A Year When Film Tested the Courage of Our Convictions

The most apropos summation of 2014 came to me as I was prepping my final lecture of the semester for my University of Cincinnati Journalism course (Writing About Film).

Dec 23, 2014 at 10:51 am
click to enlarge James Franco and Seth Rogen in The Interview
James Franco and Seth Rogen in The Interview

The most apropos summation of 2014 came to me as I was prepping my final lecture of the semester for my University of Cincinnati Journalism course (Writing About Film). I was one day removed from the Eric Garner grand jury announcement out of New York and a troubling evening of seemingly perpetual replays of that cellphone footage and impassioned commentary (I’m an MSNBC adherent) that tends to go far beyond reportage. Over the course of that initial two-hour period, I felt a pummeling weariness, like sitting in the theater watching Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, a brutal psychological and sensory assault, knowing that I couldn’t leave because it was my job to stay, to keep watching. I knew I would have to offer my own commentary.

But what could I, a film critic, say about that footage? Well, from my perspective as a black man, we were watching a man die at the hands of police officers on an endless loop, and on top of that, the solution everyone proposed involved guaranteeing that police officers wear body cameras, which would mean that there would be even more footage of such situations. That cellphone footage is as close as we can get to a snuff film, and we did so to the point that we became numb to what we were watching. Wake up, America. This isn’t Taken 3 or the latest action-oriented beat down from Jason Statham.

What matters more though is how, as a writer and critic, I can begin to critically pick at that footage — the two-dimensionality of it — to appreciate that it will never tell the whole story, or even offer the irrefutable proof we so expect and desire. What is missing: the complexity of each and every perspective witness and participant on hand, the weight of history and culture, the precarious balance of power (both on the ground and in the hierarchal structure imposing law and order) and the irresistible fear driving all of the players.

What we see is never enough.

Which takes us to the realm of things not seen, in this case what was supposed to be the Christmas Day release of The Interview from Sony Pictures. For months now, we have been inundated with teasers and trailers promoting the wacky comedy about a bumbling celebrity interviewer (James Franco) who, along with his show’s producer (co-writer and co-director Seth Rogen), gets an invitation to North Korea for a sit-down with the country’s ruler. When the CIA gets wind of the situation, it entices the duo to go in and assassinate the head of state.

This story takes a somewhat disturbing real world turn once Sony’s email system gets hacked, with North Korea suspected as backers of the attack, and a slow drip (Edward Snowden-style) of insensitive email exchanges gets released. We find out what a leading Hollywood studio thinks about the viewing tastes of America’s first black president, a few of its stars (Angelina Jolie and Kevin Hart for starters) and what various star performers earn, but the hackers up the ante by announcing wide-scale terrorist strikes on movie theaters if The Interview screens as planned.

The day the threats went public, I began firing off emails to Sony’s regional representatives to find out if that evening’s advance screening of the movie would go on as scheduled. I couldn’t imagine that the hackers (the self-dubbed Guardians of Peace) would be able or interested in an assault on the Kenwood Theatre, so I was ready to see just how offensive The Interview really was.

But Sony Pictures Entertainment chose to punt the decision to screen the movie to the major theatrical chains (which, likely sensing a show of no support for the film from the studio, said no), and by mid-to-late afternoon released the following statement:

“In light of the decision by the majority of our exhibitors not to show the film The Interview, we have decided not to move forward with the planned December 25 theatrical release. We respect and understand our partners’ decision and, of course, completely share their paramount interest in the safety of employees and theater-goers.

“Sony Pictures has been the victim of an unprecedented criminal assault against our employees, our customers, and our business. Those who attacked us stole our intellectual property, private emails, and sensitive and proprietary material, and sought to destroy our spirit and our morale — all apparently to thwart the release of a movie they did not like. 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. We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.”

Was this an act of war, a form of cyber terrorism, as proclaimed afterward in the news media and across social media? Or is President Obama correct in his assessment that it was more akin to cyber vandalism, which should be addressed in much more measured terms?

Fear makes extremists of us all, and when rooted in a sense of righteousness and perceived power, therein lies radicalism. But would even a North Korea-backed group be willing to embark on a series of terror strikes in the U.S. during the holiday season with full knowledge that such actions would garner the attention and ire of the international community (in a world already tiptoeing on the brink of world war) over a studio comedy? This might go down as the grandest bluff in history. And the delicious irony is that the Guardians of Peace communicated through the Internet.

What do I believe made the corporate giant blink? Sony feared a loss of (economic) power. Having invested somewhere in the neighborhood of $75 million in the movie, I suspect Sony reacted to the swelling of their rather public black eye (the email leaks) and sought victimhood rather than trusting us, the American public, and the potential courage of our convictions. Would we have been willing, as a viewing populace, to line up and stare down the fears of terrorism on Christmas Day (and beyond)? Would the Guardians of Peace have been in position to execute terror strikes?

We have no proof of either situation. I would have been curious to see if we would have had the resolve, but by capitulating (and that is exactly what Sony has done), a sad precedent has been set. Thank goodness Salman Rushdie and the British government didn’t cower in similar fashion when the fatwa was leveled on the author upon the release of The Satanic Verses. I am currently close to finishing Joseph Anton, Rushdie’s account of that period and the takeaway for me is not optimistic as 2014 begins to head into the rearview.

I’ve seen the future, and it will take vision beyond whatever found footage exists and courage from us all. ©