Sony Pictures' big Christmas flick, "The Interview," which has been pulled from release and consigned to mothballs in an unannounced location where it is expected to be safe for now, is a comedy about the assassination of Kim Jong-un, the humorless ruler of North Korea. His head explodes in the final scene, with "head chunks" flying about in gleeful clouds of gore. An excerpt of the scene has already leaked into the Internet. It's said to be a laff riot, as Hollywood used to call its comedies, but at Sony Pictures the frightened executives have joined Mr. Kim in not laughing.
Hackers got into Sony and spilled all kinds of embarrassing emails about people in high places, secrets of sex in high places, and secrets about what people in high places joke about Barack Obama. The hackers are credibly assumed to have been hired by agents in high places of Pyongyang, who are in a dudgeon, high of course, about the dissing of Mr. Kim, who is in the highest place of all.
Hackers warned that anyone at the movie on opening day would be sorry. "The world will be full of fear," they said. "Remember the 11th of September, 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time. If your house is nearby, you'd better leave. Whatever comes in the coming days is [caused] by the greed of Sony Pictures Entertainment."
Officials at Homeland Security listen to boastful blah blah like this all the time, and have learned to recognize bluster and bombast. President Obama says he's taking the cyberattack seriously but not the blah blah. "My recommendation would be that people go to the movies."
Threats to kill are not aimed at Sony's digs at the old MGM studios, but at any theater brave enough to screen "The Interview." This so frightened Sony that it will eat losses of $100 million. That's a lot of money, even in Hollywood.
This sets the sorry precedent that if someone is big and scary enough he can shut down free expression and, worse, the box office. The bravest of the Hollywood talkers turn out not to be so brave at the thought of standing up to despots large and small. Newt Gingrich calls Sony's capitulation America's "first lost cyberwar," and Mitt Romney urges Sony to put it up free on the Internet for the whole world to see. Hollywood might not know much about the real world, but it long ago learned the hard economics of bordello madams, that you can't sell it if you give it away.
The bigger story in Hollywood is not the caving to the last surviving communists and what it says about principle, conviction and the state of courage in the U.S.A., but the story of what it means for the embattled and bedraggled suits at Sony and, by implication, the other studios. Is this the end of the line for Amy Pascal, the chief at Sony who presided over the making of the movie? "The Interview" came in at $44 million, not a lot for a blockbuster, and Sony figured to make a lot of money on it. But she should have known the North Koreans, who are not famous for self-deprecating humor, would get all hinky about it. Hollywood moguls are not expected to know much about the real world, and all they have to know is what's in a script.
They were surprised to learn that the North Koreans are very, very sensitive on the matter of face. A succession of heads of state are particularly talented at taking offense. I spent a week in Pyongyang when Kim Jong-un's father, Kim Jong-il, was the presiding chief movie critic. He later dispatched agents to kidnap Shin Sang-ok, a famous South Korean movie director, and his equally famous divorced actress wife, Choi Eun-hee, and put them up in Pyongyang to make a movie better than Godzilla, his favorite. A movie about a North Korean monster called Pulgasari was a disaster, but Kim Jong-il loved it, and seven films followed, with Kim Jong-il as executive producer. They all got really good reviews in North Korea, and Shin and Choi, now married again at Kim Jong-il's "suggestion," were allowed to travel to Vienna for a film festival. They fled.
The critics in Pyongyang are tough, but they can be appeased. Appeasement is what America has never done well, until now, alas.