The M&M (Written) Report: Censorship and Diplomacy, post-Sony Hack

Interview

Sony Pictures Entertainment announced on Wednesday that they would not be releasing The Interview, the film depicting a fictional assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. The move came in response to threats of terrorism against theaters showing the movie from the group known as Guardians of the Peace. The group stole and released huge amounts of Sony’s internal communications and is believed to be working with the North Korean government in some capacity.

My friend Devin Mitchell invited me to discuss this issue with him. Below, a transcript of our online conversation.

Devin Mitchell: I wanted to discuss this whole affair because I think it’s interesting on a number of different levels. The Sony hack itself has produced so many embarrassing revelations (in addition to questions about whether it’s ethical to even report on them), but the fact that Sony actually gave in and pulled the movie sort of shocked me. I get that it’s a business decision for everyone involved, most notably the theaters who supposedly stood to lose money throughout the holiday season because people would be scared to go to the movies. But still, it’s relatively unprecedented. The only thing it even remotely reminds me of in terms of reactions to culture is the “Innocence of Muslims” video that prompted mass demonstrations across the Middle East in 2012, which depending on your perspective may or may not have included the attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi. It’s clearly struck a chord here in the U.S. The New York Times editorialized on it, Mitt Romney (of all people) tweeted a denunciation of Sony’s decision. What do you think?

Mark Lieberman: You’re right that this Sony hack is a multilayered issue. Up until this week, the most interesting issues for me surrounded the seemingly endless drip of private e-mails that came pouring out of Gawker, and the accusations that came with those e-mails: Amy Pascal is racist! Angelina Jolie is controlling! Michael Fassbender is appealing! David Fincher is a tool! (Okay, we already knew those last two.) I couldn’t look away from these emails, even as I too wondered whether I ought to be reading them at all. I’m not sure there’s one good answer to that question. James Poniewozik of Time argued persuasively that the contents of these e-mails might have been news had they been obtained in a purely legal manner, and that the manner in which the e-mails reach the public matters less than the contents themselves.

On the other hand, I would argue that the extent of this e-mail leak infringes upon the senders’ right to privacy. And Poniewozik ignores the fact that some of these emails stretch the definition of “newsworthy” – for instance, does it really matter that Sony wants to merge the Jump Street and Men in Black franchises, or that the design on their PowerPoints is weak, or that Channing Tatum really knows how to work the copy-and-paste function on his keyboard? I’m not up at night wondering if I compromised my morality by reading these e-mails, but their accessibility in the culture is troubling nonetheless.

But all of that is small potatoes compared to what happened this week. As threats tied to The Interview escalated, theater owners opted not to show the film when it opens. Then Sony pulled the film from the release schedule entirely and announced that they have no immediate plans to release the film through different means, such as video-on-demand. This situation has inspired debates about free speech, politics in media, international relations and homeland security. Where would you like to begin, Devin?

Devin: Well, let’s start with the decision to pull the movie. It does seem like a bad precedent to set and might lead to soft censorship, but at the same time I really have difficulty spending too much time being outraged over a film that looked awful. I also do think it was a bit tacky in the first place to make a stoner comedy about the assassination of an actual foreign leader while he is alive. So I’m torn. What about you?

Mark: Interestingly, it now sounds like we might get to see that movie after all, especially now that President Obama has denounced Sony for pulling the movie without consulting him first. (Some Sony executives have contested that claim.) Nonetheless, the issues still stand. I’m torn as well, but I’m largely on the side that thinks the censorship is enormously troubling. Kim Jong-Un essentially controls our films now – he can decide at any time that one of our movies offends his sensibilities, and Sony deferred to him despite the relative thinness of the hackers’ threats.

I think the bigger problem, though, lies in how Hollywood will respond to this incident, regardless of whether North Korea or other belligerent nations decide to meddle in our art again. By many accounts, The Interview paints a surprisingly affectionate portrait of the dictator in question. But to many sitting in Hollywood boardrooms, the idea of making any movie about a real-life political figure will be off the table immediately for the foreseeable future. That’s a problem. In a way, I wish writer-director team Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg had made a more subversive movie, one that more obviously inflamed a fickle dictator, instead of this blandly attention-grabbing comedy that has the appearance of subversive satire but apparently contents itself with sophomoric humor and the endless appeal of the Rogen-Franco bromance.

Are you concerned that Hollywood will double-down on conservatism as a result of this mystifying situation? And are you hoping that we’ll get an opportunity to see The Interview at some point? Gawker apparently wants to make that happen.

Devin: I wouldn’t go so far as to say Kim controls our films now. This is one studio that poorly secured its information and reacted in a certain way. Additionally, it’s still unclear to what degree the North Korean government was involved in the hack and the threats made.

The structural incentives in Hollywood already produce films that typically avoid or don’t directly challenge controversial subjects. Politics is chief among them, I think. Films like The Interview are not at all what I am most worried about being withheld from the public, but you’re probably right that it will have at least a narrow chilling effect. I almost think there isn’t much farther to fall in this regard, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Mark: That’s certainly the glass-half-empty interpretation, Devin. You’re right that Hollywood isn’t exactly churning out politically subversive fare with any regularity. This incident just takes the industry’s institutionalized political reticence a few steps further.

In conclusion: this situation is bizarre, and still unfolding. Perhaps we’ll revisit it again once the dust settles.

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