In the final days of 2014, Sony pictures temporarily pulled the release of their comedy The Interview from theatrical distribution. The reason for this sounds like the plot right out of a spy novel, which we’ll also look at. The main problem with the movie is though, is that it’s a very typical American comedy.
It was supposed to be a light spy comedy. The Interview sees TV late night host Dave Skylark (James Franco) and his producer and close personal friend Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen) be invited to North Korea to interview the isolationist state’s dictator Kim Jong-un (Randall Park), because Kim is a great fan of Skylark’s show. This, of course, presents a rather unique opportunity to get close to a person whose nation is not only his personal playground as well as somewhat delusional, but also in a continuous arms race and developing weapons that could pose a direct threat to the United States. So the CIA decides that Dave Skylark and Aaron Rapaport must assassinate Kim Jong-un.
The movie has potential. After all, North Korea has plenty of potential for not only a good spy plot, but also for some good satire and parody. After all, the country is – by everyone but North Korea’s standards – completely absurd.
- There’s the Ryugyong Hotel in the heart of North Korea’s capital Pyongyang. They started building it in 1987 as part of the Cold War Effort. It would have been the tallest hotel in the world had it opened on schedule in 1989. However, construction was delayed and eventually halted in 1992. North Korean officials made any effort possible to ensure that nobody noticed or acknowledged the 330 meter high structure in the centre of the city. Construction resumed in 2008 with a scheduled opening in 2013. The hotel still isn’t open.
- The North Koreans claim that the leaders of their nation Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and King Jong-un neither pees nor poops.
- Former leader Kim Jong-Il tried to play golf once. He scored a 38 under par and hit eleven hole-in-ones on an eighteen hole course. He then decided to retire from golf forever.
- The North Korean people actually do believe that.
- The regime’s answer to pretty much any question ranging from «Does North Korea oppress gays?» to «Is the tunnel underneath the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea full of war engines really an invasion tunnel and not a coal mine that is in a region that has no coal?» is «Who told you this? They lie!»
- And that’s just the beginning of it. If you’re interested, surf around the net and read up on it. It’s hysterical in the worst sense of humour.
So here we are, having seen the movie and taking a look at it. Because your chance to see it will come next week. The Interview opens in Swiss cinemas on February 5th.
Enter the Movie
With a TV host and a producer on a mission of assassination in North Korea over the course of a two-hour comedy, there’s plenty of potential for funny moments. So let’s look at the jokes of the movie.
The first half hour is insufferable. It’s becoming quickly apparent that this is not a smooth comedy with thought-out jokes. It will not miss an opportunity to bring the plot to a screeching halt to either make a joke alluding at the potential homosexuality of any of the characters, anal sex, or any of the other low-brow jokes we’re used to from countless other comedies.
The two main characters are so incompetent that it hurts. How the devil they were selected to lead an assassination is completely beyond me. Kim Jong-un is kind of a tool as well. So this creates a wildly inconsistent picture of any character in the film. James Franco’s Dave Skylark switches from being a complete idiot on camera, asking inane questions to a hard-hitting interviewer with uncanny empathy and social skills within a few scenes and Kim Jong-un is either a raging dictator or a whiny kid or a character who indulges in a lavish lifestyle while his people starve.
If you’re looking at this film as a comedy with any kind of intelligent appeal, you’ll be mostly disappointed. If it weren’t for the actual interview part of The Interview.
Saving Grace – The Interview
It is the actual interview that is the most impressive part of the movie. During what should be a scripted and rehearsed interview, Dave Skylark switches to quite provocative questions all of a sudden.
Dave Skylark: Do you think that your people should be rewarded for their resilience and strength?
Kim Jong-un: Of course, Dave.
Skylark: Then why don’t you feed them? They are hungry. Specifically, two-thirds of them? Isn’t that a little embarrassing, since you’re the one they view as a provider and a god? And you spend $800 million on nukes every year?
Kim: Perhaps the question you should ask is: How have I managed to keep my country so well-nourished despite the harsh and unjust economic sanctions imposed on North Korea by the United States?
But it is not only North Korea the movie provokes. The United States get what’s theirs in what are probably the best lines of the movie.
Kim: Don’t you know
that the United States has more incarcerated people
per capita than North Korea? So, perhaps, now, you would like to return to the civil discussion we had originally agreed upon.
The Problem with Comedy in General
It’s pretty obvious that this movie probably stems from an idea a scriptwriter had on a night out on town with a few mates who all had a few pints too many. Because it feels like the movie was built on humiliating jokes that are not only to the expense of Kim Jong-un. Almost everyone apart from the character of Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) is incompetent, regularly says incredibly stupid things, farts and burps. And even Agent Lacey has her cringe-worthy dialogue of describing her experience during anal sex when producer Aaron Rapaport has to hide a weapon delivered by missile in his anus.
Agent Lacey: The tip is… it’s the worst part. Trust me on this
Yes, that’s the kind of humour you can expect from this movie. The problem is, it’s not just this movie that does this. There are so many more movies that base most if not all their humour on farts and burps.
Now, while I readily admit to being rather picky when it comes to comedy, this is not really anyone’s taste of humour after the age of maybe sixteen. It’s this catering to the lowest common denominator in order to maximize profits at the box office because every Dick, Tom and Harry will get a laugh out of it, regardless of his or her education, societal background and political belief. It’s just numbers and marketing. Nothing inherently wrong with that, because movie people are running a business after all and smart comedy alienates some people who would otherwise go see movies. Again, nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s just how it is.
- You have a movie you want to make money with
- You need to sell tickets for that
- You won’t sell as many tickets if you alienate part of the audience
- Thus you make sure that everyone will have fun
Right, that’s that. The main thing that makes this so annoying is that comedies, especially low-brow ones, is that comedy has the tendency to one-up itself every year and with every new movie.
As such, The Interview has overly gory scenes that see a character bite off two fingers of another, the fight scenes are overly brutal. The comedy scenes are over the top and every aspect of every character is overdone to the point of where they’re satirizing the satire they’re supposed to be. For example, if a character is stupid, he’s stupid to the point of where he seemingly has to make a conscious effort to maintain even basic motor functions.
So if you want to sit through about an hour and forty minutes of slapstick comedy and absurd jokes for these ten minutes of actually good stuff, then go for it. To be fair, it’s pretty obvious that the actors in this movie as well as the staff had fun making it. So it’s got that going for it.
The Real-Life Spy Thriller
A fair bit of controversy surrounded this movie. Because Sony Pictures pulled the movie from its release list. In Switzerland, the debate wasn’t really debated. The movie was announced, then there was nothing heard and then, recently, there was a notice that the movie will appear in cinemas as scheduled next week. The movie is available on Video on Demand, though.
For what exactly went down, here’s a detailed timeline by Redditor CSMastermind.
- November 24th: The first public notification of the hack came on Reddit. Within an hour Deadline Hollywood reported Sony had sent a memo to all employees warning of the hack. This was followed by a flurry of reporting then the release of proof of the hack.
- November 26th: Three movies leak online, the FBI begins investigating the breach . When the BBC asks North Korea if they were responsible they respond “Wait and see” .
- December 1st: The initial data leak. I won’t post it here but it’s still available if you look on torrent sites. It’s 26 GB of files and contained Social Security numbers, names, contact details, contact phone numbers, dates of birth, email addresses, employment benefits, workers compensation details, retirement and termination plans, employees previous work history, executive salaries, medical plans, dental plans, genders, employee IDs, sales reports, copies of passport information and receipts for travel of all Sony Pictures employees worldwide . Much of this information notably “\HR\Benefits\Mayo Health\Mayo XEROX assessment feed” was stored in plaintext.
- December 3rd: The second data leak. This one garnered less press but contained was considerably more dangerous. It contained full security certificate information, internal and external account credentials, authentication credentials with plaintext passwords for systems such as the Sony YouTube page and UPS accounts. I’ve heard that much of this information was available because an IT director was comprised apparently he had no background in IT and was actually a marketing exec who reached the position (and thus higher salary) through corporate politics. You can see for example is was good at naming files.
- December 4th: The FBI issued a confidential flash warning to the security departments of large American companies warning about a new malware called Destover Backdoor. I can’t post the notice itself (it’s confidential) but I can post the Symantec writeup about it.
As people started to analyze the code sample provided we learned that it was created on a computer using the Korean language and included pictures with Sony’s name written on a tombstone (meaning that it was a targeted attack). The picture also contained the text “We’ve already warned you, and this is just the beginning. We continue till our request be met.” Note that no where did they say what their demands were though North Korea had previous threatened Sony over the release of The Interview.
We also learned how to detect the “Command and Control” modules of the code. Initially the virus just exposes the computers files and configures it to run a webserver. It also attempts to spread throughout the network targeting access to specific machines and ip addresses. Because these are hardcoded it means the attacker either had inside help or had previously penetrated Sony’s network and gathered information. The malware only begins to broadcast back to the C&C servers once it’s been launched—and deletion of data on the targeted network has already begun. This likely triggered by a hard coded time in the code. This type of malware is consistent with a watering hole or spear phishing attack. The C&C servers the malware connects to were used previous by a piece of malware known as DarkSeoul which North Korea used to attack South Korea previously.
- December 7th: Third data leak. This one contains all of Sony Pictures’ financial information. Bloomberg reports that the initial data breach occurred at a hotel in Thailand where a Sony executive was staying. This is likely the source of the inside information about Sony’s network.
- December 8th: Another leak, this one was just posted to pastebin before quickly being taken down. This one contains the email archives of two executives: Steve Mosko, President of Sony Pictures Television and Amy Pascal, Co-Chairman, Sony Pictures Entertainment and Chairman, Sony Pictures Entertainment Motion Picture Group. There’s some confusion about the authenticity of this post. The data leaked is authentic but it looks like it came from a different group than the first 3 leaks. It also specifically mentions The Interview, which previous leaks did not. Consensus of the security community seems to be that this was a copycat or disgruntled employee taking advantage of the situation.
Security company Kaspersky releases its report which shows the initial computer virus used in the attack is the same at that used in the Shamoon attack where North Korea went after Saudi Arabia. We are also told that three security certificates used a password of “password”.
- December 10th: The next leak occurs. This one bears the signature of the first three leaks, meaning it is likely genuine. It includes information about Sony’s anti-piracy efforts, entertainment deals in the works, internal procedures related to tracking torrents and other illegal downloading. It also contains a document that outlines Sony’s cooperation with 5 major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to collect full data for monitoring illegal downloads.
On the same day the attacker behind the December 8th leaks releases another set of emails, these belonging to Leah Weil, Senior Executive Vice President and General Counsel for Sony Pictures Entertainment. They seem to be trying to piggyback onto the real leak. This is completely off topic but I wanted to mention the through these emails we learned that George Clooney is apparently the only person working with or for Sony that understand information security.
News stories proliferate.
- December 13th: The next authentic leak. This one contains internal documents for tracking deals, expenditures, and revenue. It also contains information about the state of all deals Sony is currently working on. While previous leaks were initially seeded in China, this one was initially seeded in Taipei, Taiwan.
At this point IT workers at Sony begin anonymously talking to the press. They paint a picture of a company with an outdated network, lax security standards, and an unwillingness to hire quality professionals in IT and software development (believing top talent in these areas to be “too expensive”). They also describe a very traditional big corporate office environment in which things like “ass in chair” time spent at work is valued over results. Most promotions seem to be driven by office politics not talent.
- December 16th: There’s been many media articles, speculation, theories, and controversy. For weeks Sony has been fighting the leaks via takedown notices, hacking of their own, and pleas in the media. They activate their “cybercrime” insurance which provides them with $65 million in coverage. They cancel most media appearances in promotion of the film.
- December 17th: A group of individuals makes threats of violence at US movie theaters which show The Interview. These are different in style, content, and tone than all communications from the actual hacker. They seem obviously fake, created by pranksters to take advantage of the tense situation. Regardless almost every theater chains pulls the movie from their schedule.
In an show of incredibly lazy journalism many media outlets (lead by Wired) publish stories stating that North Korea was not behind any of the hacking. These mix together the details of several attacks and treat all leaks (both credible and not) as coming from the same actor. At the same time more respectable media outlets like the NY Times, The Wall St. Journal, and The Washington Post publish stories stating that North Korea is “almost certainly” behind the attack and cite a litany of security professionals and confidential government sources.
While all the circumstantial evidence points to North Korea we do lack documented forensic trail that truly establishes some level of attribution with certainty.
- December 18th: Sony cancels The Interview. They also quietly cancel Pyongyang another comedy starring Steve Carell. Produced by company New Regency and directed by Gore Verbinski, the story is based on a graphic novel and follows a Westerner that is accused of espionage in North Korea.
- December 19th: The FBI firmly places the blame on North Korea. Everyone rushes to put this in a political frame.
The Interview opens in Swiss Cinemas on February 5th, 2015. Here’s a trailer.