By Will Simpson
Recently my social media feeds have been awash in criticism aimed at Sony Pictures. Friends and peers have plenty of vitriol for Sony for canceling the release of the Rogen/Franco film "The Interview," accusing the company of“caving in to North Korea” or “being weak” for aborting the opening.
There are plenty of reasons to be frustrated with Sony, but not for pulling the plug on the film. Instead of asking if the "threat" to audiences was real enough to pull the much-hyped film at the last minute, we should wonder how that picture was ever green-lit in the first place. Maybe it has something to do with Japan’s history of animosity with North Korea -- but I cannot, for the life of me, imagine why Sony would agree to make this film. What if the writers had instead proposed a comical, gore-splattered assassination of Putin? That never would have made it out of the pitch room.
It would be pretty interesting to hear the Sony execs’ rationale for budgeting millions for this ill-fated venture. What other film has ever been made depicting the assassination of a sitting ruler of a major foreign power, let alone an overtly hostile nation (however wrapped in "humor" it might have been)? Would we have made a film about assassinating Khrushchev during the Cold War, or a bloody comedy about blowing up Khomeini in 1980? We’re not even making action films about raids on Syria's Assad just yet.
When I consider “The Interview,” the Jyllands-Posten incident of 2005 comes immediately to mind. A Danish cartoonist portrayed Allah, something that is expressly forbidden by Islam, resulting in widespread protest and threats of terrorism. Flemming Rose (the editor of the Danish publication) knew that it was a dangerous issue, having already received objections from a number of his staff illustrators, and yet he went ahead in the name of freedom of expression.
The New York Times says more than 200 people died in riots as a result of the cartoon's appearance. This raises an interesting question regarding self-expression as it pertains to this recent Sony gaffe: Just because you can, does it mean that you should? What did Sony and the creators of this film have to gain, other than a few paltry millions at the box office? Did they imagine themselves to be making some bold international claim to freedom of expression by depicting the brutal murder of a sitting foreign leader (apparently he blows up in gory slow-motion)?
We also haven’t even begun to consider the issue of the global opinion of American foreign policy in the post-9/11 world and how this film plays into that. American military cells are conducting covert operations on multiple continents, firing missiles from drones and sending black ops teams in to kill all manner of suspected terrorists. Our foreign policy has for years now been considered a sort of strong-armed neo-imperialism, and while it’s humorous to imagine hiring a “GMA” host as a CIA assassin, some other countries might not find that such a funny -- or farfetched -- concept. Remember that a terrorist posing as a journalist once killed a high-ranking Afghani official. In essence, this film is a ready-made propaganda tool for anti-American groups.
Look, I’m not saying that it’s reasonable for foreign nations to go up in arms over fictional plot lines (because if that were the case, Russia already would have invaded over all those James Bond films), but “The Interview”clearly crosses a line of decency and common sense. No matter how much the slapstick might have earned Sony at the box office, no amount of profit can excuse the depiction of the assassination of a sitting leader of a foreign nation.
Freedom of expression is a valuable tenet of American democracy, but it doesn’t account for good taste.