Freedom of Expression Doesn’t Account for Taste: Release ‘The Interview’
When I first saw the trailer for The Interview I rolled my eyes and complained that the concept was in very poor taste. Writing a script about assassinating a current world leader, especially one who is the head of a country we already have extremely bad relations with, should strike anyone as a really terrible idea. Most people I’ve talked to seemed to feel the same. The market would have spoken and it would have been a small blip on the radar, quickly forgotten and ignored. But then things escalated. Sony got hacked by North Korea, terrorist threats were made, and the movie got pulled from theaters. North Korea even threatened war over the film. While I’ll never agree that this film was remotely a good idea, suddenly I find myself rooting for its release purely from the standpoint of freedom of expression. How did we get here? Why is this silly little comedy becoming such a big deal? And why the hell am I and many others who hated to concept of the film suddenly rallying around its release?
For those who have been out of the loop, The Interview is a comedy film starring Seth Rogan and James Franco. It centers around a pair of journalists who get a chance to interview North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. They then get recruited by the CIA to assassinate him since they have a rare opportunity to be close to him. That’s so funny, am I right? Wait, no, not really. Like I said, it’s pretty bad taste no matter how you look at it.
For those that want to know more about what goes on in North Korea and why it’s in such poor taste to make a film like this, I have two recommendations. First, The Vice Guide to North Korea offers a somewhat humorous, but still very accurate and educational peak behind the curtain of the isolated country. I love Vice in general, but this is one of the best pieces they’ve ever produced. The second recommendation I have is the much more serious and depressing documentary Children of the Secret State, which focuses on the horrors that are happening to the kids growing up in the extremely poor nation. While North Korea has been in the headlines a lot, mostly for their often odd and bumbling political decisions, it’s important to know just how terrifying the situation there really is. Once you’ve watched those, you’ll understand just how bad of a decision it was to make this film.
With all of that said, now that the film is made and has been pulled from theaters, I’m completely in favor of rallying around the full release of this film. I’m scratching my head over my own u-turn on the film, but for some reason I just can’t justify a movie, no matter how stupid, getting pulled from theaters like this. The Texas theater chain Alamo Drafthouse, in a bravely contrary move, decided to show Team America: World Police in its place. This equally ridiculous film pokes fun at Kim Jong-Il, the current leader’s late father, making it the perfect way to triumph over the ridiculousness of having the movie pulled in the first place. Unfortunately Paramount asked for them to pull that too, which means the hacking, threats of terrorism, and complaining to the UN done by North Korea has effectively shut down all comedy that makes fun of the country and its leaders. They won, basically.
Again, this film is absolutely in poor taste (have I made myself perfectly clear on that point yet? Because it’s important to make that clear), but the reaction to it crosses into an over the top clamp down on freedom of expression. Freedom of expression includes horrible taste and bad ideas. We don’t always agree with the bad stuff that gets produced, but the creators have the right to produce it and release it. I’m reminded of Voltaire’s quote “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” I’m sure he didn’t have comedies about assassination in mind when he said this, but the point still stands. It doesn’t matter how much I disagree with a decision to say something, I absolutely feel that people have the right to say it. It’s because of this that people are reacting so strongly and demanding that this film gets a proper release. We’re just contrary like that, I suppose. We’re hardwired to want things that are denied to us, but we also see this as a dangerous affront to freedom of expression and don’t want to just stand idly by as this film falls victim to censorship.
I hate to use the “slippery slope” argument as it’s often abused in discussions, but the incident with the Alamo Drafthouse proves that this is a perfect example of a slippery slope. Team America: World Police was released a decade ago, essentially without incident. Yes, there were critics of it, which is another great part of freedom of expression, but the film still got released (though they had to edit a doll sex scene to lower the rating (I’m not joking)). We’ve gone backwards on what’s allowed to be shown in theaters. We had more freedom a decade ago than we do now. What other offensive forms of freedom of expression will be clamped down on going forward? What films, TV shows, books, or comics that are already produced would be too dangerous to release today? Is North Korea the only exception here or are all countries that we have rocky relationships with off limits?
There’s a strong chance that there is a lot more going on behind the scenes here than we’re privy to. Activists have stated that they want to drop copies of The Interview on North Korea via balloon, meaning that they intend to use it as a form of political activism. As silly as this film is, even putting the idea of assassinating their leader into their heads could turn more people against the regime. The White House has even stepped forward to discuss the matter, including making a possible counter attack and calling the hack a “national security” issue. The White House even screened the film before hand at the request of Sony. All of this indicates that the White House and activists see this as more than just a ridiculous little comedy film and could foresee it potentially causing political tension or revolution. The White House didn’t reject the film, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they influenced Sony’s decision to pull the film, now that North Korea is actively reacting to it. Right now there’s no indicator that they’ve done that, but it wouldn’t really be completely out of left field if they did so. That doesn’t change the fact that this is an affront to freedom of expression, though. In fact, if they did influence the decision it makes the censorship even worse. UPDATE: Obama seems to be stating publicly that he feels that the decision to pull the film was a mistake.
At this point it doesn’t matter who pulled the film or why. The point is, this offensive comedy needs to be released. We’ve released far more offensive pieces of media before without issue, so why are we suddenly giving into threats now? Cancelling specific events tied to specific threats I can completely understand, but a blanket ban on a piece of media is so unexpected that I can’t help but be enraged. The plan to silence this film has backfired. Now people who didn’t care before care very very much. A film that would have been lost and forgotten in a matter of weeks is suddenly the most in demand film of the year. I bet this is a turn of events that nobody saw coming. I certainly didn’t, but here I am fighting on behalf of an offensive film that I hated just a month ago. Funny how things like this turn out sometimes, isn’t it? This film and the political drama around it won’t soon be forgotten. I’m eager to see what Sony’s next move is and if this film will ever see the light of day.
Author: Angel Wilson
Angel is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. She earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. She’s contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. She’s written for Friends of Comic Con and is a 2019 Hugo Award winner for contributing fanfic on AO3. She identifies as queer.
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