I also understand the fear of movie theater owners who would likely be held responsible if they showed the movie in their theaters on Christmas Day and it turned out that all the patrons were killed in an act of terrorism, although my bet is they are more concerned about the potential loss of revenues from lawsuits than the loss of human lives. I even get those who want to go see the film just to show that we will not be cowed by vague threats and that we will stand strong for our right to determine how we define our culture. We do not want to be a nation of Salman Rushdies, all hiding for fear of our lives because of our artistic choices.
Normally when a movie is boycotted or causes a storm of controversy it does better in the box office. Producers do not typically cave in to demands or boycotts; they open the movie up in more markets and use the controversy as a promotional tool to sell more tickets. As recently as October the Metropolitan Opera in New York was picketed for its premiere of Death of Klinghoffer, an opera that many said promoted terrorism and anti-Semitism. More than 500 demonstrators protested the opening performance, but the show opened despite the controversy with the Met defending their right to produce art that not everyone will find palatable. They did cancel the live broadcast as a sort of compromise, but the show went on as scheduled. So this is a little different. We have become a more diffident society since 9/11. We react more often in fear than in strength and resolve. If “The Interview” never plays in real theaters we are pretty much guaranteed to have more threats of a similar nature in the future and more voices that will not be heard.
Long before the Sony Pictures hack, long before the threats started, long before any of the controversy over “The Interview”, the previews would come on television and irritate the hell out of me. My partner and I would look at each other ask, “Why would you make a movie about assassinating the living leader of another country?” It’s one thing for Jon Stewart to poke fun at him on T.V., quite another for a major motion picture studio to suggest an assassination plot involving the CIA, even in a comedy. Not even the “South Park” guys–who generally seem to have no filter or fear–went that far in their satire of King Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, in “Team America”. Imagine, if you will, Iraq releasing a comedy about beheading George Bush and Barack Obama for bringing war to their land. There would be immediate calls for retribution and I would bet a fair number of calls for nuking the hell out of them.
Granted, it has historically fallen to artists to reflect the public’s feelings and the American public has been led to believe that Kim Jong-un is an insane despot. I’m sure many in and out of government believe he should be killed. But I’m still not sure you should do that in a movie, regardless of what we think of his country or his leadership. Obviously you have the right because you have freedom of speech, and most Americans will defend that right even when they disagree with the words. But just because you have the right doesn’t mean you should take it that far. There are better ways. Shakespeare skewered the nobility with some of his thinly veiled characters. Other writers have done the same over the years. Typically, though, artists will create characters that look like someone they want to tear apart. If the intent was to lampoon Kim Jong-un it could have been done the way Charlie Chaplin lampooned Adolf Hitler in “The Great Dictator”. He looked and acted like Hitler, though his name was not quite the same, and the political commentary was incisive. But his film did not suggest going to war with Hitler or killing him either. It simply exposed him in a brilliantly comedic way. If the intent of “The Interview” was only to focus on the story of two bumbling Americans who are conned into killing a foreign leader by the CIA it could have been done by creating a fictional foreign leader, even one who bore a close resemblance to the ruler of North Korea if they wanted, and it would have made its point without the depiction of government-sanctioned assassination.
Interestingly nobody is talking or complaining about the fact that the movie is centered around the idea of the CIA ordering the death of a foreign leader, and that is telling in itself. Many decades ago citizens would have been aghast at the suggestion and would not have believed the possibility. Now we are so inured to the idea of our government killing individuals or masses of people and justifying it as national security that it doesn’t even occur to us to think that the concept is wrong in the first place. We accept it as a plot device in a movie, and are okay with it as comedy as well.
Going back to “The Interview” previews the other thing that struck me about them was that not even considering the assassination story it simply did not look like a good movie. Putting it plain and simple: from the previews I have seen the film looks like overacted sophomoric drivel, the kind of film I might have enjoyed (emphasis on might) in 7th or 8th grade. The Wikipedia description of “The Interview” notes that the writers “aimed to make a project more relevant and satirical than their previous films while retaining toilet humor.” Seriously. This is the “art” that freedom of speech defends today. Reviews of the film, even the ones that found the movie entertaining, all mention the barrage of erection and anus jokes. The highlight of the previews was one of the characters with the canister of poison stuck in his ass. I have to admit that as a gay man I tire easily of Seth Rogen’s movies, which in addition to the toilet humor generally contain at least one or two homophobic jokes. Asses and gay guys seem to fascinate him and although Kim Jong-un and James Franco’s characters seem to have a homoerotic relationship the dictator ultimately doesn’t have a butthole, “because he doesn’t need one.”
It seems to me that the real threat to America is not the saber-rattling of the Guardians of Peace, North Korea’s protectors, but the possibility of films like this continuing to be released and defining our culture (or lack thereof). If the best we can offer the world in cinematic political discourse is rehashed anus, penis, and potty jokes then maybe the poison offered to the North Korean dictator in “The Interview” should be offered to us.