You could be forgiven for mistaking the spectacle surrounding Seth Rogen and James Franco’s “The Interview,” a film about an American talk show host who is recruited by the CIA to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, as a convoluted marketing ploy. The real-world story is almost surely a thousand times more interesting than the movie itself, with alleged North Korean cyberterrorists hacking Sony and threatening movie theaters, Sony canceling the film’s Christmas release and President Obama promising to “respond proportionately,” presumably by disrupting some future North Korean film he doesn’t like.
There’s a great deal of doubt over whether North Korea is actually behind the hacks, and even greater doubt they could actually make good on any threats. Still, I disagree with Sony’s critics. As difficult as it is for me to say, Sony did the right thing by pulling the movie.
Free speech should be defended at every juncture where it meets resistance. But that doesn’t mean it always needs to be defended with equal fervor – we don’t generally tolerate speech that endangers people’s lives, for instance. Some battles are simply easier to let go of than others. It’s most important to defend the speech of the underpowered, voiceless and marginalized. Hollywood doesn’t fall into those categories. Its speech must still be defended, but there are plenty of other factors to consider.
North Korea is reportedly one of the most dismal places on earth, a severely depressed nation where an impish tyrant lords over a macabre cult-state, starving, torturing and deceiving his population into worshipping him. It’s probably true that plenty of the stories are sensationalized, but if only a small fraction are true it’s indictment enough. At any rate, the suffering of the North Korean people is very real. Kim Jong-un’s outrage at the film, calling it an “act of war” at the United Nations, demonstrates his total detachment from reality. So, too, do any threats he makes against the U.S. – North Korea is like a Chihuahua barking at a Rottweiler.
What’s troubling about “The Interview,” though, is its apparent lack of awareness for the severe, internationally condemned crimes of the state in which it was made. It’s actually a failing Hollywood suffers from routinely, likely as a result of its tight relationship with the Pentagon. It’s quite striking that a major studio would, without any self-consciousness, seek to release a film satirizing a nation infamous for its torture programs and the starvation of its people at the same time as our own torture revelations come to light and one in seven Americans faces hunger. We shake our heads at the atrocity of North Korean prison labor camps while incarcerating more people than any other nation on the globe and contracting them out to private business. True, the mechanisms driving both nations’ human rights violations are very different – but in neither case are they forgivable.
The crimes of others, and in particular the crimes of North Korea, are easy to point out, condemn and even attempt to correct. But our own crimes and the crimes of our friends don’t receive the same kind of scrutiny. As Orwell wrote in the original, censored preface to Animal Farm, even in non-totalitarian societies, “Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban… because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact.” One of the greatest features of our society is the freedom to write articles like this and make movies like “The Interview.” Yet it’s nearly impossible to imagine a big-budget Hollywood movie with A-list stars in which Dick Cheney is burned and then has his head blown up. It would be allowed here – and might even be hilarious – but along the lines of Orwell’s maxim, it would never happen because it just “wouldn’t do.”
Still, it’s not as though the U.S. has no room to criticize. Kim Jong-un deserves to be ridiculed, and his people need to be shaken and inspired to throw off the shackles of his oppressive government. It’s hard to make a call on whether or not a movie is any good without having seen it, but it doesn’t seem like “The Interview” would have prompted such a thing. Reviews have been mostly unfavorable, and Franco and Rogen’s film holds about a 50 percent rating on both RottenTomatoes and MetaCritic (it has a 10/10 on IMDb, but those points are simply for solidarity). Their previous work has tended toward sophomoric slob comedy, on roughly the same spectrum as National Lampoon’s. It can be good stuff, but it doesn’t seem like we’re missing out on the next “The Great Dictator” or “Duck Soup.” Were it not for the controversy, “The Interview” would probably have been released and quickly forgotten.
But perhaps the most important consideration is the remote, though not impossible chance of an attack happening. Any killer wanting to make a name for himself would have the perfect venue in a theater showing “The Interview.” Sony and movie theaters are looking at this possibility and deciding the liability is too big a risk. But suppose an even more remote possibility: North Korea pulls something off. They’d have no idea what they’d be getting themselves and the rest of the world into. The U.S. would almost surely respond with extreme violence, aggravating our already rocky relationships with neighboring China and Russia. War with any nuclear-equipped state, even one with as feeble a nuclear capacity as North Korea, is nothing humanity should ever even tiptoe into. China and Russia have nukes, too, and no one’s nuclear capacity is deadlier than our own. A nuclear world war would mean, if not the end of the species, at least the end of our first attempt at a global civilization.
A silly feature from the guys who brought us “Pineapple Express” just doesn’t seem worth it to me. As disappointing as it is to see terror successfully censor free expression, “The Interview” was probably never the best monument on which to defend the principle. I’m thankful cooler heads prevailed at Sony. With the film likely to receive a digital release, it can still find its way into our libraries. We will watch it and maybe laugh at it, but because we’re a far more irreverent, open society than North Korea, all we will probably do is wonder what all the fuss was about in the first place.