Thanks to Sony's quick and craven cancellation of its release of

The Interview

, the few critics who saw the movie in advance became not just the stiffs paid to watch this stuff, but also one of Hollywood's most exclusive audiences ever.

So what did they think? Scott Foundas wrote in Variety that the film, which has drawn electronic attacks and threats tentatively linked to North Korea, is "about as funny as a communist food shortage, and just as protracted." Referring to the coarse comedy favored by stars Seth Rogen and James Franco, Jordan Hoffman began his review in the Guardian by addressing "what's front and center on the screen: butts."

OK, so The Interview isn't an ideal test case for free expression. But America's great tradition of unfettered speech was built partly on a foundation of hard-core pornography and white supremacist rallies - some of the otherwise indefensible expression that has been protected from government suppression on principle. So we ought to be able to get behind this puerile comedy, even if it reaches for relevance or shock by depicting the gory assassination of an all-too-actual dictator, Kim Jong-un.

The trouble is that we haven't been given the chance. This week, after the hackers who stole unreleased films and confidential records from Sony threatened to attack moviegoers, the country's largest cinema chains abandoned the film about as readily as they might urge you to upgrade your popcorn size. Although federal officials did not deem the threat credible, Sony soon canceled the movie's planned Christmas release, with the apparent intention of letting North Korea's film critics determine The Interview's fate in perpetuity.

The U.S. theater chains and especially Sony - a Japanese entertainment and electronics giant with the capacity to take a stand - thereby set a deplorable precedent that was immediately followed. New Regency this week canceled production of another film to be set in North Korea. And after a few independent theaters advertised protest screenings of Team America: World Police - a 2004 farce depicting Kim Jong-un's father and predecessor, Kim Jong-il, as a marionette - Paramount canceled those shows.

Westerners don't deserve much credit for daring to ridicule Kim Jong-un; true courage is reserved for the millions of North Koreans who face oppression, starvation, and murder at the hands of one of the world's worst governments. But in the country where Charlie Chaplin and Captain America famously mocked and pummeled Hitler, it would be truly cowardly to shrink from doing Kim the tiny disservice of producing and consuming creative works without regard for his tastes or histrionics.

The reaction to Sony's decision suggests that even in the long shadow of 9/11 - which the hackers explicitly invoked - much of the American public won't be cowed by threats of terrorism. If the company reconsiders and finds a way to get its movie before audiences, it just might begin to repair its reputation, make some money, and, however slightly and inadvertently, weaken a despot.