V for Vendetta (2005)
The Fifth of November came and went this week, making it the perfect time to "Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot..." By that, of course, I'm really talking about V for Vendetta, the 2005 movie based on the 1998 comic of the same name. A modest success when it came out, the film -- written by the Wachowski siblings and directed by James McTeigue -- has lived on due to its slick production values and associated date on the calendar. "Oh, it's November 5th? Let's pop on some V."
Starting in on this movie, I will not that I never managed to get in to the original comic book this film is based on. When it came out, the DC ComicsOne of the two biggest comic publishing companies in the world (and, depending on what big events are going on, the number one company), DC Comics is the home of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and just about every big superhero introduced in the 1930s and 1940s./Vertigo comic, written by Alan Moore, functioned as a commentary on Margaret Thatcher-era British politics. That might have been relevant at the time it came out, but for a reader in the United States approaching it in the modern era (as I tried to) it just didn't really work. Plus (and I know the fanboys are gonna come after me for this) the book is pretty boring. I like the film because it features politics more relevant to modern audiences, but I also dig it just because it's slickly made and a much more interesting watch. I know Alan Moore hates every adaptation of his works (and probably hates this film too), but I think the changes to the story work to the benefit of the movie.
The film opens with a recap of the Gunpowder Plot, which occurred in 1605. There, a lone bomber, Guy Fawkes, attempted to blow up Parliament to illustrate his distaste for the direction the English government was headed. He was captured and put to death, but his message of standing up to authoritarianism lived on. Thus we have the modern era (really, a dystopian future that resembles our era) where Britain has been taken over by a religious (Christian) extremist regime that rules London (and the surrounding lands) with an iron fist. Why just London? Because so much of the territory outside has been quarantined due to a nasty disease that ravaged the world twenty years earlier. Since then, the regime, lead by Chancellor Sutler, has clamped down on the country, imprisoned dissidents, racial and religious minorities (and the LGBTQ community), and spread propaganda far and wide to maintain their rule over the country.
Enter into that landscape V (Hugo Weaving, acting behind a Guy Fawkes mask for the whole movie). For his own reasons, V wants to send a message to the people of England, illustrating that their government is corrupt and that their leaders should be overthrown. He starts off by blowing up the Old Bailey (London's primary criminal court) and then proceeds to cause mayhem and carnage as he cuts a bloody swath through the key members of the Sutler regime. And then there's Evie Hammond (Natalie Portman), a girl who gets caught up in V's plans when he saves her from a brutal attack by government agents. Thought to be working with V (even though she isn't), Evie has to go on the run, essentially staying with V because she has no one else she can trust. She then has to see, first hand, how far the government will go to maintain their power, and just how far V is willing to go in turn to bring about some kind of justice.
In its trappings, V for Vendetta is a superhero movie. At the very least it tries to dress up like one, but the "hero" of the movie is only the hero because the "villains" are so much worse. The movie has to go out of its way to make the Sutler regime into fire-breathing fiends just so that V seems great by comparison. Note, not only is the regime corrupt, and not only do they orchestrate a terrorist attack to seize power, but they also act like Nazis in just about ever respect they can. If there were any subtlety, any nuance to the villainous government it would cause the audience to go, "wait! V is just a terrorist." He totally is a terrorist but the argument the movie makes is that to topple some regimes you need to resort to terror.
In turn, we then have to consider if that's a good thing, and to discuss that we're going to have to talk politics for a second (something I try not to do on this site, especially in my movie reviews). How bad does a government have to be so that acts of terror -- and threatening to blow up government buildings, actually blowing up those buildings, inciting riots, and killing government figures are all acts of terror -- should be considered justified? To answer that I'm going to avoid talking about the Nazi Party (because any discussion that devolves to Nazis has lost itself) and instead talk about our current political situation; specifically, let's talk about Trump. When this movie came out it was stated, by the producers, to be an attack on the George W. Bush administration as the team viewed that administration as a far-right, religiously-motivated regime. While I, a far-left Democrat, was never a fan of Bush II, I do that that assessment was a bit harsh.
Okay, sure, there were a number of things Bush II's crew did that were horrible, chief among them drumming up a war on Iraq over WMDs that didn't exist, and then doing everything they could to cover up that little detail and then downplay it when covering it up was no longer an option. Do I think that administration is anywhere near as bad as Trump's presidential administration, though? Hardly. Our current President lies more than any other president before him (and this is by hard data tracking everything he says and tweets), has had more scandals than any president before him, and at the same time has managed to accomplish less than any other president before him. He's as popular as he is because of this cult of personality he has around him, which is evident from his long, meandering rallies where he looks down upon his followers why he shouts to the heavens. It's hard to trust this administration at all because nothing they say or do is ever the truth, but their followers lap it up.
It's moments like that where I think V for Vendetta is at its most prescient, not in attacking Bush II but in predicting the rise of Nationalism that has swept across the globe. So many leaders have come into power riding the wave Trump started, and many of them are like mini- (or mega-) Trumps (such as Prime Minister Boris Johnson, President Jair Bolsonaro, and on and on). It's like V somehow knew they would be a threat again and stated, "hey, maybe we should take a hard look at how far we're willing to let the government push us before we're willing to fight back."
At the same time I can't really say I condone the message V for Vendetta presents. I don't think terrorist acts are ever the right call. As much as I dislike President Trump and his entire regime, I don't think we should resort to blowing up governmental buildings to change the system. If someone did that in the real world, I'd look at them like they were insane mad men. Just because it's a movie and the "hero" is played by a rakish Hugo Weaving, we're supposed to sign on to actions we know, in the real world, would be beyond the pale. Maybe that's because for all the shit the Trump administration has done, it's hard to think of them like they're as bad as the Sutler administration in this movie... Well, okay, maybe with the immigrant detention camps and the family separation policy and... Well, shit. Still, don't go blowing up governmental buildings. Don't be like V!
Beside which, the growing blue wave seems to be taking out Republicans left and right. Even if somehow Trump survives impeachment and then is reelected, I don't think it's going to be to a government that looks anything like what he's used to. His power is going to be diminished, his wings clipped more, and he'll have to limp through another four years before leaving office (likely in disgrace). And then hopefully we never let another Trump-like figure into office, having learned that lesson. We don't need to take the drastic actions V does because we can vote and do things the appropriate way.
Of course the movie really has a lot of political issues it doesn't quite know how to address properly, and the problems really start with Guy Fawkes. The movie raises him up as a hero, someone fighting for the common man against a corrupt regime. The thing to realize, though, was that Fawkes really wasn't the folk hero the movie makes him out to be. In reality he was a cog for the system, a super conservative looking to strike and blow for the old, religious ways and take out a government that was looking to reform the religion of the state. If anything, Fawkes had more in common with the Sutler administration than he did with V. Not that the movie wasn't to address any of that.
So maybe we're over thinking this movie. Maybe it really is just a superhero film (or at least one that dressed up like a superhero movie). If that's all we have to view it as -- good guy in a cape going after the scenery-chewing bad guys -- then the movie does work as just a violent popcorn flick. There is no denying that Hugo Weaving is phenomenal as V, a performance where he never shows his face once. And Natalie Portman is just as good, giving a deeply emotional performance as Evie that washes away all the taint of the Star WarsThe modern blockbuster: it's a concept so commonplace now we don't even think about the fact that before the end of the 1970s, this kind of movie -- huge spectacles, big action, massive budgets -- wasn't really made. That all changed, though, with Star Wars, a series of films that were big on spectacle (and even bigger on profits). A hero's journey set against a sci-fi backdrop, nothing like this series had ever really been done before, and then Hollywood was never the same. prequels. These two carry the film and help to move you past the idea that maybe what V is doing is wrong. His actions are never condoned, not even by Evie, but within the scope of the movie they do feel justified, and I credit the leads for selling us on the material.
Plus, the film really is just so damn stylish. Everything V does is filmed to perfection, plotted out and executed admirably. The film has a ball showing him as he works his way up the chain, taking out bad guys left and right as he works through his vendetta. There are times where the movie drags, basically any time it turns to the central mystery of how the Sutler administration got into power and just who V really is, but then it brings on another action sequence, another dramatically show sequence with knives and guns and violence, and you stop caring.
Maybe the movie is really trying to comment on us, as a society, and how we're willing to let "good guys" get away with a lot for the sake of some kind of "justice". Maybe the fact that it lulls us into liking V, into understanding his motivations and viewing the government as evil, perhaps it's then stating that we're as bad as V. We like the violence and the action, we're wooed by how charismatic V is, and then when he goes off and takes out a whole pack of government stooges, we're okay with it. "He just gave an entire introduction speech where every word starts with 'v', that scamp. Kill them all, you rascal!" Maybe we're the real villains and the movie knows it.
That's probably to smart a reading of the material, though. At it's core, for all it's talk of politics and justifying it's action, the movie is a pretty dumb popcorn flick. But, as a popcorn flick, it's a very enjoyable on. I watch this film every November because of how fun it can be, how slickly it's produced and how enjoyable it is to see V mow through bad guys as he fulfills his vendetta. I don't engage my brain for this movie because it doesn't need to.
I just can't view V as a good guy. When he gets his own comeuppance in the end (spoiler for a 14 year old movie) it feels as justified as everything he's done. V can't live in the world he's crafting and the movie is smart enough to know that. But then, next November, V will be back to do it all again and I'll cheer as he throws his knives and ends the evil government. I might be as bad a V because I love to watch it every time. I think I can accept that.