I was supposed to see The Interview last night. There was a press screening scheduled for the comedy about an assassination plot against Kim Jong-un, and I was going to attend, terrorist threat or no. It’s not often that one gets to feel brave just by going to the movies. As you’ve probably heard, though, Sony pulled the movie’s release (which meant canceling the screening) in the wake of the massively damaging hack into its computers and the subsequent threat issued by the shadowy group Guardians of Peace against movie theaters showing the film. I had no trouble filling my evening; I saw the devastating documentary The Overnighters and re-watched Into the Woods. Yet there’s still plenty about this situation that’s not sitting right with me.
This morning, the FBI announced that they believed North Korea was indeed behind the cyber-attack. It’s really no wonder that the country chose to attack the one major Hollywood studio that’s Japanese-owned. Among other things, this means you don’t have to worry about getting killed when you go to the movies. That country has on numerous previous occasions threatened to turn America into “a sea of flames,” and has lobbed the same threat against South Korea and Japan even more times. So far, none of those countries have actually turned into a sea of flames. (The North Koreans need a new catchphrase.) They’ve never launched attacks against civilian targets in those countries that are much closer, so there’s no reason to think they can pull it off here. As philosopher Peter Singer puts it in Vice, being able to hack a company’s computers is a far cry from launching physical attacks on movie theaters.
Which makes Sony’s decision to cut and run into a rash overreaction, or as Singer calls it, “beyond the realm of stupid.” Sony’s own statement proclaimed in part that “we stand by our artists and their freedom of expression.” All I can say is, pulling the movie from release is a funny way of showing their support. Not surprisingly, their response is being panned by everyone from Newt Gingrich to Michael Moore. Some observers including Mitt Romney have floated the idea of releasing the movie online for free or a minimal charge. Doing so might not be all that simple logistically, but it seems worth it. Yes, doing so would burn up any profits from the movie, and Sony is a business, but some things are more important than money. The moviegoers would be protected, and the studio would take a stand for the principle of free speech and win itself some positive publicity, which Lord knows it could use right now.
The story continues to develop at warp speed. Last night, a new promo for The Interview made it online, prompting talk that Sony might have some secret release plans for the film despite their public statements, but the promo was quickly pulled. In any event, the studio might be prudent to wait to see what action the White House will take against North Korea before moving ahead on their own agenda. Sen. John McCain called Sony’s knuckling under to a foreign dictatorship “a troubling precedent,” but that’s not exactly true. The major Hollywood studios had a considerable audience in Germany before World War II, and even after Germany invaded Poland, they did their best to tamp down any criticism of the Nazis or Hitler. You can read all about it in Ben Urwand’s book The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler. Already, the studios have been reluctant to raise any criticism of China’s human rights abuses, and the current flap has spooked them into canceling a planned Steve Carell comedy set in North Korea. Movies have a proud history of criticizing the governments of the countries that they’re made in, but maybe they’re not so effective at criticizing foreign regimes.
So far there’s been a push from some corners of the press that covering the hack is immoral. (It’s also come from screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who probably jumped at the chance to prove yet again how morally superior he is to the rest of us.) I don’t share that view. I’ll admit to a certain lurid curiosity about some of the inside gossip that has come out of this, and surely the information here doesn’t rival the import of, say, the Edward Snowden revelations. Still, the grade-school insults traded by producers Scott Rudin and Amy Pascal is evidence of internal dissension at the studio. The news that Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence made less than their male co-stars on American Hustle is a sign of gender discrimination. The fact that the white guys working for Sony make so much more money than everybody else indicates gender and racial discrimination. And if Rudin and Pascal really think that President Obama would want to see Ride Along, it proves that they don’t understand African-Americans. (Why would they, really, since they have so few black colleagues?) The really terrifying content is the personal information on rank-and-file Sony employees, including Social Security numbers and home and e-mail addresses. That information hasn’t made it into the mainstream media, nor should it.
Texas Theater briefly made the news for promising to show Team America: World Police on Christmas weekend instead of The Interview, but now Paramount has joined the collective cowardice and pulled the plug on the film. If you’re looking for more movies where the North Koreans are the villains, there’s any number of South Korean movies from the mid-1990s and before that would serve. Just don’t watch the casually racist and politically unbelievable 2011 action film Olympus Has Fallen. Had the North Koreans decided to hack Hollywood over that, I would have understood. And posters for The Interview are now collectors’ items. If you’re wondering what the Korean script underneath Rogen and Franco says, it reads, “Don’t trust stupid Americans!” Well, I certainly wouldn’t trust the stupid ones running Sony’s IT department with my passwords.
Update: President Obama today joined everybody else and criticized Sony’s decision to pull The Interview as “a mistake.” He also misspoke and referred to James Franco as “James Flacco.” This prompted a Twitter response from Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.