Before Interviewgate: 5 Movies on Real-Leader Assassination Attempts – Rolling Stone
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Before Interviewgate: 5 Movies About Assassinating Real Leaders

‘The Interview’ had its release cancelled thanks to the fallout around its controversial plot, but it’s not the first film to target an actual head of state

Scene from 'The Interview.'

Kim-Jong-un (played by Randall Park in 'The Interview') is only the latest real-life world leader to be targeted for assassination in film

Ed Araquel

This past Wednesday, Sony Pictures canceled its planned Christmas Day release of the Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy The Interview, after a group of hackers threatened terrorist attacks on American movie theaters that booked the film. The comedy was always going to be controversial, given that its plot centers Rogen and Franco playing showbiz journalists who land an interview with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un — and then become part of a plot to kill him.

But Sony's actions were unprecedented, given that Rogen and his fellow writer-director Evan Goldberg are hardly the first filmmakers to put an actual living (or very, very recently deceased) world leader into a fictional story about assassination. It's not a common premise, but it has been done, and usually without much of a public outcry. Here are five examples:

Man Hunt

MAN HUNT, Walter Pidgeon, 1941, TM & Copyright © 20th Century Fox Film Corp./courtesy Everett Collection

Everett

‘Man Hunt’ (1941)

When Quentin Tarantino shot, burned and blew up Adolf Hitler in Inglourious Basterds, he joined a long line of filmmakers who've indulged in a little wish-fulfillment by beating the hell out of Der Führer. Everyone from Daffy Duck in "Daffy – The Commando" to Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission have taken a shot at the Nazi chief; and in the 1940s especially, there was a mini-boom in "death to Hitler" pictures, such as Hitler—Dead or Alive and The Strange Death of Adolf Hitler. The ballsiest of the bunch is Fritz Lang's 1941 thriller Man Hunt, made for 20th Century Fox before the United States declared war on Germany. Right in the opening scene, big game hunter Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) creeps through the brush, assumes a firing position and looks through his scope at the familiar mustachioed face of the world's most notorious dictator — the image alone is bracing, even today. Both the U.S. government and Fox chief Daryl Zanuck questioned Lang's diplomatic tact, but Man Hunt was still released, six months before Pearl Harbor.

The Day of the Jackal

THE DAY OF THE JACKAL, 1973.

Everett

‘The Day of the Jackal’ (1973)

Charles de Gaulle died of natural causes just a couple of years before the release of director Fred Zinnemann's adaptation of the Frederick Forsyth bestseller The Day Of The Jackal, about a mysterious assassin hired to kill the French president in the early 1960s. Though de Gaulle was the target of a real assassination plot in 1962, both the novel and the big-screen version of The Day of the Jackal are purely speculative. Still, the film's procedural qualities make it almost a how-to for would-be super-snipers. Not only did the movie open without incident, it became a huge international hit, and is partially responsible for giving a nickname (and a reputation) to real-life terrorist Illich Ramírez Sánchez, a.k.a. "Carlos the Jackal."

The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!

THE NAKED GUN: FROM THE FILES OF POLICE SQUAD!, Leslie Nielsen, 1988, (c) Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

Paramount/Everett

‘The Naked Gun’ (1988)

The blockbuster movie version of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedy team's cult TV series Police Squad! begins with clumsy undercover cop Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) knocking around a who's-who of American enemies: Idi Amin, Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro, Ayatollah Khomeni, Muammar Gaddafi and Mikhail Gorbachev. Later, Lieutenant Drebin poses as a major league baseball umpire to prevent Reggie Jackson (played by Reggie Jackson) from murdering Queen Elizabeth II. The ZAZ trio already had a reputation for bad taste before making The Naked Gun, which is why no one kicked up much of a fuss over them writing and directing a story that put real people – or impersonators, anyway – in mortal danger. The film could easily be called disrespectful, but it's too good-naturedly goofy to be offensive.

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut

Paramount/Everett

‘South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut’ (1999)

When The Interview was yanked from Sony's schedule, some theaters tried to make a statement by screening Trey Parker and Matt Stone's corrosive, puppet-animated 2004 satire Team America: World Police, which ends with the death of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Paramount quickly nixed the shows, afraid of further hacker reprisals. If those same theaters are looking for a safer replacement, they could ask Paramount to let them book Parker and Stone's South Park movie, which ends with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein getting killed by his gay lover, Satan. Hussein's dead now, and unlikely to cause much of a stink from beyond the grave. But then he didn't publicly balk back in 1999 either, when he was very much alive.

Death of a President

DEATH OF A PRESIDENT, the presidential motorcade, 2006. ©Newmarket Releasing/courtesy Everett Collection

Newmarket/Everett

‘Death of a President’ (2006)

Prior to The Interview, the most scandalous example of the fake-assassination-of-real-leader genre was writer-director Gabriel Range's mockumentary Death of a President, which imagines what would've happened if George W. Bush were shot and Dick Cheney seized control of the United States. Most of Range's film is about the aftermath of Bush's death, and is intended as a criticism of the PATRIOT Act and other infringements of personal liberty. In other words, this what-if docudrama was meant to argue that America was already a quasi-fascist state, even without a national emergency to force the issue. But the movie's title and subject matter were deliberately provocative and drew condemnation from Democrats and Republicans alike – if not enough to prevent a respectable art-house release and a subsequent DVD, both of which proceeded right on schedule.

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