck” is

Any suggestions for my next American journalism movie night?


Ten things I really miss living in China — and ten I definitely do not

Birthday barbecue: Plates of tasty food at Home Plate BBQ in Beijing (with Troy Hernandez, Agnes Kreitz, Sara Balajthy, Caroline Ward and Mengfei Chen)

Birthday barbecue: Plates of tasty food and chocolate cake at Home Plate BBQ in Beijing (with Troy Hernandez, Agnes Kneitz, Sara Balajthy, Caroline Ward and Mengfei Chen)

It’s been nearly three months since I arrived in Beijing, and I’ve finally had my first attack of homesickness.

It started two weeks ago with a trip to a local Western market to pick up the fixings for macaroni and cheese (the real thing, not the Kraft version). It was followed by my birthday dinner of Texas BBQ and chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting. Then I broke down completely yesterday and went to Jenny Loo’s supermarket with my friend Eunice. My haul — a rare taste of Americana — included fresh bagels (“Montreal style”), feta cheese, olives, canned diced tomatoes for pasta sauce, fresh tortillas, tortillas chips, salsa, peanut butter and a Woody Allen movie.

A pretty pricey splurge, all told, except for the Woody Allen movie (“Midnight in Paris”), which cost 13 yuan, or $2.16.

I’m whipping up my famous linguini tonight with some of my big food purchase. But before I do, here’s a quick list of ten things I really miss after 11 weeks in China — and some that I decidedly do not.

What I miss:

1. My wife and family

2. The National Press Club

3. Live NHL hockey

4. Hummus

5. My good friends back home

6. Weekend trips to Philadelphia or New York

7. Trader Joe’s

8. Gossiping with my Texas political sources

9. Good wine at good prices

10. Target

What I Don’t Miss:

1. CNN

2. American cable news in general

3. The newspaper world I left behind

4. Cable TV

5. Congress

6. Driving

7. Texas BBQ (I’ve been surprised by the fine barbecue here.)

8. The Washington football team with the racist name

9. Rush Limbaugh and the vast right wing conspiracy

10. U.S. media coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination