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An Act of War? The Interview Affair, the Sony Hack, and the Hollywood–Washington Power Nexus Today

  • TONY SHAW (a1) and TRICIA JENKINS (a2)

Film has been an integral part of the propaganda war fought between the United States and North Korea over the past decade. The international controversy surrounding the Hollywood comedy The Interview in 2014 vividly demonstrated this and, in the process, drew attention to hidden dimensions of the US state security–entertainment complex in the early twenty-first century. Using the emails leaked courtesy of the Sony hack of late 2014, this article explores the Interview affair in detail, on the one hand revealing the close links between Sony executives and US foreign-policy advisers and on the other explaining the difficulties studios face when trying to balance commercial and political imperatives in a global market.

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1 Brodie, Janet Farrell, “Learning Secrecy in the Early Cold War: The RAND Corporation,” Diplomatic History, 35, 4 (Sept. 2011), 643–70; Laville, Helen and Wilford, Hugh, eds., The U.S. Government, Citizen Groups and the Cold War: The State–Private Network (London: Routledge, 2006).

2 Valantin, Jean-Michel, Hollywood, The Pentagon and Washington: The Movies and National Security, from World War II to the Present Day (London: Anthem Press, 2005); Dodds, Klaus, “Hollywood and the Popular Geopolitics of the War on Terror,” Third World Quarterly, 29, 8 (2008), 1621–37; Weber, Cynthia, Imagining America at War: Morality, Politics, and Film (London: Routledge, 2006); Alford, Matthew, Reel Power: Hollywood Cinema and American Supremacy (London: Pluto Press, 2010); Kellner, Douglas, Cinema Wars: Hollywood Film and Politics in the Bush–Cheney Era (London: Wiley, 2010).

3 Nye, Joseph S. Jr., “Public Diplomacy and Soft Power,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 616 (1 March 2008), 94109; Cull, Nicholas J., The Cold War and the United States Information Agency (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Seib, Philip, ed., Towards a New Public Diplomacy: Redirecting U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

4 Wasser, Frederick, “Is Hollywood America? The Transnationalization of the American Film Industry,” in Ross, Steven J., ed., Movies and American Society (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), 345–66; Rosen, Stanley, “The Wolf at the Door: Hollywood and the Film Market in China,” in Heikkila, Eric J. and Pizarro, Rafael, eds., Southern California and the World (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002), 4978; Terry Flew, “Entertainment Media, Cultural Power, and Post-globalization: The Case of China's International Media Expansion and the Discourse of Soft Power,” Global Media and China, July 2016, at

5 Justin McCurry, “North Korea Threatens ‘Merciless’ Response over Seth Rogen Film,” The Guardian, 25 June 2014, at

6 Lee, Chae-Jin, A Troubled Peace: U.S. Policy and the Two Koreas (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006); Pardo, Ramon Pacheco, North Korea–U.S. Relations under Kim Jong-il (London: Routledge, 2014).

7 Jong-il, Kim, On the Art of the Cinema (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publicity House, 1973); Lee, Jamie Shinhee, “North Korea, South Korea, and 007 Die Another Day,” Critical Discourse Studies, 4, 2 (Aug. 2007), 207–35, 208; Schönherr, Johannes, North Korean Cinema: A History (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012); Kim, Suk-Young, Illusive Utopia: Theater, Film, and Everyday Performance in North Korea (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010).

8 Gusterson, Hugh, “Paranoid, Potbellied Stalinist Gets Nuclear Weapons: How the US Print Media Cover North Korea,” Nonproliferation Review, 15, 8 (2008), 2142; Andy Greenberg, “The Plot to Free North Korea with Smuggled Episodes of ‘Friends’,” Wired, 1 March 2015, at; Snyder, Scott, “North Korea: Engaging a Hermit Adversarial State,” in Wiseman, Geoffrey, ed., Isolate or Engage: Adversarial States, U.S. Foreign Policy, and Public Diplomacy (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), 85109, 104–5; Kim, Jibum, Gersheson, Carl, Jeong, Jaeki and Smith, Tom W., “How Americans Think about North Korea, 2000–2007,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 72, 4 (Winter 2008), 804–21.

9 Kim et al., “How Americans Think about North Korea,” 804.

10 Lee Hyo-won, “5 Films besides ‘The Interview’ That North Korea Has Condemned,” Hollywood Reporter, 27 June 2014, at; Lee, “North Korea, South Korea, and 007 Die Another Day,” 214.

11 Felperin, Leslie, “Plastic Explosives,” Sight & Sound, 15, 1 (Jan. 2005), 3637, 68; WENN, “North Korea Calls for Team America Ban,”, 7 Feb. 2005, at

12 Lee Hyo-won. Interestingly, the terrorists in Red Dawn were changed in post-production from Chinese to North Koreans to avoid damage at China's lucrative box office. J. Hoberman, “The North Koreans Are Coming,” Film Comment, Nov.–Dec. 2012, 52–54, 56.

13 Email from Ileen Reich to Seth Rogen et al., 1 Oct. 2014, available at the Sony Archive on, email ID 28559; Josh Eels, “Seth Rogen's ‘Interview’: Inside the Film That North Korea Really Doesn't Want You to See,” Rolling Stone, 17 Dec. 2014, at

14 Rogen and Goldberg's previous films included Superbad (2007), Pineapple Express (2008) and This Is the End (2013).

15 Melissa Maroff, “The Interview: An ‘Act of War’,” Creative Screenwriting, 28 Dec. 2014, at; Shelli Weinstein, “Seth Rogen: Censoring North Korea in ‘The Interview’ Seemed Wrong,” Variety, 5 Feb. 2015, at; email from Dwight Caines to Seth Rogen on 13 May 2014, email ID 42712.

16 Weinstein.

17 Jennifer W. Wood, “Dan Sterling, The Interview Writer at the Center of the Hack, Speaks Out,” Esquire, 17 Dec. 2014, at; Matt Goldberg, “Sony to Digitally Alter THE INTERVIEW to Remove Military Buttons; May Also Cut Face-Melting Scene,”, 13 Aug. 2014, at On the recent boom in, and credibility of, books by or about North Korean defectors see Armstrong, Charles K., “Trends in the Study of North Korea,” Journal of Asian Studies, 70, 2 (May 2011), 337–71. On US “state–private” funding for North Korean defector memoirs as “weaponized forms of expression” see Hong, Christine, “Manufacturing Dissidence: Arts and Letters of North Korea's ‘Second Culture’,” Positions: Asia Critique, 23, 4 (2015), 743–84.

18 Email from Michael Lynton to Gary Ginsberg, 25 June 2014, email ID 129851.

19 Email from Keith Weaver to Marisa Liston, 14 July 2014, email ID 109275; Dave Itzkoff, “James Franco and Seth Rogen Talk about ‘The Interview’,” New York Times, 16 Dec. 2014, at

20 Shaw, Tony and Jenkins, Tricia, “From Zero to Hero: The CIA at the Movies Today,” Cinema Journal, 56, 2 (Winter 2017), 91113.

21 Jarvie, Ian, Hollywood's Overseas Campaign: The North Atlantic Movie Trade, 1920–1950 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); Wagnleitner, Reinhold, Coca-Colonization and the Cold War: The Cultural Mission of the United States in Austria after the Second World War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994); Swann, Paul, “The Little State Department: Hollywood and the State Department in the Postwar World,” American Studies International, 29, 1 (April 1991), 219; Hirano, Kyoko, Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo: Japanese Cinema under the American Occupation, 1945–1952 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1992).

22 Cull, Nicholas J., “The End of the Hillary Clinton Era in US Public Diplomacy,” Place Branding and Public Diplomacy, 9 (2013), 14; US State Department daily press briefing, 17 Dec. 2014, at

23 Semati, M. Mehdi and Sotirin, Patty J., “Hollywood's Transnational Appeal: Hegemony and Democratic Potential?”, Journal of Popular Film and Television, 26, 4 (2009), 176–88.

24 Kimberly Owczarski, “‘A Very Significant Chinese Component’: Securing the Success of Transformers: Age of Extinction in China,” Journal of Popular Culture, forthcoming 2017.

25 Ibid.

26 Email from Li Chow to Nigel Clark, 1 Nov. 2013, email ID 205220; Song, Jooyoung, “Understanding China's Response to North Korea's Provocations,” Asian Survey, 51, 6 (Nov.–Dec. 2011), 1134–55.

27 There is a long history of Hollywood doctoring material in order to avoid upsetting the Chinese government or market. Back in 1933, for instance, prisoner-of-war scenes in Frank Capra's Chinese Civil War drama The Bitter Tea of General Yen were shortened after vociferous complaints from Washington-based Chinese officials. See Smootin, Eric, Regarding Capra: Audience, Celebrity, and American Film Studies, 1930–1960 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 5175.

28 Email from Leah Weil to Keith Weaver, 20 May 2014, email ID 103617.

29 Email from Steven O'Dell to Mark Bradell, 20 May 2014, email ID 190640.

30 Email from Sun Yong Hwang to Steven O'Dell, 20 May 2014, email ID 201014.

31 Anna Silman, “Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's Controversial Comedy ‘The Interview’ May Not Be Released in Asia,”, 11 Dec. 2014, at

32 Catherine Shoard, “Sony Hack: The Plot to Kill The Interview – A Timeline So Far,” The Guardian, 18 Dec. 2014, at

33 Council on Foreign Relations roster, updated list Nov. 2014, at; RAND Corporation Board of Trustees, updated list July 2015, at; Abella, Alex, Soldiers of Fortune: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire (Orlando, FL: Houghton Mifflin, 2008). On Lynton chairing a panel at RAND in Nov. 2012 called “How Hollywood Affects Global Policy” see

34 On the propaganda aspects of North Korea's reputation for kidnapping foreign nationals, including South Korean filmmakers and artists, see Williams, Brad and Mobrand, Erik, “Explaining Divergent Responses to the North Korean Abductions Issue in Japan and South Korea,” Journal of Asian Studies, 69, 2 (May 2010), 507–36; and Fischer, Paul, A Kim Jong-il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power (New York: Flatiron, 2015).

35 Email from Charles Sipkins to Shiro Kambe, 3 July 2014, email ID 121175; email from Noriaki Sano to Stephen Basil-Jones, 23 June 2014, email ID 115070; email from James Zumwalt to Michael Lynton, 19 June 2014, email ID 124388; email from Michael Lynton to Nicole Seligman, 19 June 2014, email ID 135493.

36 Email from Kazuo Hirai to Michael Lynton, 20 June 2014, email ID 129953; email from Michael Lynton to Nicole Seligman, 19 June 2014, email ID 135493.

37 For Bennett's views and publications relating to North Korea prior to the Interview affair see For those during the affair see, for example, and

38 Email from Bruce Bennett to Michael Lynton, 20 June 2014, email ID 116595; email from Bruce Bennett to Michael Lynton, 26 June 2014, email ID 139029.

39 Email from Bruce Bennett to Michael Lynton, 25 June 2014, email ID 139029.

40 Email from Bruce Bennett to Michael Lynton, 25 June 2014, email ID 128396; Bruce W. Bennett, “Preparing for the Possibility of a North Korean Collapse’,” RAND Corporation, at

41 Email from Michael Lynton to Bruce Bennett, 26 Aug. 2014, email ID 12874; email from Michael Lynton to Josh Steiner, 25 June 2014, email ID 140055.

42 Lizzie Dearden, “Park Sang-hak: The Man Trying to Liberate North Korea Using Balloons,” The, 31 Dec. 2014, at; Laurie Segall, “Activists Plan to Drop ‘Interview’ DVDs in North Korea,” CNN Money, 18 Dec. 2014, at; Paul Bond, “The Strange, Dangerous Sequel to The Interview,” Hollywood Reporter, 1 May 2015, 32–34. For Asian and Western press reports about the alleged demand for The Interview in North Korea and Kim Jong-un's efforts to keep the film out of the country see, for example, Eugene Kim, “Demand for ‘The Interview’ Is Shooting Up in North Korea and Its Government Is Freaking Out,” Business Insider, 26 Dec. 2014, at; “The Interview in Demand Reports Dissident Radio Station,” Asia Radio Today, 30 Dec. 2014, at; Emily Greenhouse, “North Korea Sets Up Task Force to Keep The Interview Out,” Bloomberg Politics, 31 Dec. 2014, at

43 Email from Megan Klein to Michael Lynton, 26 June 2014, email ID 82074.

44 Email from Dwight Caines to Michael Pavlic, 27 June 2014, email ID 25841; email from Megan Klein to Michael Lynton et al., 26 June 2014, email ID 64940.

45 Email from Jean Guerin to Charles Sipkins, 25 June 2014, email ID 128861.

46 Very few people seem to have interpreted The Interview in this way. On the film's far sharper criticism of North Korea's nuclear weapons strategy compared with that of the United States, for instance, see Kokas, Aynne, Tryon, Chuck, Gusterson, Hugh and Braun, Joshua, “‘Freedom Edition’: Considering Sony Pictures and The Interview,” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 60, 4 (2016), 719–20.

47 Email from Jean Guerin to Leah Weil, 25 June 2014, email ID 110482; email from David Steinberg to Dina Wiggins, 7 July 2014, email ID 115130.

48 Email from Seth Rogen to Amy Pascal, 25 Sept. 2014, email ID 22450; email from Kazuo Hirai to Amy Pascal, 30 Sept. 2014, email ID 82863; email from Ariya Watty to Amy Pascal, 27 Sept. 2014, email ID 32301; email from Seth Rogen to Amy Pascal, 14 Aug. 2014, email ID 28076.

49 Email from Seth Rogen to Amy Pascal, 25 Sept. 2014, email ID 22450. In February 2015 Pascal claimed she had been “fired” as SPE co-chairperson. Many commentators attributed this to the publication of Pascal's “racially insensitive” emails about Barack Obama following the Sony hack. Michael Cieply, “Amy Pascal Says Sony Pushed Her out of Studio Post,” New York Times, 12 Feb. 2015, at; Christopher Rosen, “Scott Rudin and Amy Pascal Apologize after Racially Insensitive Emails about Obama Leak,” Huffington Post, 11 Dec. 2014, at

50 “Japan Cabinet Approves Landmark Military Change,” BBC News, 1 July 2014, at

51 “What If The Interview Had Been Made in Japan?”, 1 Jan. 2015, at

52 Goldberg, “Sony to Digitally Alter THE INTERVIEW.”

53 Email from Bruce Bennett to Michael Lynton, 18 Aug. 2014, email ID 124708; email from Bruce Bennett to Michael Lynton, 17 July 2014, email ID 128351; Snyder, “North Korea,” 104–5. King was a firm supporter of international efforts to break down the “information barrier” that the North Korean government had imposed on its own people, especially radio and film. “Foreign DVDs are now being seen [in North Korea] by even larger numbers,” he told the US Congress on 30 July 2014, at

54 Email from Bruce Bennett to Michael Lynton, 17 July 2014, email ID 90469.

55 Email from Bruce Bennett, 15 July 2014, email ID 125349; Mi Ae Taylor and Mark E. Manyin, “Non-governmental Organizations’ Activities in North Korea,” Congressional Research Service, 7, 570 (25 March 2011), 11.

56 Email from Richard Stengel to Michael Lynton, 11 Sept. 2014, email ID 119224. On the US State Department's recent use of American Muslim rap artists, a strategy linked to its sponsoring of African American “jazz ambassadors” during the Cold War, see Hisham Aidi, “Hip-Hop Diplomacy,” Foreign Affairs, 16 April 2014, at; and Matthew Weaver, “US Agency Infiltrated Cuban Hip-Hop Scene to Spark Youth Unrest,” The Guardian, 11 Dec. 2014, at

57 Email from Richard Stengel to Michael Lynton, 17 Oct. 2014, email ID 117082; email from Lynton to Stengel, 10 Nov. 2014, email ID 133736.

58 In Chinese Communist Party usage, the word “propaganda” or xuanchuan, is not negative. See Brady, Anne-Marie, “China's Propaganda Machine,” Journal of Democracy, 26, 4 (October 2015), 5159.

59 Email from Rogen to Pascal, 15 Aug. 2014, email ID 45250.

60 Shoard, “Sony Hack.”

61 “‘The Interview’ Headed to Netflix as VOD Sales Pass $40M – Update,”, 5 Jan. 2015, at; Gregory Wakeman, “Wait, Sony Lost How Much on The Interview?,”, at; “The Interview,”, at

62 The international outcry over The Interview inspired others to release films about North Korea. For instance, Amnesty International, a long-time critic of the North Korean government's human rights’ record, produced an online 15-minute documentary pointedly titled The Other Interview. This was a serious, first-person account of a North Korean woman who had apparently suffered at the hands of both the Chinese and North Korean regimes. The documentary is available at

63 Ellen Nakashima, “Why the Sony Hack Drew an Unprecedented U.S. Response against North Korea,” Washington Post, 15 Jan. 2015, at The US government's claim that North Korea orchestrated the Sony hack was challenged by a number of reputable, independent security firms and analysts. Bruce Schneier, “Did North Korea Really Attack Sony?”, The Atlantic, 22 Dec. 2014, at

64 Scott Bomboy, “The Different First Amendments Arguments about ‘The Interview’,” Yahoo! News, 24 Dec. 2014, at; Paul Vallely, “The Sony Hack and the Ethics of Free Speech,” The Independent (UK), 28 Dec. 2014, at; A. O. Scott, “On, Then Off, Now On Again,” New York Times, 25 Dec. 2014, at

65 “The Interview, Review: ‘Farting Truth to Power,’” The Telegraph, 5 Feb. 2015, at

66 Scott.

67 Patrick Carone in Scout, in email from Ileen Reich to Dwight Caines et al., 23 Oct. 2014, email ID 47903.

68 Email from Ileen Reich to Dwight Caines et al., 23 Oct. 2014, email ID 47903.

69The Interview Is a Truly Savage Work of Satire,”, 26 Dec. 2014, at

70 Richard Brody, “How The Interview Handled the Assassination of Kim Jong-un,” New Yorker, 18 Dec. 2014, at

71 Email from Doug Belgrad to Michael Lynton, 18 June 2014, email ID 17894.

72 “Satire or Propaganda: ‘The Interview’ or Don't Yell Fire in a Crowded Political Theater,”, 22 Dec. 2014, at

73 Ibid.

74 Mike Fleming, “Hollywood Cowardice: George Clooney Explains Why Sony Stood Alone in North Korean Cyberterror Attack,”, 18 Dec. 2014, at

75 Evan Perez, Jim Sciutto and Jeremy Diamond, “Obama: Sony Made a Mistake,”, 19 Dec. 2014, at

76 The Interview, DVD, dir. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Culver City, CA: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2015).

77 Kim, Christina H. and Kang, Juwon, “Reworking the Frame: Analysis of Current Discourses on North Korea and a Case Study of North Korean Labour in Dandong, China,” Asia Pacific Viewpoint, 56, 3 (Dec. 2015), 392402, 393–94.

78 The South Korean authorities have been known to block activists’ air-dropping of DVD copies of The Interview during periods of increased tension with the North. See Dave Lee, “Balloons Take Tech War to North Korea,” BBC News, 29 May 2015, at

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