Sony, The Interview and Hollywood Illusions of Creative Expression
The story of Sony and the hackers captured the year-end news cycle for over a month, unveiling a treasure trove of emails exposing stark flashes of the hidden underbelly of Hollywood, an industry normally aswirl in magic dust this time of year. But when the story turned from snarky digs, racism and inequity, to threats of violence against theaters, in the words of the White House press secretary, it became a “national security issue.”
US officials claimed that North Korea, angered by Seth Rogan’s film depicting the assassination of Kim Jung-un, was responsible for the cyber attacks against Sony, and amid threats of theater violence, enthusiasm for the film’s release evaporated as potential costs added up. When Sony announced it would cancel the Christmas Day release of The Interview, President Obama chastised Sony saying the company had “made a mistake,” and an earthquake of righteous indignation shook Hollywood. The NYT (12/19/14) reported that prominent members of the Hollywood community were fuming “about what they saw as failure by Sony to make a stand for artistic freedom.” According to Steve Carell is was “a sad day for creative expression,” and Michael Moore and Judd Apatow accused Sony of “caving to the hackers.” Rob Lowe also announced it was a sign that the terrorists have won. The cancellation brought calls from celebrities, directors, producers, and critics alike to ignore threats to consumer malls where screens predominate, and as David Carr (NYT 12/22/14) put it, “Play the Movie.”
And play it did. The day before Christmas Sony announced the film would be released in independent and art-house theaters, about 300 nationwide. Reported as an epic victory for freedom of expression, an NPR (ATC 12/24/14) interview with Josh Levin, the proprietor of one of the theaters showing the film, summed up the popular national narrative. Levin said, “It isn’t very often, frankly, in this country that such a high profile potential abridgment of people’s free expression is in the zeitgeist [that presents] an opportunity for us to all, as a country and as a people, stand up and say we will not tolerate people being bullied out of free expression.”
But so many issues cloud the simple media narrative celebrating freedom, creativity, and artistic expression it’s hard to know where to start.
On Christmas day filmmaker Alex Rivera (Sleep Dealer 2008) took to Facebook and offered some perspective about bullying filmmakers:
Well, THE INTERVIEW will be screened. Everyone can go back to the routine now. And, here’s the simple truth: Seth Rogen’s “free speech” rights were never at risk. He’s starred in 67 films. His film got made and was bound to be released eventually. But…Women filmmakers (a measly 6% of directors), Latino filmmakers (a minuscule 2% of directors), Black filmmakers (a tiny 6% of directors) actually face real, constant, systemic threats to their ability to speak. Embedded in those numbers are countless filmmakers who don’t get a shot.
The Interview got it’s shot by blowing the head off No.1 US evil enemy Kim Jong Un, but it wasn’t Rogan’s creativity that came up with that plot twist. It came from the CIA. Though the Los Angeles Times reported that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg claimed it was their idea to have Kim Jong Un as the target, an email from Sony’s senior vice president Marisa Liston, published in The Daily Beast indicated that it came from Sony through the intelligence agency. “They mentioned that it was a sony executive that told them to not use a fictitious name, but to go with kim jon-un,” wrote Liston. “They mention that a former cia agent and someone who used to work for Hilary [sic] Clinton looked at the script.” Not content to interact only with the CIA, an email from Sony CEO Michael Lynton reveals that he checked with “someone very senior in State” who confidentially, gave him the go-ahead for the filmic representation of the assassination of a living head of state—the first in U.S. film history.
In addition, Sony had already censored the film by agreeing to alter certain scenes for international distribution, The Daily Beast (12/15/14) quoted emails from Nigel Clark, president of international marketing for Sony Pictures appeasing international distributors. “Have these revisions addressed any concerns you might have had regarding the over-the-top violence in the third act of the film?” Mexico, Sweden, Russia, Belgium, Brazil, and France, preferred the altered, “softer version” with Eric Brune, head of Sony Pictures in France, observing “the violent version is, I think a little bit too much for a comedy.”
Sony drafted a list of detailed talking points for their executives that attempted to hide its continual shaping of the film’s content: “This is a Columbia Pictures release and our parent company has little to no involvement in the creative direction taken.”
But Sony’s reliance on the CIA and the State Department, together with its penchant to alter film content to increase profits is nothing out of the ordinary. Blockbuster films made at major studios are required to pass the censors before they receive military support, which accounts for some of the most profitable films in Hollywood. The Pentagon and every branch of the Armed Services now help major studios shape, alter, influence and censor films for US audiences. Philip Strub is the long-time head of The DOD’s Entertainment Liaison Office, and a powerful player in the movie business. When making war films, blockbusters and superheroes tales, Hollywood needs military hardware to shoot; think jets, tanks, battleships and personnel. They have no hope of getting such government largess unless they first submit their scripts to Strub, who openly admits that, “sometimes they require script changes as a condition of providing support.” War films must depict military life as “realistically” as possible, or they must “inform the public” about U.S. military prowess, or assist in recruitment. Strub also explains the real goals of military/media collaborations, “any film that portrays the military as negative is not realistic to us.” In fact, “The Marine Corps’ film office in Los Angeles contains a floor-to-ceiling shelf of files on films that asked for assistance but were never made, “most too expensive to produce without military assistance.”
In addition to vetting scripts before supplying the hardware, Strub’s office carefully monitors the “creative” process once the film is in production. No on-set deviations from the content stipulations are allowed, a process that circumscribes independent improvisation or creative input that might emerge in the collaborative process that is film production.
With a budget of over four billion dollars, the DOD’s PR apparatus is well funded, highly organized, and extremely influential. The public pays for these productions in many ways, mostly by footing the bill for propaganda. “Strub has been uniformly admired in Hollywood and few pictures have deviated much from the ideological consensus he fostered—patriotism, a virtuous U.S. military, glorification of battlefield exploits and masculine heroism.”
The 2012 recruitment film Act of Valor represents a significant leap in the militarization of Hollywood. Originally an ad funded by the DOD, it was the first feature film to star active duty Navy SEALs. The film’s themes give new life to military PR dreams of heroism, evil enemies, and terrorists who torture American agents in a plot so implausible it should be a spoof. But the film’s aestheticization of war that celebrates Special Forces and the transformation of U.S. foreign policy is no laughing matter. As Jeremy Schill documents in Dirty Wars (2013), Special Forces terrorize civilians with night raids and clandestine killings. Act of Valor sanitizes those policies and is a filmic denial of the human, moral and political costs that glorify US endless wars.
In addition to reinforcing American war policies worldwide, many blockbusters are advertisements for high-tech weapons. With spectacular comic book and science fiction films, fantasy works as promotion. The DOD’s and Marvel Studios created Iron Man (2008), with sequences filmed at Edwards Air Force base, where director Jon Favreau had access to “the great C17s and the Raptors and all the stuff.” The result is a “blue-skies ballet” between Iron Man and the F22A Raptors, which combine forces to kill a group of Afghan terrorists modeled on Al-Qaeda. Air Force officials gloated that they came off looking like rock stars. And in Michael Bay’s blockbuster Transformers, (2007) every branch of the DOD teams up with American teenagers and some good alien robots (Autobots) to do battle with bad ones (Decepticons) and save the world. The film was shot White Sands Missile Base in New Mexico. Army liaison, Lt. Col. Gregory Bishop, boasted: “As far as I know, this is the biggest joint military operation movie ever made. Even Superman now shills for the Pentagon’s militainment factory. Man of Steel (2013) doubles as a fantastical advertisement for the F-35 jet, which flies its first and only mission over Smallville, Superman’s hometown. In reality, the DOD’s R&D on this jet is a farcical boondoggle; it was grounded due to technical difficulties, costing taxpayers $400 billion, and is projected to reach $1.5 trillion before it is done.
Don’t forget that is was Sony that also brought us Zero Dark Thirty, a film collaboration with the CIA. The torture report shared the news cycle with the Sony hacking story, and it should come as no surprise that CIA Director John Brennan, gave the same specious defense for torture woven into the plot of ZD30; that torture led to information “useful” to the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.
The coverage of the cyber attacks against Sony should have prompted an examination of Hollywood’s collaboration with the national security state. Instead, a celebration of freedom of expression denied that the real story of censorship in Hollywood comes from the US Armed Forces.