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In pulling Seth Rogen and James Franco’s North Korea-set satire, Sony let the terrorists win.
It’s a terrible week for American movies, and not just because we have to suffer through the ordeal of the last Hobbit film.
Amid the fallout from this month’s widespread leaks, and with movie theaters dropping plans to release the movie left and right, Sony did the unthinkable yesterday and outright cancelled the theatrical release of The Interview.
By now, it’s widely accepted that the group responsible for hacking Sony, the GOP or “Guardians of Peace,” is connected to North Korea and that The Interview is the reason the hack occurred in the first place. The Seth Rogen and James Franco vehicle, in which they attempt to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, has of course been drawing the ire of the country since the trailer premiered in June, prompting the North Korean government to call the movie, “an act of war.”
But apparently the latest developments were too much for Sony to take, after the GOP sent out a nonsensical but alarming message, which included the warning, “Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you keep yourself distant from the places at that time.”
Sony is definitely in a difficult position here, but this is still a major failure on its part. Pulling The Interview is a blow to artistic expression of any kind, as well as a grave indicator for the future of American cinema. As of this week, The Interview has now become more than a movie; it’s a cautionary tale. And that is truly disappointing for many reasons.
The term “dangerous precedent” has already been thrown around a lot to describe what Sony has done with The Interview, but that’s because there is no precedent for it. Sure, occasionally a studio will cut its losses and decide to basically negate a movie’s theatrical release altogether. That’s what happened with Clueless director Amy Heckerling’s 2007 comedy, I Could Never Be Your Woman. But Sony doesn’t even have plans to release The Interview on VOD, DVD, or in any other limited capacity at this time.
More importantly though, The Interview stands as the first major Hollywood motion picture to have its released pulled for political reasons in the history of movies. In the U.K., Stanley Kubrick did allow A Clockwork Orange to be pulled after the movie inspired several copycat killings. However, that was 43 years ago—and only after the film had already arrived in theaters.
Beyond that, when you think of the amount of great political satires that America has produced over time, Sony’s decision to distance itself from The Interview only looks that much worse. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator came out during the height of World War II without retaliation from Germany. Another Kubrick masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove, was released during perhaps the tensest moments of the Cold War yet managed not to ignite nuclear armageddon courtesy of Russia. And with all due respect, both of those movies are probably a lot better than The Interview. Also, consider how much more dangerous both those conflicts were for America than our current standoff with North Korea.
Speaking of which, Kim Jong-un has not exactly inspired a lot of fear in his time as a tyrant. This isn’t even the first instance where American movies have satirized North Korea in recent memory. Movies like Red Dawn and Team America: World Police (which took a rather explicitly hostile stance against Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il) were debatably just as inflammatory. If anything, Sony is only giving Kim Jong-un and the North Korean regime more power in this case, which may be the scariest part of all. Because let’s not forget that this is a dictator we used to think so little of, we literally sent Dennis Rodman as an envoy to him.
This is why the response to the latest developments with The Interview has been almost uniformly one of shock. It’s refreshing, though, to see that there are people fighting back, in whatever small ways they can. Take the Alamo Drafthouse theaters, which plan to show Team America in place of The Interview in the upcoming weeks. On the other hand, we’re beginning to see the effects of Sony’s cowardice reverberate throughout Hollywood. Most notably, a North Korean-set film with Steve Carell and Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski attached has recently been scrapped.
The one silver lining here is that no matter how difficult Sony has now made it to see The Interview, the company has also ensured that people will be clamoring to see it for years. It’s hard not to feel like the movie won’t have its day sometime down the road—this is a $42 million investment on Sony’s part, after all—but for the moment, it doesn’t actually matter whether it’s good or not. The Interview could be a masterpiece or a pile of garbage (early reviews hint at it being somewhere in between), and it would still go down as probably the most important piece of cinematic satire this decade has seen so far.
In fact, the whole thing is actually a plus for Rogen and Franco in the long run. Not only do they know how much they can trust Sony to back them up from here on out (the studio might want to find another comedy team, at least for now), their careers will likely go on undamaged, or perhaps even bolstered by their attachment to the project. For a movie that’s not coming out, The Interview is getting a crazy amount of free press. In the end, it’s free speech that really gets the short end of the stick here.
Since this situation is unprecedented, the way that theater chains pulled The Interview is understandable. It’s virtually impossible that the 9/11-level attacks threatened by the Guardians of Peace (who have a supremely ironic name) could actually be pulled off, but after the Dark Knight Rises shootings, most theaters are surely much more wary of their patrons’ safety, as they should be. Although while movie theaters certainly have to do everything in their power to keep their customers out of harm’s way, if they continue to become an active target for attacks, then America has even bigger problems to worry about.
However, it’s not theaters’ reasonable safety concerns that are troublesome—it is the standard that Sony has set with this decision. Everyone has heard the phrase “We don’t negotiate with terrorists” over and over again by now, but what’s infuriating is that the U.S. government (which happened to approve The Interview, for the record) does negotiate with terrorists whenever it suits them. But pulling The Interview is the first instance of Hollywood negotiating with terrorists—which, in some ways, is worse. The self-censorship going on here suggests that art is just as malleable to the whims and wills of the given political climate as anything else, and as the U.S. unveils a “new chapter” in its diplomatic relations with Cuba, Sony’s decision is a step back.
The narrative surrounding The Interview has turned into the “story of Americans changing their movie to make North Korea happy,” which is exactly what emails indicate Seth Rogen feared would happen. Whether you want to call the Guardians of Peace terrorists, hackers, or activists, the fundamental truth is that the people threatening America have now won. Sony execs have quite plainly bowed to the demands of a group of extremists trying to scare them and the American public into submission. That makes this a pretty sad time not just for Hollywood, but for the whole country.
Photo via Sony/YouTube
Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.