For those of you who don’t know, Dr Strangelove (Kubrick, 1964) is one of my favourite films. Its qualities are almost innumerable, but I find the main reason behind its success, and why it’s still in many ways as relevant today as it was when it first released, is in its fearlessness at tackling a taboo subject matter.
Fearless, because it didn’t just shine a spotlight on the United States government and military when Cold War propaganda was at its height, but it did so with irreverence that bordered on (what many considered at the time) downright insulting. Patriotic Americans who thought their government could do no wrong derided it as trash, and it would take quite a few years before it emerged that the film’s satiric take on events at that time were all-too-accurate.
This industry needs films like Strangelove, both to remind us not to take ourselves too seriously even when we think we have everything worked out, and to safely communicate what may otherwise go unsaid in everyday social interactions. Satire is, of course, one of the most effective methods of doing this, and usually you’ll find those who aren’t such a fan are also those whose pride has been burnt by some form of it.
But offending people, or indeed a whole country, is a good thing if there is thoughtful and justified reason behind it. Offering different ideas, and different ways of interpreting those ideas, are to be encouraged. You may not agree with the new ideas, but your reason for not agreeing has, I’m sure, only emerged because it itself was first offered as such an idea.
This is how we have managed to advance so significantly in the past 200 years alone. It is how slavery was abolished; how women were given the right to vote; how racism has (or should I say ‘will’?) eventually come to be regarded as pretty unacceptable. All such things began as ideas that were broadly unpopular. But thankfully, they were allowed a voice, and they took it even on threat of personal harm.
While it may seem melodramatic to draw a comparison between these issues and Sony’s decision this week to pull The Interview from distribution even before it was released (a rather unprecedented move, from what I understand), I think it is one worth making. This was a political ‘action comedy’ about a plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, starring two lead actors I usually find less than entertaining in Seth Rogan and James Franco. Yes, the brief synopsis probably makes you a little nervous. Maybe you feel I’m in danger of being assassinated myself for writing a blog post in support of it.
I’d like to remind you, though, that this is 2014. And in 2014, 50 years on from Dr Strangelove insulting its own government in the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, 24 years on from it then being selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry, a film is being pulled for daring to portray the totalitarian leader of a closed country in a light less than the divinity he demands.
Of course I’m aware this isn’t the full story; indeed its subject matter isn’t even the main reason this film has been pulled (indirectly it undoubtedly was, but for the sake of argument let’s pretend it wasn’t). No, the film was pulled because of mysterious hackers who threatened terrorist attacks on a par with 9/11 if screenings went ahead. Who were they? Did they operate under orders from North Korea, or were they just a couple of high level university students testing their influence for a bit of fun? Perhaps they were even (forgive me for such farcical suggestions) doing it under orders from the US government itself, to prevent the potential waves this film might cause – or to create those waves by then blaming this security breach on North Korea.
We currently have no idea. And that, in a way, is the biggest problem here. It’s not that we deserve to know. It’s that something with a free voice of its own – even if it is just another Hollywood release – can now have that voice stifled simply by unknown threats with no guarantee they can follow through.
Oh, but it’s better not to take that risk, you might say. In which case there has never been any point in fighting for individual freedoms, because throughout history, to do so has usually been at risk to one’s life. One might then claim it is better to live in misery (or in this case, fear) than to die for freedom. I’m afraid I disagree, if only because the liberties I have now were gained by those who died for them, and we would otherwise not even be able to have this discussion. But of course, we have started talking now as if there was some real threat in the first place, when actually there were only words.
I haven’t seen The Interview. I don’t know whether it would have actually been any good at delivering its message. I don’t even know whether its intention was to deliver any kind of meaningful message at all. I do not know, and at this point I am unsure whether I will know. But that’s not important. The Interview could have been one of the worst films of the year (and early access reviews were, as it happens, distinctly average), yet that still wouldn’t change my feeling about this. What’s important here is the principle. What this move means for the industry.
Sadly, I think it only really means one thing: that films now have less freedom than they did 50 years ago. If there is any threat that we will never again have a classic satire quite like Strangelove, it is surely no greater than this.