In more ways than one, the American film industry loves to blow itself up. As the flip-side to self-admiring hype, alien assaults and natural calamities have repeatedly annihilated Los Angeles across decades of cinematic schlock and awe. If extraterrestrials fail to fulfil this death wish, then unchained weather will. Super-tornados blitz the Hollywood sign itself in the 2004 climate-change apocalypse The Day After Tomorrow.
Now, in a business that always has trouble disentangling fact and fantasy, an even more unlikely plot unfolds. As government and FBI wave an ever-firmer finger towards North Korea Sony cancels the release of its film about the assassination of Kim Jong-un, The Interview. Tinseltown goes into genre meltdown. A gross-out adolescent comedy morphs into a disaster movie.
The Interview’s absence from screens will hardly ruin anybody’s Christmas. Seth Rogen’s caper about two cable TV buffoons sent to terminate the North Korean dictator has left most early reviewers stony-faced. From Time (“infantile preoccupation with body parts”) and Variety (“an alleged satire that’s about as funny as a communist food shortage”) to The Hollywood Reporter (“obliviousness and… immaturity”), Rogen and co-star James Franco have already fallen under a critical cosh beyond the range of Pyongyang’s propaganda. But quality is not the point. In response to the escalating threats of disruption and violence from the hackers who call themselves “Guardians of Peace”, Sony has surrendered and pulled the film.
Cue a chorus of lamentation from outraged celebrities. If, for Rob Lowe, “Hollywood has done Neville Chamberlain proud today”, Aaron Sorkin thinks that “the US succumbed to an attack on our most cherished, bedrock principle of free speech”. Away from LA, far from the A-list, even Nick Clegg finds it extraordinary to allow “online thugs from a police state to intimidate people”.
If they did. Problems of attribution are a defining feature of almost all sophisticated cyber attacks. Even the apparently state-sponsored online chaos provoked in Estonia in 2007 and Georgia in 2008 cannot be laid at Russia’s official door with total certainty. In the case of Operation Aurora, which infiltrated at least 34 major US corporations in 2010, a widespread assumption of Chinese state responsibility has not cleared up the blurred picture of its motives.
With the Sony Pictures data theft revealed on 24 November, the question of blame – North Korean cyber agents or anti-corporate US “hacktivists”? – may not even permit a straightforward either/or answer. For security analyst Thomas Rid, in his bracingly sceptical study Cyber War Will Not Take Place, the “attribution problem” marks the most decisive break between online combat and traditional warfare: “Uncertainty and a lack of orientation are the norm, not the exception.” A dance with masks, a game of shadows, hack attacks draw force and fear from multiple layers of disguise. The Guardians of Peace may keep their secrets for a while.
America, that citadel of hope with a dungeon of dread, has long entertained its doomsday nightmares. This deep-seated terror of alien incursion may account for the widespread psychological devastation – on top of the all-too-real suffering of victims – left in the wake of 9/11. This week, the fate of Rogen’s silly movie may bring to mind the sole author who wins unequivocal approval in Pyongyang. It was Karl Marx who corrected Hegel on the tendency of history to repeat itself: “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce”. One feeling stays constant: the destabilising sense that a foreign-directed entity – state run or freelance – has struck at the nation’s idea of itself.
In theory, American freedom may not back down in the face of anonymous menaces. In practice, Sony Pictures has. Perhaps the studio, unlike the grandstanding celebs, knows a little of the local history. Hollywood has hardly ever taken a lonely stand for liberty. Quite the opposite. From D W Griffiths’s endorsement of Ku Klux Klan racism in Birth of a Nation a century ago, through the escapist Thirties, the McCarthy witch-hunts and the timidly belated response to epoch-making events such as the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, it by and large keeps schtum, plays safe and cheerleads for the status quo. Fearful of vested interests and keen to walk slowly down the middle of the road, Hollywood turns up late to the feast of freedom. That goes for its genuine classics as much as its routine potboilers. In 1962, To Kill a Mockingbird depicted the Alabama not of that strife-torn moment in the South but of Harper Lee’s brilliantly reimagined, yet hygienically remote, mid-1930s.
Often it takes imported mischief-makers to inject some backbone into social satire, LA-style. Today’s textbook example, Sacha Baron Cohen, is British. True, trouble-stirring documentarist Michael Moore hails from the heartland: Flint, Michigan. But Hollywood has hardly clasped him to its corporate bosom. For all its nuclear sabre-rattling, Kim Jong-un’s regime no doubt struck the studio as a relatively risk-free target, about as realistic to its home audience as the bellicose planets that invade America in sci-fi blockbusters.
As for Rob Lowe’s invocation of Neville Chamberlain, it should wrench a hollow laugh from anyone acquainted with the studios’ track record of conformity. For Hollywood itself was the great appeaser of the pre-war Third Reich. In a bewildering twist of history, studio bosses who were sometimes themselves Jewish migrants – and could still feel like barely tolerated outsiders – bent over backwards to meet the demands of Hitler’s Germany. It began in 1930, before the Nazis came to power, when Goebbels made a rabble-rousing speech against the film of Erich Maria Remarque’s anti-war masterpiece All Quiet on the Western Front. Once in control, the Nazis – who governed a vital overseas market for American films – dictated their terms.
A special consul, Georg Gyssling, was assigned to Hollywood. He whipped up storms and twisted arms whenever anti-Nazi material threatened to surface in new movies. Harvard historian Ben Urwand tells the shaming story in his book The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler. Gyssling even ensured that, in the 1937 biopic The Life of Emile Zola, not a single line identifies the persecuted Captain Dreyfus as a Jew. German pressure had scuppered plans in 1933 to make an anti-Hitler film, The Mad Dog of Europe. “We have terrific income in Germany and, as far as I am concerned, this picture will never be made,” said Louis B Mayer of MGM. It never was. Later, even Charlie Chaplin – an exception to the rule of silence – “toned down” the script of The Great Dictator.
By 1938, Gyssling could interfere in the filming of a later Remarque novel, Three Comrades, so that it “neither attacked the Nazis nor mentioned the Jews. The picture had been completely sanitised”. That cosmetic operation entailed the mutilation of a screenplay by F Scott Fitzgerald. For Urwand, “At this critical moment, when a major Hollywood production could have alerted the world to what was going on in Germany, the director did not have the final cut; the Nazis did.”
Set against Hollywood’s willingness to give Hitler just what he wanted, Chamberlain looks like an amateurish latecomer. Even before the red-baiting of the late 1940s and the antics of the House Un-American Activities Committee, the studios had shown their true colours. It took the form of a white flag. Even now, products that cost hundreds of millions of dollars and may harvest global revenues to match a small country’s GDP ($2.8bn for James Cameron’s Avatar) will seldom aim to rock boats or shake thrones. Zero Dark Thirty – Kathryn Bigelow’s mesmeric dramatisation of the hunt for Osama bin Laden – even waves a tarnished flag for “enhanced interrogation”. Its stance (contradicted by the recent Senate report) led writer Naomi Wolf to call the director “torture’s handmaiden”. Big-budget film generally serves the state.
And its overseas allies. Israeli film-makers, for example, have made dozens of frank, fearless and questioning movies about their own region’s history and politics – most recently, the remarkable agent-handler docudrama The Green Prince. Hollywood studios cannot, having seamlessly moved from craven silence about genocidal anti-Semitism in the 1930s to the post-war demonisation of Arab characters and cultures. (As Disney’s Aladdin sweetly puts it: “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.”) However, even that kneejerk stereotyping has diminished since Arab-Americans began to find a voice.
Far easier to stick with a semi-mythical wizard’s lair such as North Korea. Whoever lies behind the Guardians of Peace, however lame the comedy, Sony should never have withdrawn The Interview. But the seething stars who condemn studio cowardice should first look into their own collective past. To win more credibility as champions of freedom, they might acknowledge Hollywood’s long-term complicity with bullying power both at home and abroad.
Next, they could imagine the US reaction to a comic fantasy made by some unfriendly state – Russia, perhaps – that played the slaying of President Obama as broad, lavatorial farce. How many multiplexes would welcome such a film with open screens? In this country, even Hilary Mantel’s skittish fictive fantasia about the targeting of Margaret Thatcher by an IRA assassin has triggered media wrath and calls for her prosecution. Distant despots make safe butts. Instead, scoffers with spines to rival Mantel’s should pick on the scary monsters in their own backyard. Like charity, satire best begins at home.
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