No Concessions: Cancelling “The Interview”

Written by Film, No Concessions

The tank stops here. Have the terrorists won?

noconcessionsOn paper, The Interview looked–well, maybe not great, but half-decent, a rare attempt by a Hollywood studio at a comedy with satiric bite. Think co-director Seth Rogen and James (“I’m creating as fast as I can”) Franco as a contemporary Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, cast as bumbling newsmagaziners obliged by the CIA to bump off their star interview subject, North Korean “supreme leader” Kim Jong-un.

Early reviews suggested that the results were more stoopid Spies Like Us than edgy Dr. Strangelove. “About as funny as a communist food shortage, and just as protracted,” raved Variety. Not the kind of word to get butts on seats on Christmas Day.

You needn’t worry about The Interview spoiling your holiday, however. As fallout from a still-reverberating hacker attack on the film’s distributor, Sony Pictures, its release has been cancelled, in light of what now appears to be North Korean cyberterrorism. “Remember the 11th of September 2001,” typed the “Guardians of Peace” who are spearheading the campaign. “We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time.”

On the one hand, phew. The stilted grammar is scary enough. And the idea of mass carnage at multiplex cinemas, to rival scenes of commie aggression in, say, the Chuck Norris red scare phantasmagoria Invasion U.S.A., is unsettling–if more than a little hard to believe. As recent history shows, you’re more likely to be killed by a homegrown, gun-toting nutter in a movie theater than in a Red Dawn-style bloodbath pulled off by sleeper cells that hold this regime favorite as the American ideal.

(Let’s think this through, though. Poor reviews and intense competition from the two or three movies not featuring James Franco these days means that the only people showing up to raise hell at The Interview would be the terrorists themselves–presenting Homeland Security with a golden opportunity to throw a net around the troublemakers all in one go and hand them off to Dick Cheney for eggnog and waterboarding. “Don’t worry, fellas–it’s not torture!” you can hear the former veep chuckling maniacally as the restraints are slapped on Kim’s squealing minions. “Where’s your Dennis Rodman now, ha ha!”)

Sad to say that averting that unlikely scenario is about the only good news to be had from an epic Tinseltown scandal that seems to have reached the third act, if not the closing credits. I could create links all night to this or that revelation released from Sony’s all-too-easily-hacked email system, but I dare not offend bloviator-in-chief Aaron Sorkin, whose Steve Jobs biopic was one of many projects raked over the coals by embattled Sony Pictures honcho Amy Pascal and hotheaded producer Scott Rudin, with assorted minions, ass kissers, and the likes of Angelina Jolie and James Bond making walk-on appearances. As Edward Snowden no doubt weeps in Russia and looks in vain for some salacious movie star dish to refocus the international conversation on his trove of documents, Sorkin and other Guardians of Media say we should just move on, stop being Gossip Gerties, and turn a blind eye toward the casual racism, sexism, ridonculous perks (the two Interview stars were paid thousands to drive themselves to the set), and other questionable practices and conduct that Kim’s hackers exposed with a few keystrokes. I’m not condoning threats to Sony personnel, mind you–yet a story is a story, and the stories behind and around The Interview (what a dreadful title, right down there with The Internship in getting our pulses to race) shed light on recesses and excesses of Hollywood mores far better than the usual run of “legitimate” pieces, which we now know extend to the Gray Lady and one of its graying superstars. Thanks, Kim!–and, Aaron, darling, while I tune out on most of your originals after two eps or so, I love your adaptations, so let’s do lunch the next time you’re in town!

UnknownAhem. Putting my think piece cap back on after a bit of a rant, no, thanks, Kim. Your late father, Kim Jong-il, took his ribbing in Team America: World Police ten years ago in stride, and Hitler was too busy waging war to care what Charlie Chaplin was doing to him in The Great Dictator and the Three Stooges were doing to him in their shorts (their short films, I mean; a little Rogen-level humor for ya). Being the bad guy in an American comedy is kind of a cool thing, bro; we’ve forgotten Taylor Swift’s latest hit but we’re still crooning  “I’m Ronery,” big Kim’s Team America solo, all this time later. I know this cyberbullying is all bound up in your thing about you, us, and Sony’s homeland of Japan–but it’s doing you no favors. You’ve played your hand deftly, and got what I think you wanted, so leave us imperialist running dogs (err, wrong country?) alone to yap and bray and see Unbroken at Christmas (hmm, do I detect the vengeful hand of Jolie in all this)?

Why did we allow Kim, the kind of isolated paranoiac who has tasters for his food, get the better of us? Simple: Since 9/11 we’ve gone from a nation of “can do” to “what if?” “Yes, it’s terrible for freedom of expression that we can’t see The Interview in theaters–but what if North Korea attacked our movie theaters?” A quarter-century after the Cold War ended we still see reds–and ISIS, and Al Qaeda, and North Koreans–in our beds. Irrational fear over The Interview is the new Ebola, with that epidemic, undeniably awful in parts of Africa, halted somewhere around 1st Avenue in Manhattan here.

(Speaking of fears, on the day several of our corporate citizens kowtowed to North Korea, an audaciously hopeful President Obama make a critical announcement–relations with the Great Satan of the Caribbean, Cuba, will be normalized, exorcising another ghost in our national psyche. It won’t be easy–but let’s not pull an Interview and deep six progress with another problem country.)

What, then, of The Interview? It was suggested that it go out on video on demand*, away from Kim’s peeping Toms and the storehouses of armaments he and his foot soldiers have at the ready should the damn thing dare unspool in an American theater. (Is it OK if it plays in Chilean theaters? Finnish theaters? Can we see it on the big screen in Canada?) VOD is its perfect home–and one that Hollywood and the wired public are moving toward anyway, away from all that tedious theatrical infrastructure and the bad popcorn.

*As I was writing this, Sony announced that VOD and home video were not options for the film. I suspect it will resurface in some form, and the torrents are likely working overtime on illegal downloads as I type. Too late to save face, however; the damage has been done. In the bigger picture beyond Sony Pictures, however, I can’t get too exercised about freedom of speech regarding Hollywood. With an excess of expensive franchise filmmaking, the studios have largely called off movies with risk-taking subject matter; Oscar bio-bait about British scientists, alive (The Theory of Everything) or dead (The Imitation Game), isn’t exactly stirring the pot, or our souls. As Mark Harris notes in his latest Grantland piece, many of the more challenging films that the majors distribute are there because of the largess of an individual billionaire, Megan Ellison. Mindful of the world market, the studios live in a bubble of limited artistic expression of their own making, not Kim Jong-un’s.

It’s troubling that a studio was taken down in this way, and it’s troubling that the movie that caused the ruckus has been torpedoed  by the studio. It should also be troubling that a dum-dum comedy about North Korea is the ballsiest movie a studio will greenlight today.