As they say on the internet, quoting an Anchorman: Well, that escalated quickly. The Sony hack story, in just a few weeks, went from a bemusing diversion — at least for those of us whose personal info wasn’t spilled all over the internet — about what Sony employees think about Adam Sandler movies to an unprecedented corporate fiasco to an Alamo-like last stand to protect Freedom of Expression, in which the Alamo got torched to the ground and American freedom is now dead (1776–2014, RIP). Yesterday Sony decided to disappear The Interview — not apologize for it, not delay it, not bury it on VOD, but actually more or less pretend that it never happened and doesn’t exist and what is this Interview of which you speak?
Naturally, the notion that anonymous hackers can force a major corporation not only to recall but essentially recant a movie is, to put it mildly, unnerving. As to the threat of actual violence in actual theaters, cybersecurity expert Peter Singer put it this way to Vice: “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.” He also inconveniently reminds us that words like hacking invoke an outsize, irrational fear; after all, he says, “Someone killed 12 people and shot another 70 people at the opening night” of The Dark Knight Rises, and “they kept that movie in the theaters.”
Meanwhile, Aaron Sorkin didn’t need to point a finger of blame at his favorite villain, the media, since his finger’s been pointed in that direction for years. “The wishes of the terrorists were fulfilled in part by easily distracted members of the American press who chose gossip and schadenfreude-fueled reporting over a story with immeasurable consequences for the public,” he said in a released statement. It’s a little weird that Aaron Sorkin felt he had to release a statement about all this, as if the world were paralyzed, wondering, BUT WHAT DOES AARON SORKIN THINK? It’s also a little unclear how Sorkin wishes, in hindsight, the media would have handled the affair, given only days ago he wrote an op-ed chastising the media for publishing any details of the stolen Sony documents. It’s unfortunate that his TV show The Newsroom just ended, since that whole show was predicated on telling us, in detail, how Sorkin wishes in hindsight the media had handled everything.
Really, though, underneath all this not entirely unwarranted hand-wringing about bedrock American values, there’s a strong sense of someone sitting on the back of a large corporation and twisting its arm until the large corporation cries uncle. This, too, is frightening, sort of, but it should tell us that large corporations like Sony need to get their cybershit together, not that the Constitution’s in tatters and the terrorists have really, finally won. The fact that Sony chose not to release the film at all — not to VOD, DVD, VHS, or traveling hand-puppet reenactments — suggests that the calculus was less “How do we protect moviegoers while also standing up for free expression and artistic integrity” and more “Please, oh mighty lord in heaven, just make this go away.” Simply put, at a certain point — given the accumulated damage in industry relationships, in corporate practices revealed, in class-action lawsuits from its own employees, in potential liability nightmares — The Interview was no longer the hill that Sony wanted to die on.
We’ll all just have to wait and see what this means for Sony, or future cyberattacks, or Aaron Sorkin’s waning faith in American ideals. What seems clear right now, however, is that this is most certainly the death knell for the kinds of comedies in which real-life foreign dictators come to a fiery end and/or turn out to be alien cockroaches. This may seem like a tiny niche but, in fact, it’s been a robust genre for quite awhile. It was heartening to learn that Alamo Drafthouse will be screening Team America, which features a demented-puppet version of Kim Jong-il, in place of the canceled The Interview. You may recall the South Park guys also gave us Saddam Hussein waving a dildo at Satan in an entirely different movie way back in 1999 — and you might have thought, at that point, there was really nowhere to go with the Degredation of a Real-Life Foreign Dictator gag.
From what we know about The Interview, it certainly seems more in the spirit of Team America than of, say, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, the other oft-cited point of comparison, or even this episode of The Three Stooges titled “I’ll Never Heil Again.” The Great Dictator is a satire of the curdled mindset that can produce a figure like Hitler. Team America is a satire, really, of America, whose creators incidentally realized (correctly) that it’s funnier and edgier to watch a puppet of a real dictator than a made-up one, in the same way it’s funnier to make fun of “Matt Damon” than “Max Diamond.” It’s seems doubtful that the goal of The Interview was to illuminate what drives Kim Jong-un or to dissect the society that created him. More likely, there was, in the development of The Interview, at least one conversation in which someone asked Seth Rogen and James Franco, “Why does it have to be the real guy?” and they said, “Because it’s funnier!” In fact, Rogen recently recounted just such a conversation: “There was a moment where they were like: ‘They’ve threatened war over the movie. You kill him [Kim Jong-un]. Would you consider not killing him?’ And we were like, ‘Nope.’” This kind of edginess — the kind that puts Saddam Hussein in bed with Satan — is actually the safest kind because, really, what are the possible repercussions? Or, at least, that’s the way it used to be.
So if you’re worried about anything disappearing, worry about that — the desire to push something just a little farther for the sake of being funnier. Because there is absolutely no way that anyone anytime soon will get through the door of anywhere with anything resembling a script about a real-life figure who has the capacity to inflict the kind of damage that these hackers inflicted on Sony, or forced Sony to inflict on itself. The argument, “Because it’s funnier!” is just not going to carry much weight anymore, especially now that people can invoke this Sony fiasco as a counter-argument. Freedom of expression will no doubt endure, greater battles than this will be won, firewalls will hopefully be secured, and corporate emails will likely get a lot less freewheeling. But Saddam Hussein has waved his last dildo in Satan’s face.