The Declaration of Independence states that “governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes,” so when the terrorist known only as V announces to a live television audience in 2020 Britain that he will blow up Parliament in one year’s time, we Americans assume things must have gotten pretty bad. That, or this V character (played under a rigid mask by Hugo Weaving) is a homicidal maniac. Both, it turns out, are true in “V for Vendetta,” the new film written by the Wachowski brothers (“The Matrix”).
Like the Alan Moore/David Lloyd graphic novel it was based on, “Vendetta” has a system of signs and codes that produce meaning. These cultural connotations are essential to understand this stirring, simplified cautionary tale, especially if we are to try and fathom the differences between a revolutionary and a terrorist in the post-9/11 atmosphere of the United States.
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Director James McTeigue starts the film with a myth right away. A prologue from 1605 has Guy Fawkes preparing his “gunpowder plot” underneath Parliament in response to King James I’s tyrannical rule. His plan is thwarted and he and his small band of disgruntled citizens never dismantle the government. In 2020, it seems, things have gotten similarly out of hand, and McTeigue clues us in right away to the situation at hand in this near-future London. On the surface, the current British leadership is a model of strength and invincibility. Flags and armbands bear the red and black logo of the totalitarian regime, while neatly-dressed troops march stiffly in uniform, paying tribute to a screaming Leader who practically froths at the mouth. As his voice booms out to a nation, a harsh close-up of his face reveals thin, stringy black strands that barely cover the high-fade military haircut beneath. He is just like Hitler and this is implicitly a Nazi-like regime. There are no scenes of doubt for this man. Later, we see the Leader’s minions rounding up non-whites and leading shaved-bald prisoners through long lines in hospital smocks to participate in medical experiments. The dead are thrown together anonymously into huge pits and buried.
Just as the Nazi’s relied on their air of invincibility, “V for Vendetta” absolutely relies on the audience’s perception of this government as evil incarnate, because if the movie is asking us to sympathize with a murdering terrorist during the Bush administration’s “War on Terror,” then the authority that V terrorizes must be the real “bad guys” in a black-and-white world. The negative connotations do not stop there either.
George Orwell’s dystopian nightmare “1984” is uniformly regarded as a warning to any body of government that achieves too much power, and in a free society like the United States, Big Brother is synonymous with oppression and despotism. Just as the Ministry of Truth controlled all the media in Orwell’s allegorical novel, so too, do the employees at the TV tower in the London of “Vendetta” where Evey (Natalie Portman), the daughter of murdered activists, works. Like Big Brother, the regime is always watching, as countless free-thinkers are carried off by the police, never to be heard from again. London’s Leader, Chancellor Sutler, appears almost exclusively on a gigantic television screen, and in a weird casting parallel to “1984,” is played by John Hurt, who played main character Winston Smith in the 1984 British film production of the book.
What starts out as a weird “Phantom of the Opera”-like relationship soon grows for Evey and V, partly based on their own parallel experiences with tragedy, and concurrent awakenings. In fact, just when the movie starts to feel like cop procedural, the Chief Inspector (Stephen Rea) starts to come out of his trance as well. The personal vs. political theme is developed more successfully in the movie than it ever was in the book.
The movie, stripped of the deeper philosophical musings of its source material, is a feisty heaping of mainstream entertainment packed with some terrific art direction and inventive action scenes. Whether or not you choose to see similarities in our current U.S. government will probably have more to do with your political leanings going into the film than anything else. The “Voice of London” character is a brutish lout, comparable to conservative bully Bill O’Reilly, and the government, like the Fox-TV network, skews, screens, and even creates the news stories that litter the airwaves. V’s terrorist attacks are spun positively for damage control, and the stories create a “culture of fear” (even specifically mentioning the Avian flu) that is supposed to keep the citizens docile and scared, lest they ask too many questions. This same attack has been leveled at the Bush camp consistently since the 9/11 attacks. Finally, in a blatant case of pessimistic prediction, references to the Iraq war pepper a none-too-sad British news report of America’s 2020 Civil War that has left the country in chaos.
McTeigue allows the viewer to then compare the film’s situations with our own in the easiest-to-swallow of all connotations. In true populist fashion, to show mounting support among the people for V’s promise to blow up Parliament, the director depicts blue collar men watching the “news” broadcasts at a bar, sneering and laughing at the government’s attempts to scare them. A middle-class family gathers around their TV set listening to V’s revolutionary broadcast, and later the little girl of the family is shown spray-painting V’s immediately recognizable emblem (obviously inspired by Zorro’s “Z” and the “A” symbol that symbolizes anarchy) on a wall. Although they may be thinking similar thoughts, the blue collar American crowd is not as outwardly public in its expression of dissatisfaction for fear of being labeled unpatriotic. This depiction, however, gives their “unthinkable” thoughts some weight.
“V for Vendetta” challenges our own idea of a nationwide ideology—that our government is looking out for us; trying their best to protect us in a “War on Terror,” in which the bad guys are homicidal maniacs who cannot be dealt with in a rational manner. As Americans, we understand from our own country’s tragedy on 9/11 that terrorism is bad. We understand that blowing up buildings bears an awful toll. That is the philosophy which we have formed; the myth that we have built. By providing the terrorist a massive collection of classic literary and art masterpieces and an acerbic tongue, “Vendetta” disputes the thought that all terrorists are maniacs with no reason. By endowing the Chancellor with Hitler’s traits and his military with those of the Nazis, the film makes his regime into the ultimate murderous oppressor. By imbuing a whole set of these known codes with evil connotations that can also apply to our current American government, the movie takes us to a challenging realm, albeit in the most simplistic and general manner. “V for Vendetta” is the “Rocky” of political revolutionary films.
This is precisely what makes the film medium so unique. The ideology set forth by the Bush administration is as transparent as the obviousness in McTeigue’s symbolism. In order for American audiences to compare one authority to the other, they must first confront the myth that all tyrannical governments will be as obvious as V’s London in 2020. The parallels that people see are certainly clearer because of the film, but they will depend somewhat on their own set of beliefs, values, ideology, etc.
Although if we look to the Declaration of Independence and its influences (such as Briton John Locke), we will find much in common with their writings that seem to make the terrorist V out to be the “good guy.” As the Declaration also stated, “…but when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object,…it is their right, it is their duty to throw off such government.”
With a lack of the graphic novel’s subtler philosophical underpinnings, “V for Vendetta” speaks in loud mainstream tones, yet sports an ideology that remains at odds with the current mainstream American ideal. It also boasts nifty action scenes without people flying around on wires, a who’s who of great British character actors like Rea, Rupert Graves, and Stephen Fry, and a complete subversion of our generally accepted beliefs. By focusing on the strength of conviction in both Evey and V, and by barely touching on the aftermath of revolution, “V for Vendetta” lands an unsuspecting old world punch on those who don’t necessarily want their movies to challenge them.