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A Hard Lesson

The first time I saw the trailer for the film “The Interview,” I was appalled.

“WTF?” I thought. “What the hell are the producers thinking?” Not only did the preview have “turkey” written all over it, but I couldn’t believe the creators were so naive as to think there wouldn’t be some kind of negative fallout from this ill-conceived production. I never envisioned matters getting as out of hand as they have, but I knew for sure that there would be hell to pay for those who gave the green light to this bonehead project.

So why was I so outraged? The very premise of the film was in such incredibly bad taste that I had a hard time believing the production had gotten as far as it did. The idea of creating a movie (and a comedy at that) about assassinating Kim Jong-un, a known world leader, struck me as the height of irresponsibility. The situation might have been different if the film was premised on the idea of eliminating a fictional head of state, perhaps even one based on the figure here. But building a story like this around an actual, identifiable person was, in my opinion, unfathomably stupid. What if a North Korean filmmaker had proposed making a movie about one of his country’s operatives being tapped to take out a known Western leader — what kind of reaction would have that engendered? It’s a pretty safe bet that it would have been one of righteous indignation, not cavalier dismissiveness.

In my view, the only smart decision Sony Pictures made during this debacle was to pull the plug on the film’s release. This obviously had to have been a difficult choice in many ways, but, given the ominous threats that were being circulated regarding its distribution, I don’t know that the studio and theater owners had any other realistically responsible choice. I realize this was a controversial decision, especially in light of all the criticism that has been heaped upon Sony and the movie house chains as a result. The arguments regarding freedom of speech and not caving in to intimidation indeed have merit. But what if the release had gone ahead and something happened? Where would those critics of Sony’s decision be then? Under those circumstances, I’m fairly sure they would have called for the film to have been pulled, that a “courageous” decision to proceed with release despite the prevailing conditions would have been seen as short-sighted foolishness. (The hypocrisy in all this is simply too undeniable to ignore.)

Those who have said that the North Koreans are now dictating terms to the film industry are overstating the case. Their claims that no one can now make a movie critical of an unpopular foreign head of state like Kim Jong-un are grossly exaggerated. Films that satirize dictators have been an industry staple for years. Just look at Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” (1940) or, more recently, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s “Team America: World Police” (2004). Both were scathingly brutal in skewering their intended targets. But, in both of those cases, the filmmakers never went so far as to propose something so heinous as killing the figurehead in question. That’s where “The Interview” crossed the line, and it’s entirely understandable how Kim Jong-un and the North Koreans would have been justifiably upset at the film’s premise, regardless of how any of us might feel about the renegade leader and his totalitarian regime. After all, if you were intentionally identified as a target for assassination, wouldn’t you be outraged?

This incident no doubt has to have been a hard lesson for Sony and the creators of this film. But, quite frankly, I believe they had it coming, given the ill-considered thinking behind this project. I’m hoping that all parties concerned have learned their lesson from this episode, too, that they’ll put more deliberate thought into the kinds of film projects they propose and approve going forward. It’s bad enough that there are so many productions in the works that make use of the kind of adolescent humor employed here, but, when such puerile comedy is combined with the sort of blatant irresponsibility and lack of sound ethical standing on display in “The Interview,” it’s utterly embarrassing for an industry that’s quite capable of so much better. We can only hope that the movie business comes away from this incident with a new, wiser outlook — and a commitment not to make mistakes like this again.

Copyright © 2014, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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