No, this is what they hate us for

January 7, 2015

Laura Durkay documents the hypocrisy and xenophobia lurking behind the "free speech" battle over a racist--not to mention mediocre--comedy.

SOME DAY, we will have to explain to our children how an idiotic Seth Rogen movie became part of Barack Obama's "pivot to Asia." It won't seem any less surreal then than it does now.

In late November, Sony Pictures--one of the "big six" film studios that produce most of Hollywood's content--was hacked by cyber-attackers calling themselves "Guardians of the Peace." The hackers, whose exact identity is still unknown, initially leaked about 40 gigabytes of Sony data to the website Pastebin, including e-mails between top Sony executives, cuts of not-yet-released films, and personal identifying information for at least 47,000 people who had worked for Sony at some point.

In the first weeks after the hack, media coverage focused mostly on how embarrassing the leak was for Sony. Dozens of leaked e-mails revealed a flood of casual racism, sexism and general nastiness.

Producer Scott Rudin was quoted referring to Angelina Jolie as a "spoiled brat." Megan Ellison, the first female producer ever to receive two Academy Award nominations in the same year, was labeled a "bipolar 28-year-old lunatic." Sony co-chair Amy Pascal called actor Kevin Hart a "whore," and Pascal and Rudin were also caught cracking jokes about which movies starring Black people that Obama might like.

Seth Rogen
Seth Rogen

The hack also revealed the take-home pay of Sony executives and stars--confirming that actors Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams were paid less than their male co-stars for the ensemble film American Hustle.

Mostly lost in the dissection of high-profile gaffes was the fact that tens of thousands of ordinary people who worked, or had once worked, for Sony also had identifying information posted online, including Social Security numbers and home addresses.

BUT BY early December, the narrative around the hack shifted as the media seized on the idea that North Korea was behind the attack, in response to The Interview, a Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy about an American TV host and his producer, who get sucked into a CIA plot to assassinate the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

While the initial communications from the hackers said nothing about The Interview, subsequent messages did. Anonymous threats of "9/11-style" attacks against theaters that showed The Interview on its Christmas Day release date also appeared.

While the source and seriousness of these threats was never proven, they caused enough hysteria for several theater chains to cancel their plans to screen the film. On December 17, Sony announced the total cancelation of the film's theatrical release--although it was later released on VOD, and is currently playing in 581 theaters. (This Is The End, the 2013 Rogen-Franco comedy, also from Sony, opened on about 3,000 screens.)

The New York Times and Washington Post both quoted anonymous U.S. government intelligence sources who claimed that there was definitive proof of a North Korean connection. But as numerous cyber-security experts pointed out, the link is far from proven. While it's possible North Korea is connected in some way, it seems equally likely to be the work of hackers not linked to any state--possibly a disgruntled former employee of Sony, perhaps someone laid off in one of Sony's recent rounds of downsizing.

But the narrative of North Korean hackers silencing good ol' American free speech--in the form of a movie about two third-rate cable TV personalities attempting to murder the leader of another country--was too convenient to resist.

Obama used the opportunity to sign an executive order imposing additional sanctions on 10 North Korean individuals--despite White House officials admitting that they "could not establish that any of the 10 officials had been directly involved" in the Sony hack.

You don't have to have any sympathy for the North Korean regime to see that the idea of the tiny, impoverished country being a threat to the U.S. is absurd. It's the U.S. that has consistently overthrown governments and assassinated political leaders it doesn't like--in real life--from Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in 1961, to the CIA's many elaborate murder plots against Cuba's Fidel Castro.

But demonizing North Korea is a convenient way for the U.S. to justify an increased national security focus on Asia--with an eye to containing the actual potential rival to its dominance, China.

AS SETH Rogen suddenly found himself being mentioned in White House press briefings, The Interview achieved a surreal transformation--from mediocre buddy comedy to the cause célèbre of every defender of American patriotism. Everyone from Rush Limbaugh to George Clooney to George R.R. Martin lambasted Sony's "cowardice" in canceling the film.

Liberal filmmaker Michael Moore jumped on the bandwagon, proudly declaring his intent to screen the film at his theater in Traverse City, Michigan. "We must always stand against bullies and censors," Moore decalred.

Suddenly, everyone had an opinion about whether Americans have the "right" to make and watch a movie about assassinating a living head of state of a country on the U.S.'s enemies list.

In what alternate universe do we declare that a $44 million film, produced by a subsidiary of a multibillion-dollar multinational corporation, operating in the most powerful country in the world, is the underdog? There's something supremely arrogant about making a comedy about murdering the head of state of a nation much weaker than the U.S., telling everyone it's just a joke, and then claiming your free speech is being violated when it becomes clear that maybe it wasn't the greatest idea after all.

It's hard to even imagine a hypothetical reversal of the situation in order to point out the U.S.'s hypocrisy. I'm sure that U.S. politicians and pundits wouldn't be silent if, say, Iran released a film about Iranian soccer stars touring the U.S. who are secretly on a mission to assassinate Barack Obama. Then again, the combination of U.S. imperial and Hollywood cultural hegemony makes it hard to even contemplate that scenario.

The entire spectacle is ludicrous. In addition to being racist--the film traffics in plenty of default stereotypes about Asians--The Interview is, by all accounts, not very good. (Variety described it as "an evening of cinematic waterboarding.") In a crowded holiday season, it could easily have flopped. Instead, this crap movie has gotten way more publicity than it ever deserved.

But if you're waiting for all this to be a Seth Rogen publicity stunt, don't hold your breath. Reality is weirder than fiction this time around.

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