The leader of the free world didn’t do the grunt work. That came from foot soldiers of cinema and free speech advocates around the world. The Arthouse Convergence sent out a petition offering to show the movie. George Clooney circulated a petition of his own to studio heads, encouraging them not to cave under pressure from anonymous hackers. Artists across multiple industries all demanded, emphatically, that this lowbrow comedy in which Seth Rogen and James Franco assassinate Kim Jong-Un, see the light of day. Everyone who cares about the movies, whether or not they initially cared about “The Interview,” was suddenly praying for the film’s release.
Still, it was during President Obama’s final press conference of the year where it all snapped into place. Last Friday, he called Sony’s decision to cancel the release “a mistake.” But he did more than that. In no uncertain terms, Obama validated the need for free cultural expression in American society — and, by extension, put cinema at the center of the national conversation.
When you spend your days traveling the festival circuit and watching countless movies throughout the year that few audiences will ever bother to see, the notion of a mainstream conversation about the medium — one that rises above and beyond the influence of marketing powers — sounds like a surreal dream.
But Obama made it happen, even if the specific movie in question was, well, a rather absurd focal point. “If somebody can prevent a satirical movie from being released, imagine what might happen if they see a documentary they don’t like?” he said. “Or if producers and distributors and others start engaging in self-censorship because they don’t want to offend the sensibilities of someone whose sensibilities probably need to be offended. That’s not America. That’s not who we are.” A few days later, there he was again, in the form of a White House statement, commending Sony’s decision to make the film available in select theaters.
On the one hand, these were practical remarks made in the name of the First Amendment; they could technically apply to any number of scenarios. But it also reflects the burgeoning sense that Obama has become the first president to validate the serious role of movies in American society since Franklin Delano Roosevelt hired Frank Capra to direct “Why We Fight” during WWII. This time, the aim was different: While wartime propaganda serves the needs of the government, the president was arguing for movies to serve the needs of the movies.
It’s easy to assume that the president just got off the line with Clooney or other Hollywood thought leaders and realized he had to play to his base. But one must also consider the possibility that Obama himself really, truly gets the value of contemporary movies — not just his favorites from childhood, or the usual classics that play on network television over the holidays, but new, original movies that keep the medium and its accompanying creative values in play.
After all, it was just two days earlier that People magazine revealed the president’s favorite movie of year was Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” — a widely beloved 2014 release and Oscar contender to be sure, but also an unprecedented achievement in film history and a near-experimental narrative more about the experience of time than the stories told within it. When you’re coping with the moment-to-moment rush of daily life as president, one can imagine how Linklater’s ability to explore the process of time flying by might strike a familiar chord.
Over the years, Obama has revealed his cinematic tastes to be distinctly edgy. The White House screening list has also included “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” both movies that adopt unorthodox approaches to narrative and fall squarely outside traditional Hollywood conventions by virtue of their stars: Like “Boyhood,” these movies focus on internal and at times inexpressible experiences. They show more than they tell — as most great movies do — and play up the notion that life is an endless struggle of conflicting attitudes and ephemeral encounters. They’re bathed in ambiguity. They challenge viewers to engage with the subjective experiences on display.
In short, these are movies made by and for the sensibilities of committed cinephiles — not only people who consume as many movies as possible, but also anyone with the mindset necessary to appreciate the medium’s value as art. With those sensibilities in play, Obama has secured his legacy as America’s first cinephile president.
Consider his breadth of knowledge about HBO’s “The Wire,” or that he took his wife on their first date to see Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” and that his professed favorite movies of all time are the first two “Godfather” films. More than commendable reference points, these factoids carry a representational weight: In the age of Obama, we take our entertainment as seriously as anything else. It shows us the world in new, surprising ways and fuels conversations about how we choose live in it.
There are a million different complaints one could level at the Obama Administration. But on a purely intellectual level, Obama’s presidency raised the level of discourse to the point where he went to the mat for a wildly satiric Seth Rogen movie. Obama gets the joke, and he believes in the value of getting the joke, engaging with weird and sometimes possibly controversial achievements. That’s how culture makes progress in America — at least in the America that we all deserve to live in. And if there’s something inherently American about releasing “The Interview,” perhaps there’s something inherently American about loving the movies, too.