The Interview and Hollywood Cowardice

A group of hackers calling themselves – ironically, I presume – “The Guardians of Peace”, recently succeeded in cowing Hollywood to such an extent that a prominent studio cancelled the release of an upcoming film (The Interview). Theatres refused to show it due to safety concerns. This cyber mob is now widely believed to be an arm of the North Korean dictatorship: chiefly because the film which the hackers found so egregious concerns a plot to assassinate the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. The North Korean regime has, to date, denied its involvement. But it did praise the cyber-attack, labelling it “a righteous deed”; incidentally, it described the intention of releasing the film in the first place as an “act of terrorism”. The regime seems to have a fondness for antonyms and misnomers: the full title of the state is the “Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea”. The film has now received a limited, online release after President Obama criticised Sony, the film’s producers. But this recent episode is revealing and instructive – or should be.

It is very easy to disparage and ridicule a regime like North Korea’s. But what it has achieved should concern us all – and without even making substantive or palpable threats. True, there was a strange missive rendered in broken, stilted English that spoke of a “bitter fate” for those who attended screenings of the film. 9/11 was even invoked. What would have been the probable retaliation for ignoring the hackers and releasing the film though? It is true that the North Korean regime appears to have sophisticated hackers at its disposal. But does a regime that can barely launch a rocket really pose a threat to the American public? Perhaps premiering the film would have resulted in a few more embarrassing email exchanges being published. Perhaps Angelina Jolie would have had her reputation further impugned. But this really seems to be all that was at stake.

I haven’t seen The Interview but let’s suppose it is reasonably frivolous and facile. That should have no bearing on how seriously we should take threats designed to compromise cultural freedom, even to dictate the limits of taste and propriety. Perhaps, counter-intuitively, the threats are all the more worrying given how mild they were and how much they achieved. Witnessing the capitulation of Sony – and the following reticence of almost all of those in the industry (with the exception of George Clooney) – has been extremely unedifying.

We should be glad that Sony finally saw sense – or at least yielded to pressure to do so. But we should also be watchful. There exist organisations that menace us much more imminently than the paranoid impoverished government of Kim Jong-un and they may have been observing how easy some of us are to frighten.