I meant to post this the other day, but a few holidays pieces got in the way. It came about when some friends asked me my reaction to Sony deciding not to release the movie The Interview. Most everything I’ve read and seen in the media has been pretty black or white. But like most things, I don’t think it’s a black or white situation.
I certainly think it’s deeply troubling that a movie studio would pull a release because of a threat by someone bothered by the message of the movie. And I wish they hadn't done so, for that reason.
But whenever people say that, they tend to stop the conversation there. And the conversation doesn’t stop there. Because left out is that reports now are that the government believes this wasn’t just a pissed off-hacker group, but the nation of North Korea making the threats. Suddenly -- if this is the case (and it may not be, but speculation would seem to take a second place to agency investigations -- the danger and reality is ratcheted up to a different level.
Yet it’s still giving in to threat. But again, even that’s not the end of the conversation. Because left out further from the discussion is that the five top theater chains had told Sony that they were not going to play the movie in their theaters. Much as one might hate that a movie studio gave into a hacker threat, suddenly it becomes a different situation – because they were as much giving in to a business reality. Their movie didn’t have the theaters to play in. Perhaps they could have found an alternative -- and they still may -- but I suspect it’s hardly that easy in the short term.
(That doesn’t let Sony completely off the hook, since they could release the Movie On Demand, where people could access the film anonymously, and the studio has not said yet they’d do that. But I suspect they will -- or even release the film in theaters eventually. A studio spokesman has suggested as much.)
So, do we then point the finger at Sony -- or at the movie theater chains, since they’re more the ones who were giving in to a threat by hackers.
But that threat was to have their theaters bombed, by people who’d shown themselves very adept at causing major damage. And the risk to the theaters’ customers would appear to be a reasonable concern for any business.
On the other hand, was the threat of bombing a serious one? In today’s day and age, it’s hard to dismiss any such threat. But something like this is significantly different from what we’ve seen in past tragedies. And from all expert discussion I’ve come across says that North Korea isn’t equipped to carry out such a threat. (If it is North Korea. And if not, then hacker groups would seem even less likely.) Experts have noted that unlike terrorist jihadist groups, North Korea isn’t made up of ideologues willing to die for their country. And moreover, they have a long history of making outlandish threats – far, far grander than this – against their enemies, like threatening South Korea to turn the Sea of Japan into an ocean of fire. And never once acting on it.
There’s one other thing left out of this whole conversation, too. And it’s the conversation tends to only look at one end of the controversy. It is indeed deeply troubling that a movie studio would pull a release because of a threat by someone bothered by the message of the movie.
Left out, though, is that it's also deeply troubling that a movie studio would make a film about assassinating another nation’s leader, in the first place. And that the top movie theater chains would readily jump to release it.
None of this is to even remotely minimize the precedent of giving in to threats. (Even if that "giving in" is more what the theater chains did than Sony, which is getting almost all of the criticism.) The mark of liberty is that even the least-deserving must get it. But the point here is to add perspective in its fullness.
Consider, for instance, if the United States got involved in some sort of retribution or, worse, even a war because a couple of mokes walked through Tehran wearing signs that they hated Muslims, while desecrating the Koran and got arrested by the Iranian government and executed. We'd be rightly infuriated by the action, but to be dragged into retaliating against another country because of the idiotic actions of two thoughtless punks would be galling on its own. Even if it was necessary.
I understand why Seth Rogen and others thought this movie was a hoot and even funnier being told this way. But would they or others defending their right find it just as hilarious if another country made a movie about sending in government agents to kill President Barack Obama? Some might -- and that other country would have the right, it's just a movie, especially if a comic satire -- but I'm guessing that most in the U.S. would still be up in arms. What I don't understand as readily, though, is why Sony decided to go ahead and put $40 million into making it that way???
Studios tell filmmakers to change anything and everything all the time, whether or not the suggestion makes a lick of sense. "Change the joke so it's less offensive to dog lovers." "Give the rousing speech on Page 18 that the Army General makes to the troops and have it delivered by our hero" even though he's just a mechanic, and not in the scene. Or in the army. "Change the best friend from a woman to a man." "Update the story from 1574 to present day." "When our hero punches out a guard who's stopping him from getting into the nuclear reactor to stop it from melting down in three minutes, have him wink so the audience knows he's really a nice guy." And Sony decided to just let it slide to let their movie be about killing the leader of a foreign country -- a country that had been placed on our Terrorist Nation List!!!!!
And theater chains thought it was a great idea to show this movie. And open it on Christmas Day!! Did no one think that maybe this idea should be given more thought??
Never mind having the "right" to do it one way or another. Filmmakers always have "the right." That has never, ever, not ever, never never stopped a studio from saying, "Change it. It's a very bad idea. Or we won't give you $40 million."
I'm concerned that Sony were hacked. (How could one not be?) And that they and the theater chains threatened. And also that they caved. But that doesn't mean I can't also be bothered that all this was caused by thoughtless, unnecessary arrogant stupidity. And that it should be part of the conversation to be rounded and proper.
And as highly-bothered as I am that the movie theater chains and Sony caved, I also am able to understand their decisions.
On her show Friday, Rachel Maddow compared this situation to when the Ayatollah Khomeni put a fatwah of death on Salmon Rushdie and threatened publishing house, too, who caved, until pressure by writers and the public pushed them to release the book, The Satanic Verses. But the situations, while overlapping in some ways, are significantly different. First, Sony actually did get really hacked -- it wasn't a mere threat. And second, a movie theater filled with hundreds of people watching a specific movie has a target on it. Random people wandering into a bookstore can be there for any reason, to buy any of a thousand individual titles.
I've seen lots of people, too, comparing this to Charlie Chaplin and Donald Duck and other films from the past making fun of Adolf Hitler. This was never about "making fun" of anyone. It was a movie about trying to kill someone. Oversimplifying and getting your comparisons totally wrong tends to suggest you don't grasp in full the issue you're talking about.
As I said at the beginning, I don't see this as a black or white situation, where the conversation ends there. Some may. Fine, I understand. But I disagree and find that limited thinking.
Ultimately, for all those rightly outraged that a movie studio pulled a movie, I think that much too little outrage is being given to the consideration that this was likely an attack, in many ways, on the United States and its internal business structure, as opposed to merely being just about various companies' actions which were deeply, problematic -- though understandable in part.
Making this a simple, "It was wrong to pull the movie," response is, in the end, just that -- simplistic. It was wrong. But this is a deeply complex situation that is far more involved (and different) than most people are making it.
I wish the movie theater chains first, and then Sony reacting to them didn't back down. I think it's a terrible precedent. Yet I understand why Sony did pull the movie, and that it was the movie chains that helped force that decision. And I understand, too, why Sony chose to make the movie this way. And that they had every right. And that it's just a movie. And a comic satire at that. And we shouldn't let another country dictate what is produced here. And I think it was stupid to make the film that way, and they helped cause the problem that they and we all now face.
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Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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