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Sony Gets the Kim Jong-un Treatment

Not feeling entirely sorry for the epically hacked film studio

Have you been following the ongoing saga of all the Sony Pictures’ internal documents seized by hackers and put into the public realm? It has been incredible, and a massive humiliation to all kinds of Hollywood professionals, whose private, often scathing, opinions of each other’s work are now in the public realm (to say nothing of Social Security numbers and all kinds of private data). You can get into the weeds by searching Gawker. Here’s the NYT’s report today. Excerpt:

Then, last month, hackers unleashed one of the most punishing cyberattacks on a major corporation in recent memory, pilfering private emails, detailed summaries of executive salaries, and even digital copies of several unreleased Sony films that they posted online. It remains a mystery who was responsible.

Suspicion has fallen on Mr. Kim’s Bureau 121, an elite cyberunit, or patriotic hackers. But experts say pro-North Korea messages left behind could be a ruse to cover the hackers’ real tracks.

What is clear is that by deciding to go ahead with the film, Sony stumbled into a geopolitical mess complete with all the elements of a Hollywood thriller: international intrigue, once imperious, now humiliated, film executives, strong-willed leading men and highly sophisticated cyberattackers. The studio’s first miscalculation, film experts say, was in venturing beyond where big-budget moviemakers dared to go in the past.

“The gory killing of a sitting foreign leader is new territory for a big studio movie,” said Jeanine Basinger, a professor of film studies at Wesleyan University.

The film depicts Kim Jong-un, the porcine megalomaniac who rules the decrepit commie wasteland, being assassinated. And not just being assassinated:

According to hacked emails published by other media and interviews with people briefed on the matter, [Kazuo Hirai, Sony’s Japanese president] insisted over the summer that a scene in which Mr. Kim’s head explodes when hit by a tank shell be toned down to remove images of flaming hair and chunks of skull.

Good grief. The film is a comedy.

The Times reports that Seth Rogen, one of the film’s stars, reacted harshly against the editing proposed by the Sony chief in Tokyo:

In one email, Mr. Hirai approves a newly altered assassination shot that had “no face melting, less fire in the hair, fewer embers on the face and the head explosion has been considerably obscured by the fire.”

At one point in the tug of war over the script, Mr. Rogen weighed in with an angry email to Ms. Pascal. “This is now a story of Americans changing their movie to make North Koreans happy,” he wrote. “That is a very damning story.”

I despise North Korea, and may well go see The Interview just because it makes Kim Jong-un angry. As a general principle, artists and writers should have the legal right to create works that offend the political and religious sensibilities of others. But the arrogance of Seth Rogen here really chaps me. The president of Sony lives in a country that is a neighbor of North Korea’s, and which is threatened by North Korean missile overflights. If a war should break out, the North Koreans, who are insane, would likely bomb Tokyo and other Japanese cities. This is not a joke for Kazuo Hirai.

In a perfect world, Seth Rogen would get to make his gory comedy, Pyongyang would scream its head off, and the world would keep on turning. But this is not a perfect world. The idea that Hirai should be willing to take on the moral responsibility for provoking those lunatics to wage an act of war on his country just so Seth Rogen can show Kim Jong-un’s face melting is pretty arrogant.

Kim Jong-un is a sitting head of state. It would be shocking for a movie to show President Obama or Angela Merkel being gruesomely murdered, and offensive if it did so for comic value. Why should this not offend the North Koreans? Plus, remember, they are batsh*t crazy, and have a million man army. 

Freedom of expression is very important, but it’s not a moral absolute. Personally, I don’t care if Kim has his feelings hurt. He’s a monster. But if I were Japanese, living with that loon in my backyard, I would be a lot more worried about this than I am as an American. And if I were the head of Sony, my responsibility to my employees, my company’s interests, and to my countrymen would weigh a lot more heavily in my mind than the demands of an American filmmaker. Frankly, I’m surprised that Hirai let it go this far.

I had something of an education on this point at a conference of international journalists in 2006. I couldn’t understand why some of the journalists present believed that it was legitimate to conceal information about suspects in murder cases — their religion, specifically. The truth is the truth, right? Some journalists from Bangladesh and India explained to me that sectarian hatred runs so high in their countries that if they observed American standards of reporting, scores of people would die in rioting — and had done in the past.

I had to concede their point. It’s easy to defend freedom of expression, even in hard cases, in a culture where free speech is commonly understood to be a basic value. It is also easy to defend it when the object of your extremely hostile speech isn’t a heavily armed lunatic living right next door.

Again, I wish Rogen et alia well with the film. Anything that ruins Kim Jong-un’s day can’t be all bad. But I understand Kazuo Hirai’s concern, and think he is not a villain here.