By Emily Deng
Deemed controversial by both film critics and political analysts, “The Interview” has crude humor and a weak plot line that is far from innocuous as the film infamously concludes with the assassination of the Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un. Unlike typical entertainment reviews, “The Interview” sparked accusations and finger pointing from the top leaders of the United States and North Korea, as well as sparked an international debate on the role of free speech.
Seth Rogen and James Franco star as a TV show producer and host who are invited to interview the show’s number one fan – Kim Jong-un. The CIA jumps at the opportunity, and the goofy duo is tasked with the assassination of the Supreme Leader. The film cost $44 million to produce. It earned $1.8 million in theaters and $15 million in online sales, not including 750,000 illegal downloads from its release on Christmas Day. Though the film was expected to earn $20 million, it continues to be the top-selling film on YouTube since its release.
As early as June 2014, the not-yet-released film received negative reactions from the North Korean government. Spokesman Kim Myong-chol dismissed the film as “desperation of the U.S. government and American society,” while the state media announced that the film’s release would be considered “the most blatant act of terrorism and war and will absolutely not be tolerated.” In August, the film’s release date was postponed from October to December 2014.
Sony Pictures Entertainment, the parent company of Columbia Pictures, was attacked on November 24, 2014 by the self-identified group “Guardians of Peace.” Thousands of employees’ personal information such as confidential emails, salaries and social security numbers were leaked. Then, on December 16, the “Guardians of Peace” sent 9/11-like threats:
“Soon all the world will see what an awful movie Sony Pictures Entertainment has made. 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. All the world will denounce the SONY.”
Sony reacted immediately on December 17, canceling promotional events, interviews and the Christmas release of “The Interview.” Several major theater chains dropped the film, similar to the 2012 Aurora shooting during a midnight premier of “The Dark Knight Rises.”
On December 19, 2014, the controversial film and the Sony hack were finally addressed on the political stage. President Barack Obama stated:
“We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States. Because if somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary that they don’t like, or news reports that they don’t like.” He continued by saying, “I wish [Sony] had spoken to me first. I would have told them, do not get into a pattern in which you’re intimidated by these kinds of criminal attacks.”
The President then explicitly accused North Korea for the attack. Sony reconsidered their decision and announced that it would be releasing the film on its original Christmas date in select theaters and online. In response, North Korea denied the accusation on December 22, 2014 and claimed that the American government was behind the film’s production. According to China’s Xinhua News, the internet and 3G in North Korea were shut down for several hours, for which North Korea officially accused the United States.
On December 24, 2014, Obama suggested that the United States was considering adding North Korea to the terror list. The country was removed from the list in 2008, but its re-addition would impose even stricter sanctions on North Korea. The International Business Times claims that such a move could incite military action from North Korea.
Americans’ right to free speech was heavily debated after Sony pulled “The Interview.” LA Weekly claimed that this move was “the end of free speech in Hollywood.” Many people, including Obama, Hollywood celebrities and political analysts, supported the release of “The Interview” to prove that Americans do not back down to terrorism. Though Sony’s decision was made out of cowardice, they corrected their mistake and the film has now drawn viewers beyond the target audience to exercise their rights.
As Americans celebrate their freedom of speech sitting comfortably in a movie theater or their own homes, North Koreans risk their lives for just the chance to see the film. Activist Park Sang-hak partnered with U.S. non-profit Human Rights Foundation to airdrop 100,000 DVDs and USBs by balloon into North Korea. Park believes that with enough exposure to the film, “North Korea will collapse.” North Korea has since threatened to kill Park.
Some North Koreans have risked severe punishment for watching the film. However, although a majority of viewers are anti-government, they still found the film offensive and distasteful, feeling that the film “depicted North Koreans as a bunch of idiots.” A few parts did ring true to North Korean viewers, such as when the leader Kim Jong-un had to answer the question “Why do you let your people starve?” in the interview with James Franco’s character.
Earning a 52 percent out of 100 on Rotten Tomatoes, many would agree that it was not a great movie. However, the film’s incitement of cyber-terrorism and the intense response from North Korea prove “The Interview” can no longer be considered a simple slapstick comedy with a political plot.
It is true that we should not let cyber-terrorists dictate our every move, but it can be said that critical responses to controversial media should also be expected. The controversy over “The Interview” shows that entertainment is becoming less benign and holds greater consequences beyond the screen. As we maintain our free speech in a modern world of space and time compression, future media will face greater repercussions in the larger international context.
Whether we like it or not, “The Interview” is now a symbol of free speech. American audiences sat through the poorly done satire just to prove a point or to see what all the hubbub was about. Meanwhile, Park and other defectors use the film to start chipping away at the wall that is North Korea.
Image by pburka