In the War Over ‘The Interview,’ We’re All Losers
[UPDATE: Sony has finally announced that The Interview will be released in select theaters on Christmas Day.]
So it has come to this. The Interview is now the most important movie in years, and it has nothing to do with whether or not the movie is actually any good.
The Interview is the center of a controversy that has only been growing over time. The film’s plot was already a bit of a backhand to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, but as the country’s protests mounted, the situation took a criminal turn. Sony Pictures, the studio which produced the film, was hit by a massive cyber attack that unleashed confidential documents, private correspondence and personal information about their employees, which were then disseminated and published by a voracious news industry.
But the controversy became even more alarming this week, when the parties claiming responsibility for the hack made a threat of actual, physical violence, invoking the horror of 9/11 to describe a possible attack against movie theaters screening The Interview on its release date, as well as an attack their patrons and – even more disturbingly – anyone living in close proximity to those theaters.
Sony’s initial response was to let the movie theaters decide for themselves whether or not they wished to screen the movie. When the major chains all withdrew, Sony decided to cancel the film’s release altogether, with – as of this writing – “no further release” plans for The Interview, in any medium.
To use the phrase “the terrorists have won” may seem like an exaggeration, especially since the expression has turned into a punchline over the past decade. But it’s accurate: these hackers threatened to use violence if they didn’t get what they wanted – for Sony to cancel the release of a silly comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco – and it worked. The entertainment industry has capitulated to criminals and set a serious precedent for all future motion picture releases. “As long as you threaten us,” Sony has said, “We’ll do whatever you want.”
But it’s important to remember that Sony Pictures is in a no-win situation if ever there was one. If they released the film they probably risked getting accused of callously putting audiences in danger. They also risked audiences staying away from theaters altogether during a busy holiday weekend, with profits for many of the major studios – who are releasing Selma, Big Eyes, Into the Woods and American Sniper on the same day – at stake.
Instead, they opted not to distribute the film at all, and in so doing they have earned the ire of free speech activists, critics, industry pundits, filmmakers and thoughtful audience members alike. And again, they have set a very dangerous precedent.
Although I don’t doubt for one single solitary second that safety was a serious concern to Sony while they were making their decision, motion picture studios are businesses first and foremost. They are not beholden to a particular set of ideals, to be defended tooth and nail at any cost. They are beholden to their stockholders. If there is no money to be made in a particular situation, then that situation isn’t worth being a part of.
And indeed, going after the money has historically been a very successful way to launch a protest and yield tangible results. The Montgomery Bus boycott didn’t just make a statement, it affected the bottom line of an industry that then simply had to end their segregational practices in order to make a profit. But there is obviously an ENORMOUS DIFFERENCE between staging a boycott of a particular product or service, and threatening physical violence if you don’t get your way. One approach demonstrates the will of the people, and the other demonstrates pure, malevolent malice from only a few (or one).
But the underlying principle – to inspire change by threatening a profit margin – remains the same. By merging a tried-and-true system of protest with a despicable act of terrorism, the perpetrators got what they wanted. They made it all but impossible for Sony to stand up for any principles within a system designed to make money, because doing so would be too costly.
While I sympathize with Sony’s plight – again, they’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t – legitimizing criminal behavior is, at best, disturbingly near-sighted. In the immediate future it may seem like a sound business move, but in the long run they have opened the door for anyone with an axe to grind – against the studio, its employees, its artists or their art – to have their way simply by crossing the line into terrorist rhetoric. They are saying that all you have to do is be crazy enough to invoke 9/11 and you’ll get whatever you want.
And fostering an environment that rewards radicalism, that listens to only the few people mad enough to threaten acts of violence, is not a sound business model.
But What About ‘The Interview?’
What may be frustrating for audiences when they eventually do see The Interview is that the film itself is not worth all of this trouble. The word of mouth will grow now, telling audiences that this is one of the most important films in years (if not ever), and when they finally see it someday – however it gets distributed – they are bound to be disappointed. You can almost hear them now: “We sacrificed our principles for this…?”
The film stars James Franco and Seth Rogen as a TV talk show host and producer, respectively, who manage to book an exclusive interview with Kim Jong-un. But then the CIA approaches these characters, Dave Skylark (Franco) and Aaron Rapaport (Rogen), and ask them if would they please assassinate Kim Jong-un when they have a chance.
The inherent gag is apolitical: two normal schlubs enlisted to be secret agents out of circumstance, not ability. And of course they screw it all up, making an already impossible situation even more impossible.
But the context makes it an inherently political film: two regular citizens with no particular agenda are now forced to commit an arguably unethical act in the name of national security, forcing them to decide for themselves what they believe in and how willing they are to actually act on those beliefs.
The baseline cynicism of The Interview is obvious from the get-go. The American government, in the plot of the movie, is undeniably engaging in an act of war. Making light of such a serious topic goes beyond edgy and into the realm of the truly subversive. It’s not a film that thinks highly of either political power.
And the dramatic structure of The Interview is almost remarkable, from the arch set-up to the intriguing reversal: that Kim Jong-un is just another guy, albeit an arguably evil one. It’s a turn which makes one of our heroes decide not to commit murder. And then yet another reversal: that humanizing your enemy is even more of an assault than actually murdering them. The Interview makes a valid point over the course of its running time, elegantly set up and followed through, about the power of propaganda to both empower and to destroy.
And then of course the whole film mucks it up with an ending that sends the most mixed message possible, resorting to violence anyway, and engaging in wholesale propaganda whilst simultaneously condemning the film’s own actions. It would almost be a canny way to have their cake and eat it too, if The Interview were deft enough to comment on just how egregiously the filmmakers were negating their own message. But the film relies a little too heavily on punishing America’s enemies, letting the destructive Americans off the hook, and engaging in some very unpleasant Asian stereotypes to get away with its own ending.
What’s more, that deft structure (deft, that is, until that finale) is largely obscured by the constant riffing of its stars. James Franco and Seth Rogen have great chemistry together, as proven already in Pineapple Express, but here their constant non sequitur banter only gets in the way of the story. They aren’t playing stoners with no motivation this time. They are playing highly motivated characters in a situation that’s far more interesting than just belting out Lord of the Rings references, which they do constantly when they should be taking action instead. The plot of The Interview is left tapping its feet, waiting for Rogen and Franco to simply – in the words of Monty Python – get on with it, instead of smirking at their own ad-libbed funniness.
There are some uncomfortable parallels between the plot of The Interview and the crisis currently striking Sony Pictures. “Citizens with no particular agenda are now forced to commit an arguably unethical act in the name of national security, forcing them to decide for themselves what they believe in and how willing they are to actually act on those beliefs.” That’s more or less the debate being held at Sony right now.
What’s more, the cyber attack on Sony has yielded similar results to what we’ve seen in the film. Leaked e-mails have revealed squabbling, pettiness and fallibility within a movie studio which – like every other studio – relies on reputation, personal connections and confidentiality to remain in control of its properties and profit margins. The attack on their image is already damaging, and yet now physical violence has been added on top, much like the climax to The Interview, which culminates in a tank battle after already making a point about the pen (or at least, its modern equivalent) being mightier than the sword.
Sony has been the victim of both weapons: the pens of journalists overly eager to pour through their trash in order to get a scoop, no matter what the personal or ethical cost, and the swords of a group committing an act of terrorism by threatening real violence after cyber violence failed to yield the results they wanted. But unlike the heroes of their own movie they have decided not to fight back, and – for now, at least – let the bad guys get away with everything.
The Interview will come out eventually. How, I can’t say. Another studio will buy the rights, or Sony will postpone its release until after the culprits have been stopped, or they will sneak it out on Video On Demand and just hope for the best.
But the damage has been done. An institution has been compromised in almost every possible way, and they have conceded defeat. It’s tempting to pity Sony under these circumstances, and perhaps they deserve some pity. It’s easy for those of us on the outside to stick by our principles when we have little or nothing at stake. When you have thousands of employees depending on you to protect their livelihood, making the right decision is obviously a more complicated process. But they have made their decision and now they have to deal with the consequences.
Will that decision really open the door for more threats in the future? It certainly hasn’t discouraged anyone from engaging in this despicable behavior again. So now it falls to the rest us to be on our best behavior. Someone has to take the high road after this debacle. It should be you, it should be me, and yes, it probably should have been Sony too, but it’s a little too late for that now.