The problem with freedom of expression is, if it’s going to be meaningful, it has to apply across the board. The same freedom that allows me to read the Bible allow others to read the Quran. The trade-off I must accept for the freedom to write a blog is every Teavangelical blowhard with a keyboard is allowed to fabricate whatever bat-poop crazy thing they want and have Fox News broadcast it as if it were both news and truth. One of the few areas of life where I believe in an unrestricted free market is the marketplace of ideas. One can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater or incite others to commit crimes but, as general rule, censorship is bad. Book burning is bad. Denying people the right to see and hear and read and make up their own minds is bad. It is within that context I watched The Interview.
The Interview is an action-comedy starring James Franco and Seth Rogen, co-written and co-directed by Rogen. The premise is a tabloid television host (Franco) is granted permission to travel to North Korea to broadcast a live interview with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. During the interview, the CIA wants the interviewer to assassinate Kim.
The film attracted much attention in December when its scheduled holiday released was disrupted by cyber attacks and threats of additional cyber attacks against its distributor, their corporate parent, and the cinema chains scheduled to show it. The threats came from a group the FBI believes has ties to the North Korea.
In June 2014, the North Korean government threatened “merciless” action against the United States if the film’s distributor went ahead with the film’s release. The distributor, reportedly, postponed the original October release to December to re-edit the film to make it less offensive to the North Korean government. After several major North American cinema chains canceled screenings, the theatrical release was cancelled by the distributor’s parent company. Instead, they released the film for online rental and purchase on December 24, followed by a limited release at select cinemas on December 25.
This is a movie I would almost certainly never have seen were it not for the controversy. I’m not a Rogen fan. My impression of The Interview from seeing the trailer is it would be juvenile at best, at worst, outright stupid. To be clear, I’m not offended by either juvenile or stupid. It is just not where I spend my entertainment dollar. Still, when I stumbled across it “On Demand” (and for only $2.99) I decided to see what all the hoopla was about. After seeing it in its entirety with an open mind I can offer the fully informed impression that it is juvenile and, at times, stupid. I might be able to overlook both of these if I could add that it was also funny. It’s not. And, at the risk of seeming unpatriotic, I can also understand why the North Koreans would find it offensive.
There is nothing particularly controversial about movies centered on assignation plots. They have been a staple of action films for decades. The fact that The Interview fancies itself a comedy makes it a little more unusual, but still not unheard of. It is not the assassination story line that is offensive. It’s the depiction of Kim Jong-un. At their most politically incorrect and outrageous, the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo are mild compared to this film’s representation of Kim. Should they have resorted to cyber terrorism to keep people from seeing it? Absolutely not. Should they have hoped good taste would keep people away? That would have been optimistic. Should they be offended? Probably. A film depicting this type of caricature of President Obama would offend me.
I firmly believe that people are not entitled to go through life without being offended. It’s another cost of those freedoms I wrote about earlier. We can choose how we spend our money and we can choose how we spend our time but, in the end, unless we live in a cult and stick our heads in the sand, we will all probably encounter things we find offensive.
As for the ‘market’ aspect of the marketplace of ideas, the most recent figures I could find indicate the movie has earned $40 million in digital rentals, making it Sony’s most successful digital release, and over $9 million in domestic box office. And a protest group has announced their intention to airdrop DVDs of The Interview over North Korea from hydrogen balloons.
I wonder if they’ll give me my $2.99 back.