There’s really no bright side to discern from this week’s bizarre, unprecedented spectacle involving Sony Pictures and “The Interview,” a Seth Rogen-James Franco satire about the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
After weeks of suffering through the most destructive corporate hack in history, and on the heels of theaters refusing to show the comedy because of terrorist threats made by the hackers (now believed to be sponsored by the North Korean government), Sony finally pulled “The Interview” on Wednesday, refusing even to make it available on demand.
It was a particularly distressing choice given that the decision arrived the same day President Obama announced a new, liberalized policy with Cuba — a softening of relations presumably designed to bring American democratic values to the communist country. This is what freedom of expression looks like, extruded through the priorities of late corporate capitalism and aggressively asymmetrical global politics.
The truth that the Sony/“Interview” debacle has laid bare is that all films are political, from the most banal escapist romp to the self-valorizing action adventures we aggressively send to the overseas markets — especially in Asia — that account for around 70 percent of the movie industry’s profits.
That point was inadvertently proved with perhaps the most provocative kernel of information that emerged during the disorienting past few days. In the middle of the swirl, the Daily Beast revealed communications between Sony Entertainment chief executive Michael Lynton and the State Department, which told him that “The Interview” had the potential of actually moving the needle in North Korea. Lynton had already run the project by a specialist at the Rand Corp. (where he sits on the board of trustees).
In a June e-mail, Rand defense analyst Bruce Bennett wrote to Lynton: “I have been clear that the assassination of Kim Jong Un is the most likely path to a collapse of the North Korean government. Thus while toning down the ending may reduce the North Korean response, I believe that a story that talks about the removal of the Kim family regime and the creation of a new government by the North Korean people (well, at least the elites) will start some real thinking in South Korea and, I believe, in the North once the DVD leaks into the North (which it almost certainly will).”
Lynton subsequently wrote back: “Bruce — Spoke to someone very senior in State (confidentially). He agreed with everything you have been saying. Everything. I will fill you in when we speak.”
The exchange conjured an equally fascinating interlude two years ago, when Lynton moderated a panel at Rand called “How Hollywood Affects Global Policy.” In what now looks like a quaint artifact from a prelapsarian age, Lynton lobbed softballs at actor Michael Sheen, “Homeland” and “24” creator Howard Gordon and Showtime Entertainment president David Nevins about terrorism and torture, never once mentioning the Sony movie “Zero Dark Thirty,” which would be caught in the crossfire about both just a few weeks hence. Presumably the “Interview” script was making the rounds at Sony’s Columbia Pictures, which would greenlight the project early the following year.
In the video of the Rand event, Sheen, who played Tony Blair in the “Queen” trilogy, speaks of playing real-life characters while they are still alive and in power. Observing that such fictionalized works can “mess with” mythology, history and a country’s collective psyche, he admits that taking on such projects threatens to “wake the dragon.”
How prescient Sheen turned out to be. And how sunnily optimistic Lynton sounds when, after someone brings up legal and moral obligations to living subjects, he responds that “where you get sued typically draws the line.”
The quip gets laughs, but now the lines have been irrevocably redrawn. And so have the feints, dodges and disingenuous evasions that have allowed filmmakers, virtually from the birth of the medium, to claim that they’re “only” making movies, and not potent vectors of values and assumptions. From the basest biases to the highest ideals, these vectors also happen to be America’s chief export to the rest of the world.
But even films that don’t culminate in the assassination of a sitting world leader possess their own politics: As purveyors of the culture we all swim in, they possess commensurate elemental power, from informing what we expect from life to modeling how we treat one another. That’s a notion that offended some readers of a column I wrote earlier this year that mentioned Rogen. But it exists on the same continuum that ends with Kim Jong Un’s regime possibly being toppled thanks to a movie he made and — because of that very ability to influence — now regrettably can’t be seen.
Meanwhile, the fallout from waking the dragon has begun, with Fox dropping Steve Carell’s adaptation of the graphic novel “Pyongyang” on Wednesday. “I find it ironic that fear is eliminating the possibility to tell stories that depict our ability to overcome fear,” said the film’s director, Gore Verbinski. On Thursday, Paramount canceled planned screenings of the 2004 parody “Team America: World Police” — which included a spoof on former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
One of the most enduring wish-fulfillment fantasies that Hollywood sells is that you can have it both ways. You can have your work taken seriously at think tanks and panels, yet insist that it’s “only” entertainment. You can couch ideology in the rhetoric of “complexity,” and evade responsibility to the truth by invoking moral “gray areas.” As depressing as the “Interview” spectacle has been as political theater, at least it has reinvested otherwise trivial, disposable cultural products with the meaning they’ve had all along.
In other words, movies matter, whether they shouldn’t or don’t want to. There might have been a time when the studios’ calculus of whether to make a movie had only to do with budgets, box office and ancillary revenue streams. Now, they might ask themselves what movies are worth fighting for to the bitter end.