Black Christmas: Scandal, Schadenfreude, and the Spectacle of the Sony Hack

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Editor’s note: A few hours after this post was published today, Sony announced it was canceling its Christmas Day release of The Interview.

Even by Hollywood’s impressive standards, Oscar-winning producer Scott Rudin has a rep as a lousy advertisement for civilization. Sony Pictures head Amy Pascal may or may not be in that league, but it’s a safe guess that she didn’t get where she is by mimicking Mary Poppins: After all, she’s a woman who wields enormous power in the movie industry, enough all by itself to guarantee herself reams of hostility in that alpha-male zoo. That’s why we’d be smart to bet on Rudin as the one to outlast the shitstorm currently ensnaring them both.

In case we need to congratulate you on your recent escape from Sing Sing or something, the non-specialist public didn’t know these two from holes in the ground until earlier this month. Then their private opinions of Angelina Jolie (Rudin: “a minimally talented spoiled brat”) and snarky speculations about President Obama’s favorite films — Pascal went with Django Unchained; plainly not a man to be outdone in wit, Rudin countered with 12 Years a Slave — grabbed top billing in the first document dumps from a massive hack of Sony’s internal everything by an outfit styling itself the Guardians of Peace.

The apparent provocation for the crew’s wrath: Sony’s upcoming Seth Rogen–James Franco comedy about bumping off kettle-shaped North Korean despot Kim Jong-un, The Interview. Right up until Tuesday morning, when the Guardians of Peace upped the ante by threatening to attack theaters showing the film, few people took their Dr. Evil routine seriously. It was just a great excuse to revel in dirt.

For argument’s sake, let’s pretend that upward of half a dozen people in these United States were surprised that Hollywood machers sound just like all the rest of us — from business execs to, most likely, nuns — when they’re dishing among themselves. Not that there haven’t been plenty of other nuggets from the hack’s geyser of goodies for Gawker et al. to feast on— with no one showing many qualms about getting in on the piñata, Grantland included.

Among other tidbits, we’ve learned that Sony employees feel pretty sheepish about being Adam Sandler’s aesthetic enablers, even though his loyal ex-roomie Judd Apatow doesn’t like anyone to mess with the Zohan by releasing their movies head-to-head. Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams’s deals for American Hustle weren’t as lucrative as those of male co-stars Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale, finally adding some hard evidence to the lunatic-fringe conviction that Hollywood can be somewhat sexist.

Sony Pictures Classic 68th Annual Golden Globe Awards PartyNeilson Barnard/Getty Images

George Clooney needed consoling for his case of the sads after critics beat up on The Monuments Men. But he feels pretty cocky anyway about his next movie — based on, whaddya know, the U.K. hacking scandal that rocked Rupert Murdoch’s media empire three years ago — and Channing Tatum doesn’t skimp on the “HAHAHA” when he feels like crowing over 22 Jump Street’s opening numbers. The next James Bond flick could cost upward of $300 million and may feature a lesbian villainess, and feel free to notice that absolutely none of this trivia — to call it by its proper name — gives us any provocation to revise our impressions of Sony, stardom, and/or the movie business one jot.

It does make us grinning onlookers to the destruction of more working relationships between fundamentally unpleasant rich people than you could shake an Oscar at, however, and everybody knows that rubbernecking at car wrecks is fun. Since what’s come out so far is apparently a long way from being the whole trove, Vulture’s handy guide to everything leaked up to this point may require constant updating between now and Christmas Day. The official Christmas Day, I should say, since it clearly came early this year for the Internet, half of Hollywood, and even the New York Times — whose executive editor, Dean Baquet, has declared the hack’s contents “newsworthy” even by the Gray Lady’s sobersided standards, even if he has yet to explain how the NYT arrived at this judgment.

Meanwhile, North Korea has disclaimed any connection to the Guardians of Peace, but Kim Jong-un’s minions think the hackers’ motives are just peachy. Sony, whose execs are reportedly stunned that the other majors aren’t circling the wagons in solidarity — how would they like it if it happened to them? — has threatened legal reprisals against the news venues disseminating the info dumps’ contents, hauling out marquee-name litigator David Boies to ensure that this hot air, which it is, will do its darndest to impersonate a tornado.

As for Pascal and Rudin, they’ve expressed contrition for how they communicate when they think strangers aren’t hacking their emails. Pascal’s job may be on the chopping block anyway. (“Is the Clock Ticking on Amy Pascal’s Exit?” Variety wondered yesterday.) Pirated files of Annie, among other mostly unreleased Sony titles made available by the hack, are being downloaded in droves. Early reviews of Annie are poor, which must be the ultimate in adding insult to injury.

In short, everyone not on Sony’s payroll has been having a wonderful time. So I hate to be a killjoy — really, I do. I’ve got no special love for Pascal, Rudin, or the other boldface names being discomfited, and I’ve certainly done my share of getting off on all the pustules of tittle-tattle about how the sausage gets made and the various bonfires of the vanities on display. It’s just that I wouldn’t blame Sony’s 140,000 or so non-boldface employees for being alarmed for their safety, not to mention appalled that the threat to it, as far as the media and the rest of us are concerned, has thus far come in a distant second (if that) to delight in Hollywood’s embarrassment.

The hack encompasses all sorts of confidential information about them — Social Security numbers, addresses, medical records, and the like, not just cutesy stuff like Tom Hanks’s favorite hotel aliases — and they got warned way back in early December that “Your family will be in danger” unless “[you] make your company behave wisely.” Presumably, that meant getting Sony to put the kibosh on The Interview. Once we get over our fit of the giggles — from which I haven’t been immune — we’ll have to recognize that we’ve been relishing the ancillary fallout from what may well qualify as an act of terrorism: the cyber-age sequel to the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his Ayatollah Khomeini–mocking novel The Satanic Verses.

That’s assuming the North Korea tie-in isn’t a smokescreen for pranksters — or worse — with another agenda entirely. Though the peculiar English of the Guardians of Peace’s demands — e.g., “Stop immediately showing the movie of terrorism which can break the regional peace and cause the War” — may reflect genuine unfamiliarity with the language, it has a whiff of Austin Powers–ish parody and/or deliberate misdirection just the same. I can’t be the only one to notice how prominently and often the group’s implausible name is abbreviated in their communiqués to “GOP” — liberal Hollywood’s idea of a real terrorist crew, right? — and wonder if a very strange joke is afoot.

For now, though, we don’t have much choice but to accept the situation as presented to us. So just for the heck of it, let’s assume the hackers really are indignant about The Interview and out to either suppress the movie or, failing that, demolish Sony by way of payback. Whether they’re operating with the North Korean regime’s blessing or outright backing — security experts think the hackers must have had considerable resources, but you know none of us would be totally surprised if all this turned out to be the work of a 17-year-old in a Van Nuys garage — is pure conjecture at this stage. The bottom line is that this is an attack on freedom of speech — not Pascal and Rudin’s right to say asinine things in private emails, even though that’s worth defending, but Sony’s right to release a silly movie mocking Kim Jong-un — by people who are perfectly ready to go after innocents, scaring them witless if not worse, to get their way.

That should have been the headline all along, but of course it wasn’t — not with insider swipes at Angelina Jolie and similar diversions-in-every-sense competing for our attention. Only the hackers’ threat to go 9/11 on theaters showing The Interview revised our appraisal of the stakes involved in that familiar “shit’s getting real” way. Yet the terrorist intent behind all the hugely enjoyable dirty laundry was real from the start. It was just easy to overlook, because nobody particularly gave a crap so long as the harm was confined to Sony’s stock-market value (which plummeted 10 per cent on Monday, if you’re curious).

Up to then, any debate over the propriety of the fun we were having mostly centered on whether news organizations ought to be publicizing stolen information. But given the age we live in, that argument was over before it began. Once stuff like this is available, it’s going to go public across the board, and news venues that feign agonizing over the dilemma are merely rationalizing a “decision” that’s a foregone conclusion. Sure, they can salvage a few shards of pride by being selective about what they relay, but the great thing about the Internet era is that anyone can be a little bit pregnant. They’ll get clicks just the same.

More than any other individual, that nihilistic egomaniac-with-a-cause Julian Assange — not one of my favorite people, in case you can’t guess — put us on a slippery slope. Editors now invoke WikiLeaks as a precedent while conceding that the Sony hack isn’t comparable in terms of news value or, lord knows, even potential public service.

The InterviewSony Pictures

Legally, what the Guardians of Peace did isn’t any different from breaking into Sony headquarters and burglarizing the vaults. But the perception is different, especially among people who don’t remember a non-digital world. Anything that can be hacked is considered not only fair game but, at some level, public property whose ostensible owners simply refuse to concede that the rules have changed. Just ask any celeb whose nude snaps have gone viral how that “It’s my body, and it should be my choice” line is working out when it comes to generating remorse from cyberspace voyeurs.

Wanting to keep anything secret ends up being proof that the public deserves to know. And since hackers often target powerful institutions, like corporations or the government — and some might even say celebs qualify — the nose-thumbing at authority has intrinsic romance, not unlike the way Depression-era Americans rooted for John Dillinger against the Feds. Considerations of what does or doesn’t deserve exposure and/or what good might come of it can’t make much headway against an often low-minded, but just as often idealistic, belief that everything should be available and there’s something fishy about wanting it withheld.

In this case, though, the least we can do is stay focused on who’s done the stealing, what their purposes are, and what else they might do to achieve their goal. Or goals, since the movie they claim to be up in arms about could turn out to be a red herring. But for whatever reason, wreaking havoc on Sony is definitely on the menu, and the genius stroke is that we’ve all been enlisted as accomplices. I’m no cheerleader for corporate America, but it’s not easy to argue that the company has done anything to deserve this — unless, of course, you agree with the hackers that The Interview’s effrontery ought to be punished.

Even so, remarkably, news outfits keep characterizing the flap as “the Sony scandal,” when in fact nothing that scandalous, outrageous, or salacious — let alone criminal, at least so far — has come to light. Like it or not, we’ve been blaming the victim — and getting a lot of glee out of it, too.

The perps had to threaten candid mayhem before many even gave any consideration to them being the bad guys. It doesn’t do the media’s moral compass much credit that vainglory buff Aaron Sorkin could seize the high ground with a New York Times op-ed braying that at least his head was screwed on right, when what it’s screwed tothose tap-tap-tapping fingers — has always been the problem.

Since saying “The terrorists have won” has been a punch line for years now, it’s a bummer that this time that’s literally true. Most obviously, even if the hackers turn out to be Scandinavian cinephiles who just can’t stand James Franco — get real, Sven: The line starts over there — it’ll be one icy day in Malibu before any studio green-lights another movie making fun of Kim Jong-un. Or, most likely, any other real-world foreign regime, no matter how absurd or tyrannical.

It’s cold comfort that this will mark the demise of a double standard, since what has made North Korea a safe butt of screen ridicule for years was that no penalty was involved — it’s a nonexistent movie market and a country we didn’t think anyone would object to spoofing. By contrast, you’d be hard pressed to name a major Hollywood release in recent years that so much as hints at criticizing the Chinese, who account for a whole lot of the industry’s foreign box-office boodle.

Whatever comes next, whether or not Amy Pascal keeps her job — which I kind of hope she does — is no longer the main issue anywhere outside Hollywood’s most ostrich-like precincts. Barring another twist in the story, my hunch is that theaters will leap at Sony’s offer to not hold them to their bookings of The Interview — as one chain already has — and I can’t even say I’d blame them. Lowly bookstore clerks fought to keep selling The Satanic Verses when their parent chains wanted to quit, but who the fuck wants to risk death for James Franco and Seth Rogen? Even Rogen wouldn’t. (True, Franco might. But you can sell him on anything so long as it’s conceptual.) It sticks in my craw that the principle is the same.

Filed Under: Movies, Sony, sony hack, Amy Pascal, Scott Rudin, Angelina Jolie, Django Unchained, guardians of peace, The Interview, James Franco, kim jong un, 12 years a slave, Judd Apatow, Jennifer Lawrence, amy adams, Adam Sandler, american hustle, Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, 22 jump street, James Bond, Channing Tatum, Barack Obama, the monuments men, annie, Jamie Foxx, Seth Rogen