No one is arguing that The Interview is a great film—or, having talked to some people who have seen it, even a good film. But over the past few weeks, it has stumbled into being a capital-I Important Film in spite of itself—one people should have the option to see in a theater, on its usual release day, like any other film that isn’t causing an international incident.
But how would the conversation around The Interview have been different if Seth Rogen and James Franco’s movie were a prestige pic? If it were more like Hotel Rwanda or The Killing Fields and less like Pineapple Express or This is the End? If it were the equivalent of eating your cultural vegetables and not taking down a bacon cheeseburger with fries, would Sony and theater chains have defended it more?
Granted, no groups affiliated with the atrocities portrayed in Hotel Rwanda or The Killing Fields ever threatened audiences who wanted to see those films. And maybe if the mass shooting at screening of The Dark Knight Rises in 2012 hadn’t happened, the idea of an attack at a movie theater would seem more far-fetched. That doesn’t make the threats of a nebulous hacker group any more real, though.
In the past 13 years, this country has used security as cover for a host of questionable behavior, and theater chains pulling the plug on The Interview reads less like concern for their customers and more like concern for their bottom line. (The New York Times notes that theaters also faced pressure from mall operators, who didn’t want theaters at shopping centers to affect holiday business.) The United States hosted the Olympics in 2002, when security was hardly guaranteed; during the five preceding months, there had been the 9/11 attacks, the anthrax scare, the attempted shoe bombing of an American Airlines flight, and too many other vague threats to list here. But a threat from a supposed hacker group is all it takes to sink a film, even if the Department of Homeland Security has its doubts about what those threats mean.
For its part, Sony faced extraordinary pressure, and its cancellation of The Interview’s theatrical release looked inevitable as the week progressed. In a way, Sony may have just Obi Wan-ed the movie: If it moves to VOD, The Interview could become far more successful than it would’ve been otherwise; a nation of people home for the holidays could choose to pass their time with that movie that caused all the commotion.
The Interview is just a goofy comedy, so what difference does it make that it isn’t being released as planned? A big one: How we defend even our most trivial art reflects how much we actually believe in the freedoms we’re always blathering about to the rest of the world. It doesn’t take as much courage to defend something that’s inarguably right or just as it does to defend something that’s prurient or silly. Still, it has to be done, and not just because otherwise the terrorists win—the go-to punchline of terror fatigue. It’s because importance sometimes lurks in surprising places: In 1983, Hustler printed a parody ad where Jerry Falwell described having sex with his mother in an outhouse. It led to one of the most important First Amendment cases of the past 30 years.
No one thinks The Interview will be one of the most important films of the past 30 years. But look at it this way: When someone does finally write a big, important movie about North Korea—the nation’s equivalent of The Killing Fields—will Hollywood be too skittish to make it?