The Interview: rarely has such a film created such noise

Donald Clarke analysis: If film never goes on wide release it will be key text in Hollywood’s history

'The Interview' staring James Franco and Seth Rogen has attracted threats over its plot about the assassination of North Korean President Kim Jong Un. Video: Sony Pictures Entertainment

In the century-long history of the cinema we have never seen anything quite like the kerfuffle surrounding Sony’s decision to pull The Interview from cinemas.

Just two weeks ago, Seth Rogen, star of the comedy in which two journalists are encouraged to assassinate the North Korean president Kim Jong-un, was appearing on chat shows to laugh about the communist dictatorship's reaction.

Addressing Sony Pictures as if it were some agency of the US government, the North Koreans described the picture as "a blatant act of terrorism and war and will absolutely not be tolerated." Can a media conglomerate declare war?

One can understand why Rogen and his co-star James Franco seemed so relaxed. They looked to have benign precedent on their side. Ten years ago, Team America World Police, a hilarious puppet comedy from the men behind South Park, made merciless fun of Kim Jong Il, the current leader's father. Reaction from Pyongyang was muted.


It is still far from clear whether North Korea was directly involved in the computer hack that has been embarrassing Sony and its friends for the last few weeks. Initially a North Korean representative at the UN metaphorically tapped his nose and said "wait and see". When a shadowy organisation named the Guardians of Peace claimed responsibility the officials suddenly pretended to be shocked they had ever been suspected.

The hackers have, however, linked their actions to the release of The Interview and, following another data dump this week, threats were made against theatre chains showing the film.

“The world will be full of fear,” the message read. “Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time. (If your house is nearby, you’d better leave.)” Cinemas began pulling the film.

On Wednesday night, Sony cancelled its US release on Christmas Day. It is still not clear if the film will be released overseas.

“We are deeply saddened at this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees, and the American public,” Sony’s statement said. “We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.”

Do they stand by their film-makers? If they are so “saddened” by the effort to suppress the picture why have they given in? The fact that the threats seems so unhinged and the connections with North Korea so uncertain make Sony’s decision all the more puzzling. The US is clearly still crazily jumpy about even whispers of terrorism.

Before Sony ditched The Interview (which has so far received unimpressed reviews) theatre chains had been arguing that the studio did not seem to be supportive of the film. The Regal Chain said its decision was: “due to the wavering support of the film ‘The Interview’ by Sony Pictures, as well as the ambiguous nature of any real or perceived security threats.”

Not surprisingly, the apparent capitulation (to who? to what?) has gone down very badly with professionals in Hollywood.

"I think it is disgraceful that these theatres are not showing The Interview. Will they pull any movie that gets an anonymous threat now?" the director and producer Judd Apatow commented on Twitter.

Bill Maher, the left-wing comic and TV host, was even more explicit. “Is that all it takes — an anonymous threat and the numbers 911 — to throw free expression under the bus? #PussyNation,” he Tweeted.

Indeed, this seemed to be an issue on which left and right were united. "It wasn't the hackers who won, it was the terrorists and almost certainly the North Korean dictatorship," Newt Gingrich, the Republican Party firebrand, ranted.

Rarely has such a throwaway film created such a loud noise. Even if the film never goes on wide release it will come to be viewed as a key text in Hollywood’s history.

No project that gets Newt Gingrich and Bill Maher singing from the same hymn sheet can be seen as entirely insignificant. What a mess.