Sunday, December 21, 2014

Kim Jong-Unimpressed

I've been following the North Korea/Sony Pictures hacking from a distance.  I'm interested partly because computer security is professionally important to me.  Not that my servers are likely to be targets of high-level, high-profile attacks, of course--but incidents like these show why things like strong passwords and security measures are important, which makes it easier to convince my clients of that.

But mostly this has been interesting because of the hackers' release of inside emails.  I'm a big fan of the Jeopardy! game show, so seeing that Alex Trebek wasn't happy about having to retape the end of a Kids Week episode because he made one of the contestants cry and run off stage with an insensitive comment--that was hilarious.1

1 Trebek is notably ham-handed, often cruel, in his contestant interviews and other comments through the game.  In fact, he's one of the ruder Canadians I've ever seen, or at least he comes across that way.

Of course, what seemed like a pleasant game got a bit more serious when the hackers began to threaten attacks on theaters that dared to show The Interview.  That's not something to mess around with, particularly in view of a fairly recent mass shooting at a movie theater.2

2 I'm referring, of course, to the July 20, 2012, shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., carried out by James Eagan Holmes.  Holmes is scheduled to go to trial in January in a case in which he offered to plead guilty to avoid the death penalty; the prosecutors declined the offer.

I think we can all agree that the North Koreans could stand to grow thicker skin.  This is not the first time a film has portrayed them in the crazy light they choose to throw on themselves, and it will almost certainly not be the last.  And I think we can all agree that threatening terror attacks on movie theaters isn't acceptable under any circumstances.

It was weak-willed of Sony to pull the picture from distribution, but I doubt very much this was an expression of fear so much as it was a calculated move to save money.  With none of the five major theater chains agreeing to screen the film, Sony would be left with the independent theater market (many of which would likely refuse to show the film as well) and direct-to-video option.  But Sony carries insurance on its major productions.  If the film is a total loss, Sony can file a claim.  If Sony simply has trouble selling the film in distribution, that's not a covered loss, and Sony gets nothing.

I support the right of these filmmakers to make whatever film they want.  There have certainly been films and other media about fictional assassination attempts on actual leaders.  One that comes to mind is "The Day of the Jackal," a brilliant 1973 film about an attempt on the life of Charles de Gaulle (based on an equally brilliant 1971 novel by Frederick Forsythe).  Of course, de Gaulle survives the attempt in the story, and there were elements of an actual attempt on de Gaulle's life that were adapted into the otherwise fictional story.

I wonder, however, whether The Interview isn't just a bit too much on the nose.  What would we think about a foreign film that depicts the grisly assassination of the actual American President?  While I'm certain there would be a small teabagging segment of our population that would cheer on such a film, it might well provoke outrage, and maybe even condemnation from our government.

For that reason, films that deal with the fictional assassination of a world leader usually fictionalize the leader as well.  Would The Interview have been a less funny, or less compelling, or less marketable film if the target of the assassination attempt were a different, fictional leader of North Korea?  I don't know.  I haven't even seen the film as it was made.  Maybe it's central to the film that it's Kim Jong-Un and not some other Kim who gets offed in the end.  Or maybe the North Koreans would be just as upset.  Maybe my raising this question is just an instance of victim-blaming.

My point, I suppose, is that it doesn't hurt to talk about these things, just as it doesn't hurt to expose even dangerous ideas to the marketplace.  As longtime readers know, I'm a big fan of Louis Brandeis, who told us famously that sunlight is the best disinfectant.3

3 Brandeis wrote that well after the introduction of Lysol, so I feel confident that he didn't mean it literally.

Moreover, this project had to get multiple green lights at Sony, from people who presumably were aware of the storyline, even if they hadn't read the script.  If you're going to make that decision, then you should have the courage to own it even when there's a stiff wind in your face.  So color me unimpressed by Sony's capitulation.  If North Korea can't take it, that's on them.  Beef up security, target a proportional response, whatever--but release the film and take your lumps.  North Korean censors don't get a say in what gets shown in American movie houses.

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