NEW YORK – They came for freedom, James Franco and to witness the onscreen death of the world’s most notorious dictator. Enthusiastic moviegoers lined up outside Cinema Village Theater in Manhattan’s West Village Thursday morning for the first screening here of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s now-infamous comedy “The Interview,” which opened in limited theatrical release on Christmas Day after touching off an international whirlwind of controversy this month.

Swarmed by reporters, many attendees said they probably would have seen the film regardless of the brouhaha, albeit not on Christmas morning. But some moviegoers said they felt it was their duty to show up and support the right of artists to express themselves, even in the face of death threats from a totalitarian government.

“I’m specifically here today because of everything that’s happened,” said Nic Ratner, 55, one of the first moviegoers in line. “I thoroughly believe in freedom of speech, and I think it was completely wrong how it all went down. I’m glad it’s being shown now.”

Following threats from anonymous hackers, Sony had initially pulled the Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg-directed comedy, which centers on two journalists hired by the CIA to assassinate North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. The decision to pull the film brought widespread disapproval from critics who accused the Hollywood studio of caving to the demands of terrorists, all but forcing Sony to reverse course.  

Derek Karpel, 34, a moviegoer from Manhattan, likened the situation to attempts to silence other artists around the world. He commended the filmmakers for standing their ground.

“It’s odd that Seth Rogen is our Salman Rushdie,” Karpel said.

Despite security concerns, Lee Peterson, manager of Cinema Village, said he wasn’t expecting any trouble. He said the theater tripled its staff for the screenings and was working with local police precincts and the FBI to assure everyone’s safety.

Peterson gave a heartfelt speech before the screening thanking attendees for taking a stand against censorship.

“Let freedom ring,” he shouted, bringing cheers from the crowd.  

The tiny movie house was filled almost to capacity for the 10 a.m. screening where the mostly male audience laughed heartily throughout and delivered a round of applause at the film’s finale. The key scene featuring the North Korean leader’s exploding head, which already leaked online, did not come as much of a surprise.

Still, most attendees seemed glad they turned out on this gray holiday morning for what has become -- ironically -- the most talked-about movie of the year. Nick Doiron, a 25-year-old Web designer from Queens, said the goofily premised comedy most definitely lived up to the hype.

“It was pretty funny,” he said. “Especially if you have that context that they were trying to ban it -- it makes it even funnier.”

Christopher Zara is a senior writer who covers media and culture. Got a news tip? Email me here. Follow me on Twitter @christopherzara.