Over winter break, the theatrical release of Sony Pictures’ political satire “The Interview” was canceled following an online security breach and subsequent threats by the North Korean hacking group Guardians of Peace. Sony received widespread criticism after its decision to cancel the release of the film, with many critics claiming that Sony’s actions reflected American defeat. Others felt that canceling the release was akin to bowing to censorship from a foreign dictator. Even President Barack Obama disapproved of Sony’s decision, stating that Sony “made a mistake” in canceling the release of the film.
While censorship in any context is certainly unacceptable, blind outrage at Sony’s withdrawal of the film ignores the subtleties of the situation. While political satire has always been and remains an important aspect of free speech in the United States, there is a difference between what can be published legally and what should be published from a moral, culturally sensitive standpoint.
“The Interview” follows a plot by unqualified tabloid journalists to kill North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. While this plot reuses the previously successful trope of a pair of incompetent undercover agents from “21 Jump Street,” it does not convey any significant political message.
Legitimate political satire makes a statement about a controversial issue in a subtle and meaningful manner. “The Interview,” however, uses cheap jokes and political flagrancy to attract attention. Furthermore, the movie was unsuccessful from a critical standpoint, in addition to failing to send a meaningful political message. The movie received only mediocre reviews from top critics, averaging 5.8 out of 10 stars on aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes. Thus, it fails as both a political satire and a comedy.
Exploiting the political situation in North Korea for a few cheap laughs ignores the reality of the situation for millions of North Koreans living in a constant state of danger. Centering the premise of a comedy film around such a grave situation is simply insensitive, and shouldn’t be excused in the name of political satire.
Had the roles in this scenario been reversed, and North Korea had produced a film in which Obama’s murder was the center of the plot, it is very likely that Americans would be understandably outraged. Why then, is it acceptable for an American company to make light of the serious situation of millions of North Korean citizens? Sony’s ignorance of this fact is representative of a long stream of American tactlessness in the context of international relations.
While it is true that the threat of censorship is an extremely serious issue, the ability of the Guardians of the Peace to cancel the worldwide release of the film likely increased viewership of the film rather than lowered it. Yes, Sony lost a lot of money by not showing the film in theaters across the country. But from the North Korean perspective of minimizing disrespect toward Kim Jong-un, threatening to censor the movie likely had the opposite effect than intended.
The real danger at hand in this situation is the constant state of North Korean citizens living in an authoritarian dictatorship. The central point of this discussion should not be on American resilience to not getting to watch any movie we want. Rather, we as Americans need to reevaluate our sensitivity and our standards for effective political satire. It is worrisome that the mass public’s reaction to this ordeal was outrage toward censorship, and didn’t award any consideration to whether the movie was politically and morally correct in the first place. Censorship and threats of terrorism should not be tolerated in any circumstance, but we can address these issues with some tact.
Comedy is an art form, and being overly politically correct sometimes hinders potential humor. Still, making light of mass suffering is inappropriate and should not be overlooked only because our free speech has been threatened.