I wish that this was a post where I had been able to see a film at an advanced screening or at a festival, but sadly it is not. I didn’t get to see The Interview early and right now it doesn’t sound like any of us will be able to see the movie at all – at least for the foreseeable future. After terror threats were made and the four largest theater chains opted to not show the film, Sony made the decision last night to not release The Interview. The latest statement from the beleaguered company indicated that they have no plans to release the film in any form – not in theaters, not VOD, not on DVD. That could change, of course, but right now The Interview is shelved for the indefinite future.
When I first heard about the premise for The Interview, I did raise my eyebrows. While I generally really enjoy anything that Seth Rogen and James Franco do together, a movie where their characters attempt to assassinate North Korea’s Kim Jong-un seemed to be unnecessarily poking a bear that maybe didn’t need to be poked. Let’s face it – Jong-un is not known as a guy who can take a joke, especially when it comes to a movie about people trying to kill him. To be fair, I don’t know how many dictators – or world leaders for that matter – would be totally thrilled with their assassination being the focal point of a comedy, but Jong-un’s actions over the years made it clear that he probably wasn’t going to let the release of The Interview happen without some sort of threat or action.
But just because I didn’t necessarily think it was a wise decision to target Kim Jong-un, that didn’t mean that I didn’t want to see the movie or that they shouldn’t have made it. I may not have chosen that topic, but I support their choice to do so. There have been many instances where movies have made fun of sitting world leaders who aren’t known for their sense of humor. In 1940, Charlie Chaplin wrote, starred in and directed The Great Dictator, a film that tweaked a men you man have heard of – Adolf Hitler. Matt Stone and Trey Parker have practically made a cottage industry out of going after controversial leaders; their feature film Team America: World Police took shots (literally and figuratively) at Kim Jong-un’s father King Jong-il
The guys also used their television show South Park as a platform to make fun of some other unpleasant dudes. Saddam Hussein was a reoccurring character on the show, who was in a same-sex relationship with Satan:
Osama Bin Laden was also a target; while they didn’t kill him on-screen until after his actual death, they certainly made fun of him:
Contrary to what you may read on Facebook and Twitter, Sony’s decision to pull The Interview is not a violation of anyone’s constitutionally protected free speech. The 1st Amendment does many wonderful things, but it only protects speech from government oppression. Private companies are not held up to same standards as the federal and state governments. Believe me – I’m an actual constitutional law scholar. So any complaints about free speech being violated are erroneous.
However, that doesn’t mean that Sony’s decision isn’t problematic. While this may not be a free speech issue, it is certainly a stifling of creative expression which is not good either. By deciding to self-censor and give in to the threats, Sony has not only set a dangerous precedent for other protesting groups but its decision may also have a chilling effect on what is produced in the future. In the wake of Sony’s decision, New Regency has pulled the plug on a thriller starring Steve Carrell that was set in North Korea. I’m sure that other projects will be scrapped or altered – and that’s a shame. Once certain topics become off-limits, that’s a dangerous path. Artist expression has long been an outlet for frustration or commentary about current events. Movies, books and television serve as escapism and entertainment, but they also are forms of protest and can educate or present an unpopular or different viewpoint. It’s a shame when artists in all genres feel that they have to limit who and what they can discuss. And now groups know that if they threaten movie theaters, studios may back down.
Sony was in a tough position and I can’t say that I necessarily blame the theaters for being concerned about the threats that were made. No one wants to see anyone be harmed because of a movie and theaters are not the most secure places in the world, as proved by the shooting in Aurora, Colorado during The Dark Knight Rises. Add to the mix that most theaters have a skeleton crew working on Christmas and there were obviously legitimate security issues to consider. Perhaps Sony was aware that the threats were more credible than the government has let on. I get that a Rogen/Franco comedy might not be the particular hill that you choose to die on. It’s not an easy call. But pulling the movie completely just doesn’t seem like the right decision. Of course, the decision to not release the film in any capacity isn’t totally a moral one – it’s also a business one. By not releasing the film on demand or on DVD, the company can more easily write off the money that they spent on the movie as a loss.
I can honestly say that I would have gone to see the movie if it was shown anywhere in the area. Would I have been a little nervous? Sure. But it was one little thing that I could do in support, to show that we won’t cave to threats. Plus, and I cannot overstate this, I just really wanted to see the movie. But even if there were threats against a Katherine Heigl romantic comedy, I’d still go (even if I understood their impulse – those movies are terrible). I hope that The Interview sees the light of day eventually. And I hope that this event has not set us down a very dangerous road.