For the first time anyone can remember, threats apparently coming from a foreign nation have successfully kept an American film from being shown on American soil.
On Wednesday, Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. canceled the Christmas Day release of "The Interview," a comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco as American journalists who decide to assassinate the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. North Korea had called the film an "act of war" and hackers professing loyalty to the regime had crippled Sony's computer system as a warning. Bomb threats from the hackers followed, malls raised concerns that nervous shoppers might stay away from multiplexes and several major theater chains announced that they would not show the movie on Christmas. Sony, seeing few options, finally withdrew "The Interview."
In short, it feels a little as though a country that prides itself on free expression and independence wound up kowtowing to the demands of a dictatorship. North Korea made threats, and Americans backed down.
How did two actors best known for stoner comedies like "Pineapple Express" end up humiliating themselves, a major entertainment conglomerate and our country? The general answer is through arrogance, ignorance and insensitivity, but it might be helpful to look at specifics. Here are five lessons we learned from the debacle of "The Interview."
North Korea has no sense of humor.
Or if it does, we don't know what it is. The regime's inability to take or even recognize a joke has been clear at least since 2012, when authorities proudly waved around an American publication proclaiming Kim the "sexiest man alive." That publication turned out to be The Onion, a spoof newspaper responsible for headlines like "Drugs Win Drug War." This rather embarrassing misunderstanding seems a clear indication that Kim Jong Un is not the kind of leader who would chuckle at an American comedy about his own death.
Threats are like shots nowadays
"You know what hurts worse than nuclear bombs, Dave? Words." That's a direct quote from the movie, spoken by Kim Jong Un (Randall Park) to talk-show host Dave Skylark (Franco), and it turned out to be true. Nobody can say whether a North Korean nuclear airstrike could actually reach our shores, a fact that may have lulled the filmmakers into thinking they were untouchable, but nukes turned out to be unnecessary.
These days, all it takes is a terrorist threat to freak out a jittery American public. The hackers knew just how to hit us, invading our personal cyberspace, invoking 9/11 and using the kind of poor English ("We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places") that makes such threats sound convincing. Success -- and not a single shot fired.
Seth Rogen and James Franco are not America's sweethearts.
Imagine if Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Oprah Winfrey or George Clooney had made an edgy comedy that drew the wrath of an insane dictatorship. It's possible that every threat, demand and even cyber-attack would have raised the public's patriotic ire: Nobody tells our movie stars what to do! The truth is, neither Rogen nor Franco has established the kind of profile that could rally the public to stand behind them. There's a chance (even if a slim one) that we might stand up for freedom and risk a bomb threat for Oprah. For the guy who made "Superbad"? No way.
There is such a thing as bad publicity.
There's also such a thing as tone-deafness. Initially, North Korea's bellicosity and indignation seemed kind of amusing. Eventually, though, it became clear that North Korea was genuinely upset. Still, even after the country promised a "merciless response," Rogen heard that Kim Jong Un might see the movie and tweeted "I hope he likes it!" That’s an odd thing to say given that “The Interview” ends with Kim’s head exploding in a ball of flame -- a scene so graphic that the filmmakers were asked by the chief executive of the parent company of Sony Pictures to tone down the gore, which they did.
By the time "The Interview" was pulled, Rogen and Franco had canceled their media appearances to promote the film.
Political satire isn't easy.
Good political comedies, even offensive ones, try to aim high. Sacha Baron Cohen's "The Dictator" didn't mock a particular person; it took aim at dictator-ness in general. "Team America: World Police" savaged Kim Jong Un's dad, but in such an absurd fashion (he turned out to be a space alien) that it was probably hard anyone to get too irate. What's more, satire works best when it puts forth a worthy ideal like, say, honesty in politics ("Bulworth"), morality in the media ("Network") or even something as simple as "make love not war" ("Bananas").
One problem with "The Interview" is that it says nothing insightful or high-minded. It's just a lowbrow comedy that laughs at the death of a real head of state. This might be one reason why the filmmakers' freedom of speech ultimately didn't seem worth defending: They didn't have anything to say.
Rafer Guzman is film critic for Newsday.