Yesterday was abuzz with twittering about The Interview. The film—once upcoming but now not so much—is a movie starring Seth Rogen and James Franco where they play two journalists recruited by the American government to assassinate Kim Jong-un after managing to book a rare interview with the North Korean leader. It features a rather gruesome death scene.
Or it used to feature. Or it used to be a movie. I don’t really know. Following a sternly worded threat regarding moviegoer safety should The Interview release, theater chains began to pull out until Sony cancelled the film altogether. But who’s to say it won’t get digital distribution?
So it might still be a movie. And with all this buzz, there’s no way people won’t flock to their computers and PlayStations to watch this, making the digital route a viable path to recouping the $44 million budget. It doesn’t seem like a terrible turn after a stark reminder of 9/11 and a claim that “the world will be full of fear.”
You might be asking yourself at this point why this is happening. And where that footage of an unreleased and technically nonexistent movie came from. If you recall from November 24 of this year, Sony was hacked and subsequently blackmailed by a group calling itself Guardians of Peace. Shortly after, things started to go online.
This includes sensitive corporate emails, planned film projects, and even nefarious schemes against Google. And journalists disseminated the information, which really riled up Aaron Sorkin, which then riled up journalists. (For the record—and rather predictably—I side with journalism, but not just because that’s what I do.)
Where does this all tie together? Well, signs point to North Korea having been the culprit behind the hack. Some of it is circumstantial, and other is pretty damning, but both are appropriately illegitimate when in the realm of easy targets like Sony. There’s a lot of passive aggressive tiptoeing happening from both the investigative and the defending sides.
Let’s start off by saying the decision to cancel the movie’s release is not a bad one. Under massive threat (unsubstantiated, says the government while the LAPD says otherwise), it’s not a terrible idea nor an un-American one when “free market companies make decisions out of fear for their patrons,” as Mike Neumann put it.
That doesn’t mean, however, that it doesn’t set a precedent where unproven threats are enough to censor artistic freedom. The next time a theater gets a threat over a movie release, does that mean it will then once again pull out from the distribution? At some point, does someone stand up and accept the consequences if they do come blowing down the doors? That almost certainly is the only way break away from the chain now.
A lingering question, though, is why North Korea cares about this movie at all. Sure it features the death (and the plotting leading up to it) of a country’s current leader, but it also seems, for the most part, harmless. In the trailer released for The Interview on the same day as the hack, Jong-un actually seems pretty chill in this particular depiction. Rogen clearly makes him a villain, but he still manages to win over Franco’s character and gives a puppy to cuddle.
And sure the death scene is graphic, but it mostly fits into the same vein of humor that Rogen and Franco have jointly produced in the past anyways. So it still lingers: why does North Korea care? It’s something called a “soft war,” a war with media and entertainment and propaganda that systematically dismantles the philosophical and cultural fibers of another country. Brian Crecente over at Polygon documents the issue rather well.
So now we have a (once again) hacked Sony with leaked corporate documents, social security numbers, and credit card information. We also have a confusing pile of proof that North Korea financially backed this bit of cyber warfare. And then there’s the fact that we won’t have another buddy comedy from Rogen and Franco (jury is still out on the pros and cons of that one). Where does that leave us?
That leaves us precisely where it sounds like: paranoia in our cyber and physical security; international espionage possibly masquerading as corporate espionage; and Sony at least $44 million in the hole, if not more after the deals broken and confidence lost in the leaked documents. And now we have precedence.
Not of just actively but hostilely countering so-called “soft war” tactics. (Iran just made a video game of their own, but I guess that’s not good enough anymore.) There is a precedent being set for where the value of freedom of expression is set below yet another thing. No one could possibly come out ahead in this one.