On censorship and threats: 4 thoughts on The Interview

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Some thoughts on the Sony decision to pull the film The Interview, a film about the assassination of Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, in the wake of terrorist threats against movie theaters showing the film on Christmas Day. These terrorist threats seem to have been at the very least indirectly influenced by the North Korean government.

 

The theaters were right to cancel showing the movie.

1)     Their job, above all else, is to make money. If they had persisted in showing the films, moviegoers would stay away from the theaters, and they would have lost money.

2)     If they hadn’t cancelled, and something had happened, then they would have been responsible for the safety of their patrons. Look at all the lawsuits over Aurora, and there wasn’t any precedence for that.  

 

Sony was right to pull the release, although the way they did it was wrong.

The issue at play here is that the film was intended to open on Christmas. That’s a super symbolic day. An attack on it would gain much more notoriety than a normal Tuesday (or Monday… or Friday). Once the terrorist threat was made, Sony should have taken a look at the situation, realized that every movie chain in the country was going to say, “Hey, I can’t risk not having patrons!” and pull the film, and Sony should have pre-emptively moved. Rather than just holding the film indefinitely, they should have made a statement saying they would postpone the release date , in order to give law enforcement the time they need to stop the potential attackers — and, in the process, emphasized that Sony values its fans and doesn't want anyone to risk their lives seeing a movie. Then they should have quietly released the film on…you know, January 6th. All of the symbolic holidays would be past, the film’s gotten way, way more advertising than it would have otherwise (thanks North Korea!) and it would be a box office hit. What they did, waiting for the theaters to force them to simply hold the film, was a commercial mistake.

 

Should this movie ever have been made as is?

This can only be an incomplete answer, because, obviously, we haven't seen the film.

A movie about killing a real, alive leader of a country, whether or not he is a dictator, is highly unusual. Close parodies, indirect suggestions, etc. are made all the time. But a living leader as a target in a comedy about assassination? Not so much. By creating an assassination attempt that (I assume from the previews) is government mandated, the film makes Jong-un a clear enemy of the United States. By making it comedic, it turns that enemy, a real person, into a buffoonish character (granted, he doesn’t seem to need much help in doing that on his own, but still, it’s being exaggerated). And, in having two bumbling journalists kills him, it suggests he is weak. Extremely effective propaganda. As commentary? Without having seen it, I can’t really say. As ethically acceptable story-telling? Debatable.

If, as reviewers have said, the film discusses, in a joking way, “When is it legitimate to kill the sitting leader of another country?” then they certainly could have done that with a fictional dictator, and probably should have. Using a real one is simply a way of stirring the pot, creating controversy for the film, and, therefore, getting a larger audience. The Sony leaks and subsequent threats show that they certainly got what they were going for, albeit not exactly how they expected. Everything I study and write about comes from the understanding that stories matter, that ideas matter, and that they change the world. This, to me, is irresponsible storytelling.

Honestly, if North Korea (or any other country) had made the same movie, but about assassinating Obama instead, the world would have lost it and probably would have called it a credible threat. I’m not surprised that North Korea sees it as an act of war. Especially considering that a new report suggests that the State Department was a-okay with the film. And I’m not at all surprised that they retaliated. I’m not even sure I can blame them, although I do strongly condemn any terrorist threats. Those are never right, but even in a world where you could somehow justify them, they would still be wrong and an over-reaction in this case.

I am surprised that anyone else is surprised by any of it.

 

Do I like to see the precedence of a terrorist attack censoring a work of art, no matter how dubious that claim to art is?

No. Not at all. It’s a terrible thing.

But this is not the first film that has been pulled because of timing.

I’m not even entirely sure that we are seeing a film being censored here. For all that Sony is saying otherwise, I fully expect that The Interview will be released eventually. I fully expect that many more people will view it than would have otherwise. And, unfortunately, I fully expect that it will turn into a rallying cry for entitled Hollywood types who are furious for being called on their poor decisions in filmmaking.

 

Sources:

Boot, William. "Exclusive: Sony Emails Say State Department Blessed Kim Jong-Un Assassination in 'The Interview'" The Daily Beast. December 17, 2014. Accessed December 18, 2014. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/12/17/exclusive-sony-emails-allege-u-s-govt-official-ok-d-controversial-ending-to-the-interview.html.

Brody, Richard. "How “The Interview” Handled the Assassination of Kim Jong-Un." The New Yorker. December 18, 2014. Accessed December 18, 2014. http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/interview-handles-assassination-kim-jong-un.

Rothman, Michael, and Jason Nathanson. "Sony Pulls the Plug on Dec. 25 Release of 'The Interview' After Threats." ABC News. December 17, 2014. Accessed December 18, 2014. http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/sony-pulls-plug-dec-25-release-interview/story?id=27675761.