Reports are emerging from members of the movie industry that the Department of Homeland Security has designated the 1982 film TRON as “sensitive”, and ordered Walt Disney Studios to turn over all copies of the film in its possession. Retailers are also receiving notices to remove all copies of the film from stock shelves and turn them over to Federal officials. The reports have industry insiders bewildered and outraged.

TRON is a science fiction film that takes place within a computer’s circuits. Protagonist Kevin Flynn is pulled into the computer via laser by the malevolent Master Control Program. However, official concern reportedly centers around a portion of the movie’s live-action sequence which was filmed at Shiva, a nuclear fusion research facility created at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Constructed in 1977 for research into generating fusion energy, Shiva used a battery of enormous lasers to smash tiny pellets of deuterium and tritium. It was hoped the resulting compression and shockwave would illustrate how to trigger fusion in the materials.

The facility was dismantled in 1981 after experiments were completed and its successor, Shiva/Nova, was built. However, as a government-funded nuclear research program, it is subject to comprehensive national security guidelines, and it is this point that seems to have gotten the film into trouble. “They said the [Shiva] scenes contained sensitive nuclear information,” said a Disney employee tasked with locating copies of the film in the studio’s archives. “I mean, the film’s been out for 25 years.

All of a sudden, there’s something wrong with it? It’s silly.” The film is reportedly being sequestered via a National Security Letter, a result of the PATRIOT Act that permits Homeland Security to demand information and records without judicial oversight. The PATRIOT Act provides harsh criminal penalties for failing to comply with the letter, or even for disclosing to anyone that such a letter was received.

No Disney employee was willing to comment on the record, as they fear Federal prosecution if they do so. Video retailers in receipt of the letter, however, were more forthcoming. Many see the request as patently ridiculous and are refusing to take it seriously. “I only have three copies, but they expect me to just hand over my stock?” said Jim Steinert, a video store owner in Van Nuys, CA. Steinert’s copy of the letter demands, “any and all copies, in any and all recording formats,” of the film. The letter states the copies are merely, “being sought for review to determine possible conflicts with national security interests.” The expectation among retailers is that the copies, once surrendered, will never be returned.

Steinert has two DVD copies, and a rare laserdisc copy widely regarded as the finest release of the film to date, which he is especially loathe to part with. Said Steinert, “I’m in business. I don’t give stuff away. If they want to pay rental fees or buy the copies outright, fine, they can have them that way.” Use of national security letters, long criticized by civil libertarians, recently came under official scrutiny when an internal audit at the FBI revealed in early March at least 26 instances where the letters were issued without proper authority, and as many as 22% of all such requests — over 8,800 — were not recorded at all. While archived film and videos are considered records (such as closed-circuit security video recordings), observers say using a national security letter to quarantine a movie is something new. “A close reading of the statute doesn’t answer the question,” said Steve Shapiro, legal director for the ACLU.

“The language is ambiguous. Under certain circumstances, it could be seen as justified. However, this was clearly not intended by the measure’s authors.” Neither FBI nor DHS officials would comment on the matter, citing that they do not comment on ongoing investigations or alleged breaches of national security. However, they were willing to discuss general questions concerning security surrounding nuclear research. “We are carefully reviewing disclosure procedures and criteria concerning any nuclear information that could be misused by terrorists,” said FBI agent Lirpa Sloof, official bureau spokesperson in Los Angeles.

“We are mindful of the current global terror situation, and are working to ensure the continued safety of American interests and lives all over the world.” Disney obtained all necessary clearances in 1980 when the film was in production. But despite these clearances, and an interval of 25 years, Sloof says that doesn’t matter. “9/11 showed us that our enemies could make unexpectedly destructive use of seemingly innocuous information and systems. With this new view, we are re-evaluating all our disclosure procedures and criteria,” she said. Indeed, since 9/11, the Administration has, under its “records of concern” program, re-classified over one million records that previously were public, some for over a century.

According to a Disney employee, the imbroglio is believed to have started when the studio began preparations to digitally remaster TRON for theatrical and HD-DVD release. Disney’s plans were communicated to the FBI as a matter of long-standing routine (Walt Disney himself established a close working relationship with the FBI in the 1950’s). The bureau expressed concern that the improved image quality from the restored film might reveal sensitive details about US nuclear research. Disney film experts reportedly countered that anything visible in the restored version was already visible, albeit slightly blurrier, in existing DVD copies.

Approximately three days later, the DHS declared the film “sensitive” and demanded its surrender. Although the studio has been working quietly to locate all its copies, it is not yet certain if they will comply with the demand. Apparently there is sharp division within the company about how to respond. “TRON is a landmark in film history. You can’t simply make it go away,” said a Disney employee who’s been closely following the controversy. He also observed, “It was made during the Cold War. Nuclear secrets were sensitive then, too. Did they assume the Soviets wouldn’t bother watching a Jeff Bridges film?” But another Disney employee closer to the decision-making process suggested the studio may not want to jeopardize its relationship with the FBI over the film.

“Although it has a very dedicated fan base, TRON has never made a lot of money for us. Each release has only generated modest revenue, and the game was essentially a flop,” referring to the PC game TRON 2.0 released in 2003. He added, “From a fiscal standpoint, it won’t be a significant loss to the company if we decide to let them have it.” Released in 1982, TRON featured a largely electronic musical score and is the first motion picture to extensively use computer-generated imagery.

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It is widely regarded among film historians as a significant landmark in the science fiction genre and in the craft of filmmaking.

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