Did Kim Jong-un threaten the dog, too? Seth Rogen and James Franco in 'The Interview'
Did Kim Jong-un threaten the dog, too? Seth Rogen and James Franco in ‘The Interview’

Forget al-Qaeda. The biggest threat to American liberty today seems to be Kim Jong-un’s al-Qimchi network. Caving to foreign hackers who  comprehensively infiltrated its computer network, providing a weekslong drip of embarrassing leaks, Sony Pictures today announced that it would not be releasing The Interview. Not in theaters. Not on DVD. Not on VOD. The Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy about two Hollywood stoners recruited to assassinate the North Korean dictator will apparently enter a never-to-be-seen vault with Jerry Lewis’ The Day the Clown Died.

First, let’s just say that this is a horrible precedent. The studio has caved to the demands of terrorists at the expense of one of the basic American ideals, freedom of expression. Such cowardice is to some degree understandable — with this week’s vague, 9/11-invoking threat to moviegoers attempting to see the movie, exhibitors were dropping bookings for the film faster than Taylor Swift jettisons beaus. Studio lawyers were undoubtedly tallying the company’s potential liability in the unlikely event that North Korean operatives (or opportunistic copycat nutjobs) proved capable of a violent assault on innocent U.S. ticket buyers over the holidays.

But not only did the so-called Guardians of Peace hackers get exactly what they wanted in the end, but they also spent nearly a month exacting maximum damage to the studio, its bosses, and its employees (past and present). And there’s no guarantee that pulling the film from release will prevent the hackers from leaking more films, more script drafts, more materials that might damage the company, financially and reputationally.

It didn’t have to be this way. In fact, I have to wonder how and why it came to this. Back in July, when North Korea first complained to the United Nations (!) about The Interview, it seemed like an epic overreaction by an easily dismissed regime threatened by a silly little Hollywood movie. But at the time, the incident seemed to spook the filmmakers, who declined to participate in Entertainment Weekly‘s Fall Movie Preview that closed in early August.

Time's run out for James Franco and Seth Rogen in 'The Interview'
Time’s run out for James Franco and Seth Rogen in ‘The Interview’

Why did no one last summer — or earlier in the development process — consider reworking the script (or redubbing dialogue and CG-ing identifying details) to fictionalize the film’s villain? Setting the film in “West Korea” or “Kimchiland,” say, and renaming the villain “Jim Kong-two” or “Jimmy Choo”? Surely there was time — and inclination — to sidestep a potential (if silly-seeming) international incident without diluting the film’s bite as political satire, by following the pseudonymous path paved by filmmakers for generations. After all, no one doubted that Orson Welles’ Kane was really William Randolph Hearst or puzzled over the inspiration for Charlie Chaplin’s Adenoid Hynkel in The Great Dictator. Apparently, the idea did come up. “Did you think about changing his name at all, like calling him ‘Phil Jong-un?'” Stephen Colbert asked star/co-writer/codirector Seth Rogen on Monday night. “We did,” Rogen replied, before adding lamely, “and then we thought, whose feelings are we trying to spare by doing that? Kim Jong-un?” He then burst into that hoarse giggle of his, like a toking Foghorn Leghorn.

And it’s true that Kim Jong-un probably seemed like a “safe” target of ridicule and imagined murder, unlikely to retaliate in any meaningful way against the filmmakers or the studio. He’s been a Clapton-loving, Rodman-wooing punchline for late-night comics since taking over for his father as “supreme leader” three years ago. (Hindsight can be a bitch.) But can we agree that the premise of The Interview is crass — and that naming an actual world leader as a target for assassination in a buddy comedy is, at best, in questionable taste?

But now Sony finds itself in the worst of all situations — scrambling under pressure and satisfying absolutely no one. Perhaps the only way the studio can save face is to exploit the very medium that has given it such a headache for the last month: the Internet. Why not just release The Interview online, for free? A foreign dictator would no longer be censoring an American movie by threats and intimidation. A Hollywood studio would no longer profit from a comedy based on a dubious premise making light of an assassination attempt. And the rest of us could finally judge for ourselves whether this R-rated yuckfest has been worth all the A-list drama.