Sony's decision to cancel its planned Christmas Day release of The Interview is an act of cowardice. And that cowardice will reach out and infect the rest of Hollywood's decision making for years to come.
It's an action undertaken by a company that has run out of options on a movie it apparently didn't like all that much to begin with (if leaked emails are any indication), and a movie that received poor reviews from the handful of critics who were able to see it. Nearly everyone who's seen the film says it's a deeply silly bit of mindless fluff. But because of the circumstances surrounding it, it's hard to keep that in the picture.
In the grand scheme of things, the world not getting another Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy probably isn't going to destroy too many people's holiday plans. And there are certainly understandable reasons for Sony to want to walk back its decision. The company might just want the whole headache over. It might be worried about the hackers releasing more stolen data and hoping to cut a deal with them. It might even agree with the Department of Homeland Security that there are no credible threats against screenings of the film, while still not wanting the death of even one person to occur. (Studios and theater owners' decisions are almost certainly influenced by the 2012 Colorado movie theater shooting.)
There are lots of reasons for Sony to make this decision that are at least easy to sympathize with. But there's one big reason that makes this decision ultimately hard to cotton to. In backing away from its film, Sony has created a dangerous precedent that's already reverberating through Hollywood. (Look no further than a paranoid thriller set in North Korea being developed by Steve Carell and director Gore Verbinski, which has been canceled.)
The movies are at their best when they're fearless, but Sony's decision may as well have X'ed out North Korea on a map and written "Here be dragons" over it.
The history of movies being pulled
I keep calling this situation "unprecedented," but that's not precisely true. Studios have delayed releases of films for political reasons plenty of times. In the wake of 9/11, for instance, several films featuring airplanes as central plot devices were delayed, often for months at a time. And, believe it or not, there's a situation that's at least somewhat analogous to this one in film history, when the young film industry quashed the release of a Revolutionary War-themed historical drama because the US had just entered World War I on the side of the British. (The film's release was so thoroughly tamped down that it's now thought to be lost forever.)
It's not even unprecedented for the industry to make films mocking foreign leaders. Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator mocked Hitler before the US even entered World War II, and numerous other films made fun of the German leader, to say nothing of the scores of films portraying Japanese leaders in racist fashion during that same conflict. And during the Cold War, dozens — if not hundreds — of films turned Communists into big, dumb jokes to be laughed at, not feared. There have even been tentative stabs at this with Islamic terrorists in recent years, like in the brilliantly subversive British comedy Four Lions.
This is one of the ways we have chosen to use our freedom of speech. We take a direct look at the things that scare us, and we laugh at them, hoping to gain power over our own fears through trying to minimize them. It doesn't work as a long-term cure, but for those handful of hours when you're in the dark, watching a movie, it can be amazing.
No, the things that were unprecedented about this situation were twofold. The first was that the film actually depicted the assassination of a specific, real foreign leader. Yes, Team America had done just that before (with the leader of North Korea, no less), but those were puppets, making it easier to realize how silly the whole endeavor was. No matter how funny an actor Randall Park is, he's still playing Kim Jong-un, a man who really exists and has turned his country into a never-ending cascade of human rights crises. Even couched in the language of the silly comedy, it's easy to see why North Korea would see that as a bridge too far.
(It's worth pointing out here that the American response to the release of the film Death of a President, which depicted the assassination of George W. Bush, in 2006, was to have several politicians decry the film, only to have nobody go see it in theaters.)
The response, however, was even more unprecedented. Say what you will about any information gleaned in the hacks, but the country's apparent decision to work with hackers to steal massive amounts of data from a major media corporation in another country as an act of de facto censorship is incredibly brazen.
And that attack seemed aimed, at times, at punishing a female studio head (who has a remarkably progressive, adventurous record in the kinds of films she backs) for her decision-making abilities. Her entire email inbox was leaked, as if the hackers knew immediately how readily we in the press would take to the revelations — some newsworthy, some purely gossip-y — found there.
What the response to any of this should be is a question for others to answer, but the fact remains that Sony ultimately caved to those demands.
Yes, it was within its rights to do so. Yes, it hasn't been technically censored. But it still feels as if it has, by a foreign power, no less. And that makes those fears we're trying to laugh at all the more persistent.
De facto censorship
I wasn't planning on seeing The Interview. Given the fact that it's entering a crowded marketplace with lots of other intriguing options, you probably weren't either. But the current situation makes it feel all the more urgent that none of us can.
This is particularly hard to stomach because the current Hollywood landscape is such that it can be all but impossible to get a movie made if it has substantial political content, because somebody, somewhere, might be angry about it. Yeah, not everyone is going to launch a cyberattack on your company's servers, but it's instructive, I think, to look at even a good political film like Captain America: The Winter Soldier to see how an inventive critique of the American security state is eventually undercut by making the villains literal Nazis, rather than face up to some of the country's more uncomfortable truths.
Think, for instance, of the remake of Red Dawn, recut so that the US was no longer invaded by China but (ironically enough) by North Korea. Or think of all of the films depicting terrorists as disaffected loners with vaguely Eurotrash accents.
There are good reasons for some of these decisions. In an age when the Hollywood blockbuster is one of America's chief cultural exports, it doesn't make sense to unnecessarily piss off other markets, and it's limiting to only have terrorist roles available to actors of Arab descent. And similarly, there's maybe the kernel of a lesson in this debacle that could suggest that, hey, making a movie about assassinating a foreign leader isn't the best idea in the world, particularly if you're dependent on steady box office to break even.
But even stacking all of those caveats and "maybes" against this call, it's hard to see it as anything that backs away from the fearlessness of the best movies and replaces it with a paralyzing terror, where the only sorts of movies that can be made are ones that don't unnecessarily anger anybody. But the best films — hell, the best art — almost always piss somebody somewhere off.
The fact of the matter is that it's easy to raise the above caveats because this was, at the end of the day, just a dumb comedy with a bad premise. The world will get more Seth Rogen and James Franco movies. I suspect The Interview will eventually see the light of day in some form or another, perhaps years from now. And this, too, will fade in our memories.
But it won't fade in Hollywood's memory. The town is already risk-averse, terrified of angering any one of a number of increasingly shaky support structures in a system always poised on the verge of economic collapse. This decision was driven as much by placating theatre owners as much as anybody else, but it also has the effect of essentially writing off a whole area of the map.
What happens when someone wants to make a dumb action movie set in North Korea? Or a romantic comedy on both sides of the Korean border (as improbable as that would be)? Or a serious, weighty political drama about the struggles of the North Korean people, aimed at winning some Oscars? What do the bean-counters say then?
In light of that, it's no wonder Hollywood has gotten so interested in the realms of the fantastical when it comes to making money. Reality has simply gotten too dangerous.