These past weeks, the Sony hacking scandal—the single weirdest movie news item of my lifetime, and that’s counting the time WB hired Jesse Eisenberg to play Lex Luthor—evolved from a mere social embarrassment for the studio, to a damper on their bottom line, to a serious threat to the safety of both their employees and their audiences. The Guardians of Peace escalated matters swiftly, first leaking unreleased films (like last week’s Annie), then revealing personnel salaries, then exposing email exchanges ranging from awkward to damning to hilarious (A Men in Black/21 Jump Street mash-up? Wacky!).
But there’s cyber terror, and then there’s real world terror—or maybe that distinction doesn’t hold up anymore. Because everyone knows where the fiasco wound up: with last Wednesday’s menacing invocation of the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center that left Sony between a rock and a hard place (or, perhaps, a commercial bomb and an actual bomb). Over a decade ago, Americans learned (and, frankly, are still learning) how to live in a post-9/11 world where we may be so afraid to fly that we’re happy to give up some of our civil liberties. Now, it’s becoming more and more of a possibility that we must conform to a world in which watching a movie could be as fraught with anxiety as hopping on a plane.
Yesterday, a new wrinkle in the saga: Sony plans on giving The Interview its day at the cinema after all, with a limited theatrical release and a VOD / YouTube roll-out on Christmas. (If you feel as though you’re caught on a merry-go-round, you’re not alone.)
Describing the entire progression of events as “unprecedented” feels correct. It also feels like a massive understatement. Name another time in film history when anyone has pressured a studio the size of Sony like the Guardians of Peace have done here. Once upon a time, Columbia pulled posters and a teaser for Sam Raimi’s cardinal Spider-Man film from circulation on the grounds that both prominently featured the World Trade Center; their decision was a naked reaction to the same terrorist attacks that the Guardians referenced in their correspondence to Sony. In the same year as Spider-Man, people also petitioned to change the title of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers on similar grounds. (Corollary: New Regency shut down an upcoming Steve Carell/Gore Verbinski collaboration on the basis of its North Korea setting.) These kinds of free association games happen all the time, and in the future, they’ll probably happen again. Yet, this “game” with the Sony hacks has all new rules. Also: who, actually, are the players?
Grant also that there’s a vast gulf between a studio pulling promotional materials to avoid upsetting the viewing public, and as yet unidentified parties blackmailing a major name in the motion picture industry with the specter of the worst terror attack to occur on U.S. soil. For the sake of posterity, it did take almost a month to get to the point where violence became a blatant part of the dialogue (such as it was) but that doesn’t alleviate the intimidation, either; it just offers us a blueprint we can use to trace the progression from spilling company secrets to promising mass destruction.
There’s a silver lining here, though, and it’s that Sony—no matter how much Hollywood or our own Commander In Chief might disagree—did the right thing to begin with. Break the circumstances down to a matter of what Sony could and couldn’t control. They could (and obviously still can) control availability of their film, and that’s it. They couldn’t control the Guardians of Peace, nor the Guardians’ response if The Interview actually wound up theaters. When the element you have no control over might result in death on any quantifiable scale, you pull your goddamn film. In fairness, Sony’s answer to the Guardians comes packaged with its own repercussions, but in an alternate timeline, releasing The Interview in theaters might have meant that people die.
And yet, all ethical responsibility aside, the choice to sweep The Interview under the rug, even if temporarily, sets a bad precedent for both the filmmaking industry and for our country. You may consider it cowardice, or you may have a pithy one-liner about how you didn’t plan on seeing the movie anyways; you might even think that this is an instance of the U.S. “negotiating with terrorists,” something that Hollywood has programmed us into thinking doesn’t happen. Under harsh light, even delicate light, that’s a false myth—as evidenced by Bowe Bergdahl, Peter Moore, the Iran-Contra Affair, and that one time George W. Bush paid a ransom to Islamic extremists based in the Philippines for the return of two American missionaries—but it’s also irrelevant to the particulars of Sony’s response to the Guardians’ communiqués. This was never about the United States government stepping in to save the day, because there should be no conflation between U.S. foreign policy and the policies set by a multinational corporation. This was, is, about dollars and cents, and about Sony protecting their finances (and their viewers, though you can entertain yourself for hours deciding which of these Sony prizes most).
Sony took the path less fraught, because the consequences of a worst-case scenario outcome would be unimaginably awful for them. They did what any of us would do if held in thrall by a lunatic with a gun: hand over our wallets, eyes on the ground. None of this, of course, makes what might happen next any easier to swallow. Now, anybody with a keyboard, a decent rig, and the know-how required to crack electronic security measures knows that if they want something taken off the market, all they need to do is bully the corporate hydras behind its production. It won’t just be movies, either; the next object of offense could be a television show, a book, a song, or even a video game. What would Paramount do if the Ku Klux Klan threatened violence on Selma screenings? What about if anti-transgender hate groups targeted screenings of Jupiter Ascending, a movie co-directed by Lana Wachowski?
It should be noted that the Klan isn’t what it once was, and that even in its heyday it did not comprise a nation, a’la North Korea; it should also be noted that anti-transgender hate-groups don’t have the same kind of reach as a dictatorship with presumed nuclear capabilities. (Also worth pointing out: nobody seems to agree on whether it was, in fact, North Korea who sponsored the Guardians in the first place, though you can’t deny that it makes a great narrative on the page.) But whoever is ultimately behind the Sony hack has struck a heavy blow, though not one the company won’t recover from, and in the process turned The Interview—a movie that, at its core, is another two hour love-fest between best pals Seth Rogen and James Franco—into the most unexpected cinematic martyr of the decade, if not of all time.
That Sony is choosing to resuscitate The Interview does only so much to soften the impact, leaving us in a discomfiting interregnum. Maybe, as Sony prepares for The Interview’s yuletide premiere, we’ll be right back to where we were last Wednesday (though with all of the scrutiny and attention being placed on the contretemps in the media that seems unlikely). It’s tempting to feel good and right and patriotic about Sony’s turnaround here, but remember that they’re a business: they exist to make money, and limited run or no, this entire debacle has turned The Interview into a pulsing goldmine, a side effect that the Guardians of Peace likely didn’t intend.
This isn’t about standing up to terror, because standing up to terror would have meant refusing to back down in the first place. It would have meant shouldering the potential risk and giving Americans the gift of The Interview, of Randall Park honeypotting James Franco, of Seth Rogen hiding objects of military importance in his kiester. But that just further underlines the “business” element, emphasizes the situation’s impossibility, and paints Sony’s new resolution with broad strokes of cynicism. Should they have just stuck to their guns and not released the film at all? Should they wait until a better moment to give the film the release they’d originally planned on? As Sony disguises its soft-shoeing as courage, their audience is getting suckered. They didn’t win. America didn’t win. Capitalism won, which is to be expected; Sony gets to play the hero, we get to see the movie after all, and the Guardians, for the time being, appear mollified.
It’s a hollow victory for artistic expression and our sense of security. Yes, nothing happened, nobody died, nobody was hurt, no damage was done to any party other than Sony. That doesn’t make the threat any less unsettling. We’re not only a post-9/11 society, we’re a post-Marathon bombing society, a post-Aurora society; we’ve become conditioned to take these sorts of altercations seriously, so the idea that Sony and the Guardians have, in effect, played a round of tennis over American anxieties sits poorly. In the end, this saga has been, again, about dollars and cents, which in its fashion lends The Interview a special note of seasonality. After all, nothing says “holidays” like a last-minute cash grab.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film for the web since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant and Movie Mezzanine. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently, he has given up on shaving.