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'The Interview' and the threat of free speech

Kim Jong Un's head will not explode on Christmas Day, after all. At least not on movie screens in North America, or anywhere else in the world.

James Franco (center) and Seth Rogen (right) in Sony's controversial "The Interview."
James Franco (center) and Seth Rogen (right) in Sony's controversial "The Interview."Read moreColumbia Pictures Sony

Kim Jong Un's head will not explode on Christmas Day, after all. At least not on movie screens in North America, or anywhere else in the world.

On Wednesday, Sony Pictures pulled the Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy The Interview - about a pair of knucklehead TV journos recruited by the CIA to assassinate the North Korean leader - from its scheduled Dec. 25 release. A day earlier, hackers who had been wreaking havoc on Sony's digital systems for weeks, leaking embarrassing e-mails, internal documents, scripts, and not-yet-released films, sent out messages invoking 9/11 and warning exhibitors to steer clear.

Carmike was the first major chain to yank the film. AMC, Regal, and the rest followed over the course of a panicky day. Bow Tie Cinemas, with locations in New York and New Jersey, issued a statement: "It is our mission to ensure the safety and comfort of our guests and employees," adding it was "saddened and angered by recent threats of terrorism in connection with the movie."

On Friday, the FBI announced North Korea was, indeed, responsible for the Sony cyberattacks. So ended the guessing game of whom the self-styled Guardians of Peace might be working for, or with, in its unprecedented data invasion. North Korea has denied being the perpetrator but has vociferously condemned the film as the work of "gangster moviemakers" and a "wanton act of terror." Two weeks ago, it hailed the epic Sony breach as a "righteous deed."

Rogen and Franco, who were paid $8.4 million and $6.5 million, respectively, for their work in The Interview (a juicy bit of info leaked by the hackers and obtained by Bloomberg News), pretty much have the category of Movies About Offing Living World Leaders to themselves. Death of a President, a faux documentary about the assassination of President George W. Bush, lasted only a few weeks in art houses in late 2006, and Bush did not see the need to send Homeland Security out to the Ritz or other theaters to prevent it from being shown.

That's one of the things about this whole strange, surreal, troubling affair. Rogen, Franco, and the Sony Pictures execs, not to mention most of us living in the United States, tend to take free speech for granted. The expression of bad taste is a constitutional right - even supremely bad taste, in the case of a raunchy farce about trying to dispatch the Supreme Leader.

(It might have been worse. According to leaked e-mail correspondence with Sony Pictures cochairwoman Amy Pascal, Sony chief executive Kazuo Hirai, in Japan, requested that the film's climactic sequence be cut to make it less graphic. It depicts a fiery conflagration in which Kim's head explodes.)

There is no First Amendment in a totalitarian state like the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or in Iran, where the internationally acclaimed director Jafar Panahi was arrested and banned from making movies - for life. Also in Iran: Maziar Bahari, a journalist imprisoned and tortured after authorities saw him interviewed on Jon Stewart's Daily Show. Bahari was charged with colluding with an American spy, because the Comedy Central news show's correspondent, Jason Jones, jokingly fessed up that he was a secret agent. Talk about humor not translating. (Stewart's directing debut, Rosewater, is about Bahari's bizarre captivity; it's in theaters now.)

Geopolitical parodies are nothing new. Charlie Chaplin's wicked Hitler satire, The Great Dictator, came out in 1940, on the brink of America's entry into the war. Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be, the Jack Benny comedy about a theater troupe in Nazi-occupied Poland, opened in 1942. Its mockery of Der Fuhrer's minions made some audiences, and critics, uncomfortable, but the film is rightly deemed a classic. Lubitsch, responding to a negative review, wrote: "What I have satirized in this picture are the Nazis and their ridiculous ideology. I have also satirized the attitude of actors who always remain actors regardless of how dangerous the situation might be."

Of course, the world was at war with Hitler in 1942, so the threat of retaliation for such blasphemy would have been moot. (The leader of the Third Reich, by the way, was a film nut - especially keen on Disney's Mickey Mouse cartoons, and Tarzan.)

Let's not forget, too, that Kim's predecessor, his father, Kim Jong Il, was the clownish villain in 2004's Team America: World Police. In the action-movie send-up from the creators of South Park, a Broadway actor is recruited by an elite counterterrorism force to combat evil - specifically, the machinations of the North Korean leader. The entire cast is marionettes.

When news broke Wednesday that Sony would not release The Interview - a move that could cost the studio $75 million to $100 million, according to industry estimates - Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin and other independent theaters with savvy programmers opted to show Team America: World Police instead. But on Thursday, Paramount, its distributor, said Team America would no longer be available. (Rent it on Netflix.)

New Regency Pictures this week scrapped plans for an untitled thriller set in North Korea, with Steve Carell to star. Shooting was to begin in the new year.

The threat of cyberattacks turned to real acts of violence is clearly something the National Association of Theater Owners would rather not contend with. (Yes, NATO - probably the first time the industry group has had to deal with an international crisis usually left to its acronymical doppelganger.) Theater attendance is down, and memories linger of the Aurora, Colo., multiplex carnage when The Dark Knight Rises screened in 2012.

But caving to threats could invite copycat cyberattacks and more threats of physical harm. Can any group with a bone to pick and a few crack hackers on its payroll now thwart the distribution and exhibition of a film? What about other works of art - plays, books, music - that attract activist haters?

"I think it is disgraceful that these theaters are not showing The Interview," Judd Apatow, the director and producer who cast Rogen and Franco on the TV show Freaks and Geeks, posted Wednesday on Twitter. "Will they pull any movie that gets an anonymous threat now?"

Late-night host Jimmy Kimmel tweeted in agreement, calling The Interview's removal "an un-American act of cowardice that validates terrorist actions and sets a terrifying precedent."

President Obama, at his Friday-afternoon news conference, said Sony made a mistake pulling the film, adding, "if somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary that they don't like or news reports that they don't like."

George Clooney, himself the subject of hacked Sony e-mails leaked online, launched a petition to get Sony to release The Interview. Few would sign it.

"We have a new paradigm, a new reality, and we're going to have to come to real terms with it all the way down the line," Clooney said in an interview Thursday with Deadline Hollywood. "This was a dumb comedy that was about to come out. With the First Amendment, you're never protecting Jefferson; it's usually protecting some guy who's burning a flag or doing something stupid.

"This is a silly comedy, but the truth is, what it now says about us is a whole lot."