‘The Interview’ Cancellation Isn’t About ‘Letting The Terrorists Win’

CREDIT: AP/Damian Dovarganes

Remember when the Sony hack was just about high-power executives talking trash, about Channing Tatum’s love of the CAPSLOCK key, about everyone hating Adam Sandler movies? We were all so much younger then.

A new threat from the hackers, who call themselves Guardians of Peace, (U.S. officials determined that North Korea was “centrally involved” in the attack), posted earlier this week, read, in part: “We will clearly show it to you at the very time and places “The Interview” be shown, including the premiere, how bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to… The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time. (If your house is nearby, you’d better leave.) Whatever comes in the coming days is called by the greed of Sony Pictures Entertainment.”

After that, the biggest theater chains in the country announced they would not show The Interview, the Seth Rogen-James Franco buddy-comedy about attempting to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il. And after that, on Wednesday, Sony effectively killed The Interview, cancelling its planned theatrical release. Comcast reportedly won’t offer the movie on-demand “due to its political sensitivity.” The Wall Street Journal described Sony’s decision as “unprecedented in the modern movie business.”

What started out as a conversation about Sony’s recklessness — how executives could possibly be so cavalier in their work emails; how the company, at large, could be so vulnerable to hacking — has morphed into a conversation about terrorism. This has become a narrative about threats to our country, our values, and our lives. (It does appear there will be at least a minimal chilling effect on entertainment; a film starring Steve Carrell, set in North Korea, has already been scrapped.) But the center of all of this isn’t really about terrorism at all. The center of all of this is: Sony got hacked. And that is not news. That is the opposite of news. Because Sony has been getting hacked since 2005.

To go back a few years: by 2011, Sony had been hacked over ten times. Specific Sony strikes include: Sony Pictures, Sony Europe, Sony BMG Greece, Sony Thailand, Sony Music Japan, Sony Ericcson Canada. Though Sony has previously apologized and claimed the initial attack “was a highly professional, criminal cyber attack,” experts at the time essentially said that Sony’s security wasn’t anywhere near secure and that the attack was probably a relatively simple endeavor.

Sony pressed charges against George Hotz, a 20-year-old hacker whose crime against Sony’s PlayStation 3 was to reverse-engineer it so it could run unapproved third-party applications. (Hotz had spent the previous two years unlocking different versions of the iPhone; a YouTube video in which he introduced “the world’s first unlocked iPhone” was viewed almost 2 million times, making him “the most famous hacker in the world.”) In April, Sony and Hotz reached a settlement outside of court, part of which barred Hotz from hacking Sony ever again.

But that same month, PlayStation Network was hacked again, resulting in a huge outage that affected the then-70 million registered users of the network. Sony publicly accused Anonymous of committing the April attack: “We discovered that the intruders had planted a file on one of our Sony Online Entertainment servers named ‘Anonymous’ with the words ‘We are Legion.’” Anonymous denied any involvement in the shutdown, releasing a statement that said “for once, we didn’t do it,” yet still taking the opportunity to declare “Sony is incompetent.”

The best voice on this matter is Peter W. Singer, who is one of the most respected cybersecurity and cyber war experts in the country. He talked about the Sony hack and the reaction to the threats in an interview with Vice:

We need to distinguish between threat and capability—the ability to steal gossipy emails from a not-so-great protected computer network is not the same thing as being able to carry out physical, 9/11-style attacks in 18,000 locations simultaneously. I can’t believe I’m saying this. I can’t believe I have to say this.

This group has not shown the capability to do that. Sony is rueing any association it has with the movie right now. We are not in the realm of 9/11. Did movie chains look at the reality of the threat? Or did the movie theater chains utterly cave in? This is beyond the wildest dreams of these attackers.

In an interview with ABC News yesterday, President Obama said that “for now, my recommendation would be that people go to the movies.” Obama’s encouragement that we go about consuming entertainment as usual sounds a bit like an echo of George Bush’s post-9/11 rallying cry that everyday Americans fight terrorism by “shopping more.”

Is going to the movies really an act of patriotism? It is, I guess, if you think that going to the movies at any time — supporting the arts, freedom of expression, the right to tell stories, etc. — is a patriotic act. Do you have to be courageous to go to the movies? In a post-Aurora world, sure, in the same way you have to be courageous to leave your house. But is this some special, extra-patriotic case? Is The Interview a bold case for free speech in the face of terrorism? Does seeing it, no matter what it takes (and it will probably take piracy) constitute a demonstration of bravery? I am not so sure about that.

It does not seem that spurring a conversation about “letting the terrorists win” was the aim of Seth Rogen and James Franco any more than reviving the case against Bill Cosby was the aim of Hannibal Buress. They are comedians; they wanted to make us laugh. There does not seem to be much evidence suggesting The Interview is a document of valor, nor does that seem to be the intent of its creators.

We are talking about the movie industry. The movie industry has not, as of late, been a bastion of courageous behavior. The movie industry is so afraid of risk, new ideas, and failure that barely anything but sequels, superheroes, and sequels about superheroes ever make it to our screens. Glance at the top box office earners of the year and think if you would characterize that cinematic array as “brave.” There is nothing brave about selling the idea of Captain America to Americans. There is nothing brave about turning bestselling novels into top-grossing films, especially when one is the third installment in a four-part phenomenon. There is nothing brave about turning a fairy tale — one of the oldest, most widely read and reproduced stories in the Western canon — into a film starring one of the biggest movie stars on the face of the Earth. To do all of this may require talent, savvy, intelligence, and market research, but it does not demand any individual involved be valiant.

In the entire history of American film, there have only been two movies to go where The Interview goes by depicting the assassination, or attempted assassination, of a living dictator. There’s Team America: World Police, in which Kim Jong-il was played by a puppet—this seems the more appropriate point of reference for The Interview—and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, a 1940 political satire of Hitler’s rise to power.*

At the time of The Great Dictator‘s release, the United States was still formally at peace with Germany. At the time of The Interview‘s slated release, North Korea had already been condemned by the United Nations for human rights abuses. ” To suggest The Great Dictator and The Interview are equivalent acts of artistic daring is to willfully misunderstand what daring really is.

*In his 1964 autobiography, Chaplin wrote that he regretted pushing forward with his film in the face of widespread reservations, both at home and abroad: “Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator; I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis. However, I was determined to ridicule their mystic bile about a pure-blooded race.”