Let me preface this entire post by saying I love movies and other forms of creative expression – why would I have gone to film school otherwise? – and I’m a huge proponent of freedom of expression and out-of-the-box storylines that get us to think differently about the world. In addition, I, as anyone in their right mind should, find North Korea’s authoritarian policies, abuse of its citizens, kidnapping and detainment of foreign nationals, and myriad of other atrocities to be absolutely appalling. Furthermore, if the FBI’s allegations are true, the infiltration and exposure of a private corporation’s computer systems and data by North Korea’s state-sponsored group is absolutely unacceptable, and I would react with similar disdain toward any retaliatory actions committed by North Korea in response to any future release of The Interview. I also greatly respect Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, and James Franco as artists, and 50/50 and 127 Hours rank high in my list of favorite movies. And finally, it’s worth mentioning that I was born in Seoul, South Korea and raised Korean-American, and I’d like to believe my upbringing makes me a bit more more attuned to the emotional atmosphere of the Korean peninsula than the layman.
Ultimately, this controversy over The Interview isn’t about censorship, North Korea, or Seth Rogen and James Franco. No, it’s about freedom of expression and a concept Dr. Ian Malcolm of Jurassic Park encapsulates so well, the idea of being “so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Obviously, the “they”s of this situation could make it, and they did, and there’s zero doubt they could release it – after all, all of that is what makes America, freedom of speech, and artistic expression so f**king awesome.
But what about the should?
The idea for this blog post came up after I read Ann Hornaday’s article in the Washington Post titled “Sony, ‘The Interview’, and the unspoken truth: All movies are political.” The beginning of the article discusses a panel at Rand called “How Hollywood Affects Global Policy”. According to the article, Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton was present at the panel, and when asked about the “legal and moral obligations to living subjects, [Lynton responded] that ‘where you get sued typically draws the line.’”
So, as long as there’s no direct repercussions to you, you’re free to do whatever you want without a thought about whether you should be doing what you’re doing given the effect it’ll have on others? This sort of thoughtless moral brinksmanship – a sort of Hey, let’s see how far we can push what we want until someone with the capability to do us legal, monetary, or reputational harm calls us out for going too far – seems unfortunately too common today. There’s less and less voluntary moral pondering about how pushing for our own ideal outcome to the limits might affect others; people only care about the latter if someone speaks out or forces their hand to make them care, and that someone damn well better be someone they feel obliged to listen to for financial, legal, or reputational reasons, because otherwise, why should they listen?
Setting aside the repeatedly discussed moral conundrum about depicting the assassination of a sitting political figure, the “others” to think about that many overlook in the debate over The Interview is the countries entwined in the fragile political situation around the Korean peninsula, a region that is technically still in the middle of a war and contains two neighboring countries whose armies still exchange fire on a regular basis to this day. The US understandably didn’t block production of The Interview despite requests from the North Korean representative to the United Nations and other North Korean officials, and being an American movie, South Korea wasn’t likely to speak out about the film either. At least Japan, even if at a corporate and cultural level than an official state level, spoke out, with the head of Sony, Kazuo Hirai, not going so far as to nix the film, but requesting that particularly graphic portions of the movie depicting Kim Jong Un’s death be toned down and that a section of the script depicting the protagonists’ entry into North Korea through China be rewritten – a move made doubly notable by the fact that it was the first intervention by Sony HQ in Sony Pictures Entertainment business in 25 years.
So Kim Jong Un and his minions couldn’t (or is it wouldn’t?) exactly sue Sony – which brings up the interesting moral question of If a person doesn’t have the means to sue them or make them look bad, can a studio depict said individual however they want? – and none of the other countries in the Korean peninsula region aggressively stepped up to block the production of the movie. But does that excuse the tunnel-visioned, borderline jingoistic insensitivity toward the regional politics that seems to be prevalent among those affiliated with the movie and calling for its release? According to The New York Times, in the middle of discussions about revising the script to make it less inflammatory toward North Koreans, Rogen said in an email to Amy Pascal, chairman of the Motion Pictures Group at Sony Pictures Entertainment, “’This is now a story of Americans changing their movie to make North Koreans happy,’ he wrote. ‘That is a very damning story.'” Has Seth Rogen forgotten that as one of Hollywood’s prominent figures, he is a cultural ambassador for the United States to the rest of the world and that there are more factors at play with a movie about a topic like this? Furthermore, for Korean speakers, the text in the promotional poster for The Interview can be a little off-putting. The missiles behind the figures of Rogen and Franco are all emblazoned with the text “War is imminent”, a distressing sentence to read for anyone with a more direct awareness of the situation on the Korean peninsula. All the while, George Clooney, too, fails the recognize that the issue at hand is more than just the suppression of expression and being “told we can’t see something by Kim Jong-un, of all f*cking people.”
What would happen if millions of Americans and people around the world saw the movie? They would start laughing about not only the assassination of Kim Jong Un but the state of North Korea as whole, when in reality, as Adrian Hong aptly put it in The Atlantic, North Korea is Not Funny. People would start being naively optimistic about the ease of ending North Korea’s oppressive regime and transitioning into a peaceful one – which reports suggest was the ending of the film – when, in reality, the power vacuum created by Kim’s death would result in a far more complicated situation than many people whose country North Korea’s test missiles don’t fly over, whose capital isn’t a half hour drive from North Korea, and whose key government buildings North Korean artillery isn’t zeroed in on would care to admit. In reality, such a situation would make the odds of a China-US conflict skyrocket, with a very real possibility of China jumping into action driven by the horror of bordering a US ally, as South Korea, presumably backed by the US, moves to reclaim its ancestral lands and to reunite its people after over a half century of separation.
The most common defense for the creation and release of the The Interview is that it’s “just a movie,” a comedy by two stoners that no one will take seriously. Even ignoring the reverse argument of, “Yeah, it’s just a movie by two stoners, do we really want to risk destabilizing a part of the world for that?”: No, it’s not “just a movie.” Movies can and do shape public opinion and people’s views on the world. This is especially true for American movies, whose Hollywood powerhouse cultural engine pushes them to millions across the globe, far beyond the reach of movies of any other origin. The most damning evidence against the “just a movie” defense is that, according to Hornaday’s article, Sony executives knew about the political implications of The Interview, discussed it with the US State Department, and still chose to make it.
I'm a fan of S Korea movies & many of them r VERY tough on N Korea. They were all released,no incidents. How can I believe in Sony version?
— Paulo Coelho (@paulocoelho) December 19, 2014
Another interesting argument brought up by Paulo Coelho, the author of The Alchemist, is that plenty of South Korean movies feature North Koreans as the antagonist and no one cares, so why do people care so much about The Interview? Well, for one, South Korea does ban and has banned works it thinks will ruffle the feathers of the North, two items that come to mind immediately being the Red Storm/Ubisoft game Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon 2 and the Pandemic/Lucasarts game Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction, both of which feature violent American military operations in North Korean territory and against North Koreans. For two, it’s another for a movie to be made by those who live with and are aware of the political atmosphere of the region, and entirely another for the movie to be made by foreigners who seem to value their freedom of expression over paying heed to the sensitive politics of the region. In a way, it’s the difference between you calling your brother dumb and some other person calling your brother dumb or you lamenting about the negative aspects of your hometown versus other people mocking your hometown, especially given that historically, Koreans have thought of themselves as a single Korean people and there are many Koreans still fighting for reunification. And for three, South Korean movies do not have an influence or market remotely approaching the aforementioned influence of Hollywood movies, and therefore do not have nearly as much ability to shape global discourse.
The creation and release of The Interview in some ways Hollywood recklessly gambling with the stability of the Korean peninsula region all for the sake of freedom of expression and profit, knowing that in Los Angeles, it is far removed from any immediate consequence that may result from North Korea’s reaction to the film. Freedom of expression is a human right critical for progress, it enables us to do, feel, and say what we want and innovate and achieve greatness, but for the same reason that we aren’t allowed to shout “FIRE!” in a crowded theater or say that you have Ebola on a crowded plane, we must keep in mind that abuse of this freedom can carry a risk of harm if not for ourselves, for others. Is a single movie – that even proponents will say is “just a James Franco/Seth Rogen comedy” – worth risking destabilizing a fragile part of the world and maybe even worse? Perhaps, and many would even say probably, if The Interview were to be released, nothing would ultimately come of it and North Korea wouldn’t do anything. But is that really a chance we want to take, and what kind of precedent does that set?
Stories are inherently a powerful form of persuasion, in my opinion one of the most basic forms of “inception” as popularized by Chris Nolan. Movies, with the visual and aural stimuli, serve to amplify this persuasive effect, and the Hollywood engine spreads the American cinematic influence around the world. American movies are wonderful, and there’s no doubt as to the amount of positive influence they’ve had on the world and the number of lives they’ve changed, including my own. But as with anything else that exerts such influence, it’s important to not be belligerent – especially with real political figures – to think about not only the could but the should since our actions affect those elsewhere, and to remember:
With great power, comes great responsibility.