Monday night, Seth Rogen was a guest during the final week of The Colbert Report. Ordinarily, he isn't much of a "get," in talk-show parlance—he's funny, sure, but he always makes the rounds when he has a new movie, no big deal. But this was the first (and probably only) time that his appearance had legitimate news value, given that he co-directed and starred in Sony's supremely ill-fated The Interview, a movie that might well have taken down an entire movie studio and, ultimately, changed American foreign policy. (It certainly changed how hostile regimes will attempt to affect American foreign policy.) It has caused a seemingly never-ending cavalcade of headlines and scandal, hauling in figures from every aspect of American life, from President Obama to Angelina Jolie to poor Alex Trebek. It led to vague, 9/11-invoking death threats against any American who went to see the movie, threats apparently visceral and credible enough that a few days after the Colbert taping, The Interview would be pulled off Sony's release schedule entirely. And I, for one, was curious as to what the unwitting architect of all this would have to say for himself.
So was Colbert. One of the first questions he asked Rogen was, "Did you think about changing Kim Jong-un's name, calling him Phil Jong-un or something?" As usual, coming from him, that's a silly question that expertly masks a very serious one. The question isn't about actually naming him "Phil." It's really, "Did you understand the seriousness of what you were doing?" Rogen couldn't have known that all of this would happen, but certainly, when one makes a pricey, globally marketed movie about the United States government assassinating a well-known, still-reigning international tyrant who has openly threatened American citizens in real life, it's fair to expect everyone involved to have thought this through.
I am not sure Rogen thought this through.
It's not entirely his fault; after all, the guy is just trying to make a funny movie. (Though judging from the few people who saw early screenings of The Interview, this isn't necessarily something he accomplished.) The problem is that none of us took North Korea seriously. Rogen used North Korea and Kim Jong-un as a joke because everyone here treats North Korea and Kim Jong-un as a joke. It started with 2004's Team America, wherein Jong-un's father, Kim Jong-il, became a comedic hero for future Rogens, and just grew from there. (He's so ronery!) They're the go-to villains in movies—remember, the 2012 Red Dawn remake changed its bad guys from Chinese to North Korean to avoid a problem—because no one has ever worried about offending Kim Jong-un, something Rogen actually jokes about in the Colbert interview. Kim Jong-un and North Korea are figures of constant mockery: They hang out with Dennis Rodman, they told their citizens they won the World Cup (a lie-about-a-lie that isn't actually true, by the way), they once forced a guy to make a Godzilla movie at gunpoint. Cracked called them the "funniest evil dictatorship ever."
So of course Rogen would feel comfortable making a movie where Kim Jong-un is an idiot whom we target, successfully, for assassination. Change his name to Phil? Why? Everybody already knows who he is! He's his own comedic trope! The Interview's gimmick is born from our preexisting familiarity with him, and his country. Their incompetence and self-delusion is the joke.
Which brings us to now. Hackers, allegedly from North Korea, have made Sony Pictures' life hell for about a month, but it hasn't really affected the way we think about the country: For a long time, this was all just some fun daily gossip to distract us from all the horrible things happening in the world. I don't know anyone who said, "Well, now that I know how Channing Tatum handles his emails, perhaps it's time to start taking North Korea more seriously as a global power." So the hackers upped the ante, threatening death to anyone who entered an American theater to see The Interview, adding that "If your house is nearby, you'd better leave."
One month ago, this merely would have been another hilarious thing that North Korea did. This country can't even build a blasting cap, and now they're claiming they can attack American movie theaters! With what? Gout? And yet: Here we are. Now, because everyone at Sony Pictures is freaked out about the public revelation that Angelina Jolie is kind of bossy, North Korea has suddenly developed the capacity for global terror strikes? This is all it took?
It's not about that, of course; it's about money, as usual. Sony stock actually went up yesterday, with the hope that stopping the distribution of the film would end all of this madness. It's increasingly clear that in the corporate world of ruthless efficiency and constant hedging, the default strategy to deal with something like this is to give up anything, everything, just to make it go away. It's also the wrong strategy. I'm reminded of something New Yorker writer John Cassidy wrote in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. He pointed out that our reaction to that attack—canceling baseball and hockey games, setting up a curfew, boarding up churches and any other public gathering places—is precisely what terrorism is meant to inspire. The strong response is to do what London did in the wake of its bus bombing (buses were back on their routes within hours), or what Israel regularly does after attacks (one cafe bombed in the morning was open for business in the afternoon). The weak response is to cower. But now, we are cowering before anything has even happened. We are Buster Bluth curling up in a ball and remaining motionless at the first hint of anything. This is what you do to keep your stock price stable.
The cowardice of the movie-theater chains hiding in a broom closet was embarrassing—it's good to be reminded how spineless and awful those people are—but that doesn't get Sony off the hook. Their refusal to even release the film on VOD—or, lo, actually let independent cinemas show it; those do still exist, you know—wasn't brave, or even a capitulation. It was a way to collect on insurance: "Total loss invokes full coverage, partial doesn't," as The Hollywood Reporter put it. This is the existing corporate strategy, and now America's national strategy. This is baked in. This is having some jerk threaten your five-year-old on the playground and responding by burning down your house to collect your insurance premium. Sony Pictures is pretending it is being safe, pretending it's being scared, but it's just being a coward in the most sniveling, bean-collector sort of way. This isn't just a matter of artistic expression and freedom: It's a matter of giving in on anything. All because of nothing.
And this isn't even terrorism! This is a dying regime that we've always treated as the definition of buffoonery sending lame threats ... and us jumping underneath a table and covering our heads. (Again, it's allegedly the dying regime, but come to think of it, what's worse: Our cowering in the face of threats made by North Korea, or cowering in the face of threats made by some nobodies who somehow convinced us that they were North Korea?) We have laughed at North Korea for so long. We have made movies mocking them, and touting our superiority, and chuckling at even the idea that they could even pretend to threaten us.
We're not laughing now, are we? We should be laughing, even if The Interview turned out to be as unfunny as many of us feared. Because in the end, Rogen's right: Taking North Korea and Kim Jong-un seriously is giving them more credit than they ever deserved. They didn't take this newfound power they have. We gave it to them. We have given them, and whoever does this next, all the power.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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