If you were to imagine the kind of person who could incite an international incident and wreck a major Hollywood studio, that person probably wouldn't be Seth Rogen. Mr. Rogen is a very funny 32-year-old who grew up in Vancouver – a mellow stoner who specializes in the kind of lowbrow comedy that appeals to adolescent males and South Park fans. He calls himself a "lazy, self-involved, generally self-medicating man-child."
Mr. Rogen's latest project is a movie about about two buddies who are recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency to assassinate the leader of North Korea. It was supposed to be amusing, but no one's laughing now. A hacker group backed by North Korea (as sources in the U.S. government have confirmed) launched a devastating cyberwar on Hollywood, and they won. They threatened to retaliate against anyone who went to see the movie (called The Interview), so it was canned.
Today, Mr. Rogen is living under armed guard. And vulnerability to cyberterrorism is more than a national humiliation – it's become an urgent threat to U.S. national security. "This is now a case study that is signalling to attackers that you can get all that you want and even more," cybersecurity strategist Peter Singer told The Wall Street Journal.
Welcome to the 21st century. Who needs nukes when you've got hackers?
Large parts of this story seem like something made up by The Onion. The saga began when Mr. Rogen and his partner sold Sony Pictures on their crazy idea. "The fact that they let us make this movie is the coolest thing," he told Rolling Stone last spring. "They're giving us insane amounts of money to do whatever ... we want." That includes a scene in which Mr. Rogen hides a missile up his rectum. Yet he also had a semi-serious intent. "We'll make a movie that maybe for two seconds will make some 18-year-old think about North Korea in a way he never would have otherwise," he said.
The Interview was intended as a small, quirky movie with a modest $44-million budget. No one was betting the farm on it. And no one thought too hard about how the North Koreans might react. To North Americans, the pudgy, baby-faced Kim Jong-un is not quite real. He's a sort of pop-culture cartoon villain whose very wickedness makes him even more absurd. He allegedly had his own uncle purged and killed – one story (probably apocryphal) had him being fed to the dogs.
The North Korean regime denounced Mr. Rogen's comedy as "an act of war " and said it would "mercilessly destroy" anyone associated with it. The Americans thought it was all bluster.
Others were more concerned. Many Asian countries, such as Japan, treat the Pyongyang regime with utmost diplomacy. And so, for the first time in history, Sony's Tokyo head office got involved in the details of a film. Specifically, the details of the scene (spoiler alert!) showing Mr. Kim being fatally incinerated as his head explodes.
Sony chairman Kazuo Hirai wanted the scene toned down. Amy Pascal, the head of Sony Pictures, wanted to oblige. The negotiations (as revealed in a series of hacked e-mails) went on for months. "We will play with the colour of the head chunks to try to make them less gross," Mr. Rogen reassured Ms. Pascal at one point. Later, he wrote, "There are currently four burn marks on his face. We will take out three of them, leaving only one. We reduce the flaming hair by 50%." Finally, he writes, "This is it!!! We removed the fire from the hair and the entire secondary wave of head chunks. Please tell us this is over now. Thanks so much!!"
But it wasn't over. Three weeks ago, Sony Pictures was hit by a massive cyberhack. Millions of confidential documents were made public, including two entire movies, the salary details of some major stars, thousands of employees' social security numbers and thousands of Ms. Pascal's private e-mails, featuring disparaging remarks about President Barack Obama, actor Angelina Jolie and a host of other notables. (Producer Scott Rudin called Ms. Jolie a "minimally talented spoiled brat.")
The hack attack virtually destroyed the company's internal computer systems. After more safety threats from the hacker group, which calls itself the Guardians of Peace, distributors across North America have dropped the movie. Sony has now announced that it won't be released – not now, and probably not ever. The ultimate cost to the studio could be as high as $200-million, and insiders say Ms. Pascal, the highest-ranking woman in Hollywood, is a goner.
A lot of people are dumping on Sony for wimping out. "Hollywood has done Neville Chamberlain proud today," actor Rob Lowe tweeted. "An un-American act of cowardice that validates terrorist actions and sets a terrifying precedent," comedian Jimmy Kimmel added.
But, really, who can blame them? They're not in the free-speech business. They're in the entertainment business. And they are totally unequipped to fight a cyberwar against 21st-century terrorists. So is almost every institution in North America.
By the way, the head-exploding scene has now been leaked online. I would tell you where it is but the Guardians of Peace might not like that.