November 15, 2016
By Erik Shuster, Conor Kelley, and Pallavi Chetia
What: The Interview
Where: The United States
When: June 2014
Why: Threats from North Korea
A political satire, The Interview is a movie of controversy and humor. Censored in 2014 in the US, this film remains a movie of interest as it deals with the assassination of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Scheduled for a late release in October, 2014, The Interview depicts a satirical take on assassinating Kim Jong-un as it follows the actions of the reality talk show host, Dave Skylark (James Franco), and his producer, Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen), who interview celebrities on their show Skylark Tonight. Rapaport finds criticism of the show claiming that it is entirely gossip and not real news. Desperate to prove himself, Skylark obtains new motivation for his show whilst learning that the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, is a fan of his show. He prompts Rapaport to set an interview with him to which Rapaport agrees. Thus, Rapaport and Skylark set out on a journey to interview Kim and to prove that their show is meaningful. However, they are dragged into an unexpected CIA mission as an agent pressures them into assassinating Kim, to which they reluctantly agree. Aided by a North Korean woman in Kim’s regime, Skylark and Rapaport humiliate and kill Kim Jong-un (The Interview). The film concludes with the death of Kim Jong-un and North Korea beginning its transition into a democracy.
Along with Kim Jong-un’s assassination, many other aspects of the film sparked anger from North Korea. The film’s handling of themes of betrayal, freedom, and the human condition, through classic Rogen humor, made a farce of Kim Jong-un’s authority as North Korea’s supreme leader. Altogether, The Interview conflicts with North Korean ideologies and was deemed dangerous and disgraceful to the nation as a whole.
Although the film was banned North Korea, its self censorship in the United States was far more unexpected and unprecedented. Sony’s decision to censor the film began in August 2014, when the studio pushed the film’s release from October 10 to December 25. This change intended to address “A spokesman for the North Korean ministry called the movie an ‘act of terrorism’ in June, promising ‘merciless’ retaliation if it was released” (BBC). In this delayed time, Sony made post-production edits such as changing/removing accurate military buttons and medals from the movie as well toning down the violence in scenes relating to Kim Jong Un (Siegel). North Korea generally follows the example of strict censorship of all things fantasy, and this policy often provides grounds for conflicts when fictional films and satires are released (Pang). Unfortunately, these gestures were not enough to warrant North Korea’s acceptance of the film.
Shortly before its release, the conflict over The Interview become even more heated. On November 22, 2014, Sony’s parent company, Colombia, was hacked by a group self identifying as the Guardians of Peace. This group leaked many corporate emails as wells as five unreleased movies causing a legitimate threat to Sony (BBC). The emails were clearly intended to slander Sony by revealing potentially embarrassing information such as:
- “Female film stars including Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence were paid less than their male co-stars.
- Sony executive Amy Pascal made jokes about black-themed movies that might be among President Obama’s favourites.
- Angelina Jolie was branded a ‘minimally talented spoiled brat’ in a private email from producer Scott Rudin.
- George Clooney lost sleep over bad reviews for The Monuments Men and emailed Pascal to say: ‘I’ve let you all down. Not my intention. I apologize. I’ve just lost touch… Who knew?’” (BBC)
Although North Korea denied any involvement with the hack, the FBI linked the North Korean government the hackers. On December 18, 2014, the Guardians of Peace threatened to take action on theaters that released the film, publishing a statement on the website pastebin.com saying:
“This is GOP.
You have suffered through enough threats.
We lift the ban.
The Interview may release now.
But be careful.
September 11 may happen again if you don’t comply with the rules.
Rule #1: no death scene of Kim Jong Un being too happy
Rule #2: do not test us again
Rule #3: if you make anything else, we will be here ready to fight
This is Guardians Of Peace.” (pastebin.com)
Although the Guardians of Peace “allowed” the showing of the film, it was too late and the damage was done. Most movie theaters including, Cineplex, AMC, Southern Theaters, Cinemark, Regal, ArcLight, and Carmike, refused to air the film or delayed showings indefinitely (Lang). This left Sony open to criticism from the movie’s supporters as while as its critics. Most notably, president Obama remarked, “I wish they 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.”
Obama speaking on the Sony hacks:
Sony disputed this statement, asserting:
“‘The only decision that we have made with respect to release of the film was not to release it on Christmas Day in theaters, after the theater owners declined to show it. Without theaters, we could not release it in the theaters on Christmas Day.’ …‘After that decision, we immediately began actively surveying alternatives to enable us to release the movie on a different platform. It is still our hope that anyone who wants to see this movie will get the opportunity to do so.’” (Weise et al)
Obama later responded indirectly in an interview with CNN. In this interview, he shares his opinion that the hacking was not necessarily a hostile act, but more of an offensive vandalism, meant to stir the pot, not necessarily launch some sort of intense conflict.
Ultimately Sony kept its word. The Interview was released digitally as well as in 300 independent theaters on Christmas Eve of 2014 (Shaw). Sony also released the film for free on SeeTheInterview.com for a limited time. This website accidentally allowed for the download of the film, which cause it to spread even more quickly throughout the internet (Lowensohn). Shortly after the movie’s release, a North Korean spokesperson commented that “President Obama…is the chief culprit who forced the Sony Pictures Entertainment to indiscriminately distribute the movie” (BBC). North Korea, however, took no further actions after this statement.
The outside implications of the censorship and cyber hacking were taken very seriously by President Obama as well. He asserted, “We’ll be vigilant. If we see something that we think is serious and credible, then we’ll alert the public. But for now, my recommendation would be that people go to the movies” (Rosen).
The consequences of censorship through force/threats are, arguably, more grave than the original artifact in question because they raise the stakes to a tangible level, as opposed to a small scale offense. The first amendment in the states protects the rights of the film, but the world operates in a similar way to the early 20th century first amendment, where the blanket term “free speech” is applied at face-value, while specific items are censored aggressively (Dixon, Biltereyst, Vande Winkel)
In an interview with Variety, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg spoke on their personal opinion regarding the censorship:
“For a moment it truly seemed possible that our movie might just cease to exist,” they said. “It seemed like a rash decision born out of fear. It was disappointing that the immediate reaction was to do exactly what the criminals wanted.”
According to Rogen, the idea that censoring the film because it offended Kim Jong-un was much like saying, “Don’t make fun of Hitler because it’ll piss off Hitler (Rogen).” However, in the context of modern technology, trying not to “piss off Hitler” may be a move for the safety of the world population. The battle for freedom of speech in film is a long and arduous one, and more often than not intangible actions of communication are met with very tangible force. In 2013, near the peak of North Korea tensions with the United States, many government officials such as Han Song Ryol felt that (regarding military cooperation between the US and South Korea):
“The United States has crossed the red line in our showdown,” he said. “We regard this thrice-cursed crime as a declaration of war.”
Finally, the film itself did not carry explicit declarations of war, but in a modern society where North Korea and the US could be locked in nuclear battle, the gravity of the possible consequences of this film are stark.
Film Censorship is not uncommon in the sense that it is a way of silencing the maker’s attempts at showcasing issues of importance and concern, which is actually a common argument for censorship, in the interest of public safety or concern (Hunnings). The makers of The Interview attempted to handle the movie’s plot with humor but were unsuccessful at preventing it from being censored. In conclusion, films are a means of depicting ideas, opinions, and facts in the most entertaining and engaging manner possible. Censorship tends to break the bridge that connects its audience to what films stand for. The question that matters is whether these films should be allowed the right to express themselves freely.
Keywords and Search Terms
Seth Rogen, James Franco, The Interview, Self Censorship, US North Korea relations, Film Censorship, Kim Jong-Un, Sony, Guardians of Peace