Hollywood celebrities are appalled that Sony Pictures has canceled The Interview, Seth Rogen and James Franco’s comedy about killing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in the wake of North Korea’s cyber-attack on the company. “Saw @Sethrogen at JFK,” Rob Lowe tweeted. “Both of us have never seen or heard of anything like this. Hollywood has done Neville Chamberlain proud today.”
Some of the stars blamed Sony in particular, while others blamed the theaters that refused to show the film. “I think it is disgraceful,” tweeted Judd Apatow. “Will they pull any movie that gets an anonymous threat now?” Jimmy Kimmel agreed: “An un-American act of cowardice that validates terrorist actions and sets a terrifying precedent.”
It’s a welcome change to see big-time stars take a strong public position about something they know about and affects them personally. However, Sony and the theatres deserve a break. These are businesses run by serious people whose names and companies are on the line. Unlike U.S. policymakers who think they can persuade terrorist states like North Korea and Iran to understand that it is their own best interests not to sponsor terror, the executives at Sony can’t afford to take stupid risks with terrorists backed by a nuclear-armed state. Sony CEO Amy Pascal understands that if Pyongyang’s hackers decide, for instance, to shut down the electrical grid in Los Angeles—ostensibly to stop The Interview from being shown—then it’s no longer about a Seth Rogen/James Franco farce, or even about freedom of expression. No, it’s an act of war, for which it would be convenient to blame Sony.
Worse yet, Sony knows that if something bad happens, they’re on their own. The North Koreans don’t fear U.S. retribution for hacking Sony. And why should they? The chubby Western-educated psychopath that Rogen and Franco made fun of in their light-hearted comedy isn’t actually that funny at all. Kim Jong-un is a very dangerous man—who probably has a nuclear bomb, or several. Why should Sony take that on when the U.S. government, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, has ignored it?
Sony is simply making clear what U.S. allies have been saying now for several years: in spite of Obama’s promises, they do not believe that the White House has their back. The Obama administration scrapped the anti-missile defense system promised for Poland and Czech Republic, failed to enforce his own redline in Syria, and is eager to do a deal with Iran—and is now eager for another reset with Putin’s Russia. The world knows that U.S. security assurances mean little. It’s cool that Judd Apatow is standing up for free speech, but until he and his wife Leslie Mann maybe their pal Paul Rudd acquire a blue-water navy or a nuclear arsenal, it’s inconsequential. What’s really genius about North Korea’s political play here is that it’s wrapped up in Hollywood nonsense, which allows many observers to treat it like something from The Colbert Report, rather than the entirely serious threat that it is. The fact is that the North Koreans are using Hollywood to teach all of us a real lesson in hard power—not the kind that takes meetings and greenlights pictures, but the kind that shapes the world.
Obama came to the White House to heal a world that Bush had broken with his wars, with the promise that sweet words, suasion, and soft power would allow America to project its values and ideas around the world without firing a shot. Hollywood films are the pillar of American soft power. North Korea’s threats have now provided the definitive illustration of how soft power is irrelevant unless it is underwritten by hard power. It’s good Hollywood is terrified today—they should be. Maybe they should make a movie about it.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).