April 10, 2006

The politics of V for Vendetta (no spoilers)

I believe that V for Vendetta will go down in film history as a classic of political cinema. Just as Dr. Strangelove captured the zeitgeist of the cold war, this film does it for the perpetual war on terrorism.

The claim that this film is so significant may sound a little strange, considering that the film's premise is based on a comic book series written two decades ago and set in a futuristic Britain. Let me explain why I think that this is something well worth seeing.

The basic premise of the film (I have not read the original comics so cannot compare to them) is that England has become governed by a High Chancellor, an authoritarian leader who seized power in a landslide election as a response to a biological attack that killed many people. The ruthless leader has arrogated to himself all powers and considers himself to be above the law. The leadership is virulently homophobic and is in league with Christian extremists and corrupt clerics. Arbitrary arrest, denial of due process, and torture is routine, and simply owning a copy of the Koran is liable to get you executed. People's privacy is routinely violated by sophisticated listening devices that can even capture the conversations of people in their homes. Television news and programming are controlled to keep people amused with silliness while at the same keeping them in a state of constant fear. There are color-coded curfews enforced by secret police goons.

Ordinary citizens are told that all these intimidatory and intrusive measures are necessary to protect them from harm from terrorists and that they should trust their leaders. This message is wrapped up in patriotic slogans and flag-waving, and repeated ad nauseum by bloviating pundits in the media.

Any of this seem remotely familiar?

There suddenly emerges a mysterious man named V, a throwback to an earlier era with his costume of a mask with a mocking grin, cape, tights, boots, and long-haired wig, who is highly skilled with knives, classical swordplay, and martial arts. V seeks to awaken the public, to prod them to realize what is happening and rise up and overthrow this oppression masked as benevolence. He does this by spectacularly blowing up London landmarks to the strains of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. Naturally, the authorities immediately label V a terrorist and remind people that this is why they need to have even more faith and trust in the government.

The main plotline is the engrossing cat-and-mouse game between V and the High Chancellor and his agents. Think Batman versus a Cheney/Bush hybrid.

V is an enigmatic character, to put it mildly, and not merely because of his mask. Although ruthless in his methods, he is also a courtly romantic who likes to watch the 1934 swashbuckling film The Count of Monte Cristo starring Robert Donat, listen to romantic songs on his Wurlitzer jukebox, and surround himself with books and traditional artwork.

I think that this film will serve as a touchstone. Those who see the current encroachment on civil liberties and the creation of a government that considers its leaders above the law as a dangerous thing will like the film because it serves as a warning that if they do not take back the government, they will face the same situation as the people in the film. Those who think that Bush is next to god in terms of infallibility and benevolence, and should be given all the powers he asks for (and even those he doesn't ask for but merely takes secretly) will hate the film. [UPDATE: For a view from someone who hates the film's message, read this. Unfortunately there are a lot of spoilers, so it is better read after seeing the film. But in my view, if a film can elicit this kind of response in such people, it must be really good.]

Since the plot is based on a futuristic comic book, its basic premise is fantastic and has to be simply accepted as a metaphor for the larger political point the film is trying to make. What made this film so compelling was that the characters so gripped you that you were willing to suspend disbelief. And the film kept moving so fluidly that you never felt your interest flagging. There were action scenes (with some violence) but these were not allowed to dominate, the focus always being on advancing the story.

The cast was superb, with good performances from Stephen Rea as the Police Commissioner and Stephen Fry as a TV variety show host. Hugo Weaving as V managed to convey emotion even behind a mask, and Natalie Portman, whose path accidentally crosses that of V and thus gets drawn into the action, had a much better vehicle for her performance than the previous films in which I've seen her, Star Wars I and Closer.

There were some interesting philosophical issues raised, such as the role of violence. Is V a revenge-seeking monster or a righteous seeker of justice? Or both? Is he a 'terrorist' as the authorities claim him to be? Or is that merely a convenient label to be used by governments to demonize those who challenge its exclusive use of force? And what of V's politics? He is an anarchist of sorts who never really articulates a political philosophy of his own except that he hates what exists and what the authoritarian rulers did to him personally. The film offers no pat answers to these questions.

(For an excellent review of the film, read James Wolcott. For a good analysis of the film by someone who has actually read the original comic book series, see here but be warned that you should only read the latter after seeing the film, as this analysis contains a lot of spoilers.)

Two lines of dialogue stood out for me as capturing the basic political message of the film. One was when Portman quotes her father: "Artists use lies to show the truth, while politicians use lies to cover it." The other was when V says: "People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people." The latter is the tagline of the film.

The Wachowski brothers who wrote the screenplay also created the Matrix films. I saw only the first film in that earlier series and was not impressed, except for the special effects gimmickry. The story seemed unnecessarily confused, contrived, and mystical. With V, the screenwriters seem to have wisely focused on creating a strong narrative arc and characters who were believable, once you accepted the comic book premise. I don't know the politics of the writers and if they were deliberately trying to draw parallels with the Cheney/Bush regime, but that message was there for anyone willing to see it.

I am anxious for the film to come out on DVD to see it again. If it is still in theaters near you, I encourage you to see it.

POST SCRIPT: The Shooting Party

While on the subject of political films, over the weekend I also saw on DVD the1984 film The Shooting Party starring James Mason and John Gielgud. This is a Merchant-Ivory-style slow tempo examination of British upper-class life and mores.

The film takes place in 1913 at the country estate of an English lord (Mason) where people have gathered for a shooting weekend. I realized with a start that this is exactly the kind of canned hunt that Dick Cheney goes on, where tame birds are sent into the air to be slaughtered by a line of hunters, some of whom secretly compete to see who can get the most, although such competition is frowned on by 'real' gentlemen. One of the guests, an arrogant but insecure Lord, who was shooting in this 'ungentlemanly' manner, gets so carried away that he ends up shooting one of the party in the face.

Who would have expected Cheney's shooting of someone in the face during a canned bird hunt to have been anticipated more than twenty years ago in a film? Or that the ruling class in twenty first century America would try to recreate the blood sport practices of the decaying British aristocracy of a century ago? What next? Cheney taking up fox hunting?

The shooting of birds in the film is a metaphor for the senseless slaughter that would begin the following year with World War I. Some of people in the shooting party are almost looking forward to the war as an adventure, an opportunity to earn honor, not realizing that in the end wars create their own dynamic and end up as killing fields, bereft of glory, merely sordid tales of blood and grief, tears and bereavement, pain and misery.

I wonder if people like Cheney and his neoconservative allies, who probably saw the invasion of Iraq as a glorious adventure and themselves as conquering heroes, ever see films like this and understand its underlying message, that wars are not like canned hunts, in which the people of the 'enemy nation' are like birds to be slaughtered, with the killers bathed in adulation? Probably not.

James Mason was always one of my favorite actors. Has there been anyone who could convey so much nuance and meaning with that soft, hesitant voice? And his scene with John Gielgud, who plays an animal rights activist who disrupts the hunt, is a little gem, showcasing the talents of two great actors, masters of their craft, casually displaying the talents that made them such a joy to watch.


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While I found V for Vendetta to be a fairly entertaining film, I did not like it nearly as much as you. I felt the movie would have been more effective if it had spent more time explaining the back story and the current situation of the citizens of this futuristic society. They make reference to "the former United States" and other statements which could have been explored at least a little to fill in the gaps. I found the overly wordy dialogue, especially from V, to be tiresome. The action sequences were also underwhelming. Perhaps I 'm being too picky, but for how the film was billed and what it delivered I was disappointed.

Posted by Joe on April 10, 2006 09:53 AM

Yes there were some throwaway anti-imperialist messages. The film implies that the US overextended itself in its imperial ambitions, drained its wealth in futile wars with other countries, became 'soft', and then collapsed. The lesson was that the leaders had to be ruthless and strong in controlling their own people.

Should the film have explored these storylines? Tough call. I did not find the time dragging so I did not feel the need for additional exploration of the backstory.

I personally get bored with too much action (which was one of my complaints about the Matrix) so did not complain that those scenes were not plentiful. But those who expected an action film along the lines of the Matrix might well be disappointed.

Posted by Mano Singham on April 10, 2006 10:50 AM

I haven't seen V For Vendetta yet, but I hope to do so soon. I would like to put in a plug for the comics, however. They've been collected in trade paperback form and are available at your local bookstore or library.

Alan Moore (the comic's writer) is a bit of a maverick, but his comics are (in general) really good. Really really good. This is why they keep getting made into (usually bad) movies: From Hell, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and V. His best (well, most highly praised) work is probably Watchmen, which (according to Wikipedia) is the only graphic novel on Time magazine's 100 best novels since 1923. But I always loved V, his Swamp Thing work, and Miracleman, too.

I'm posting this mostly because of your stance on atheists: we should stand up and be counted so that people will see there are plenty of us. I'm a (more or less) serious fan of comics, and most people won't take comics seriously unless they see others doing so.

Posted by Peter on April 10, 2006 01:36 PM

I have always loved comics, from the time I was a child but have fallen out of the habit, though the comics in the newspapers are a must-read for me.

In Sri Lanka, they used to have more than just the "funnies." They would serialize dramatic strips and we would follow them. But the squeezing down of space for the strips has been far more damaging for the dramatic strips than for the funnies, since they depended so much more on the visual impact.

I have never quite understood why comic books were considered an "inferior" art form, to the pure written word.

Posted by Mano Singham on April 10, 2006 02:22 PM

Serialized drama in comics have really found a new life in web comics, but the quality you find will vary greatly, and the worst part is many of them are killed by their success because they can no longer afford their bandwidth costs.

Posted by Tom Trelvik on April 10, 2006 03:27 PM

I never really got into comic books other than the sunday funnies (which are definitely a must as Mano says.) While roaming around Borders recently, I bought a Simpsons comic book and a book of Calvin and Hobbes comic strips and I have enjoyed both of these. After all this talk of comics I might just have to go and look into all of that stuff.

As for the movie, I enjoyed it very much. I somewhat agree with Joe in that it would've been interesting to know the whole story involving the history behind their society and what was happening with the U.S. But I was not disappointed at all because I didn't see it as entirely necessary to the storyline. I saw it the day it came out so it's been a couple weeks and I'd like to see it again to form more opinions.

I thought it was very interesting to see so many parallels with what is going on now.

Posted by Corey Maley on April 11, 2006 12:14 PM

i watched the movie twice within the past few months and i feel that it is highly over praised by you. while it has a significant value when considering present world politics i feel that as a movie it was quite disappointing in its delivery.
sure its a highly entertaining movie with its exaggerated action sequences (typical of watchowsky films) with a knife juggling, half burnt masked hero and a simply bizarre love story, but when you analyze the movie closer you would find that V does not have a cunterforce or a villain who actually threatens his plan. so you end up with a masked vigilante who strives to convince the whole nation to overthrow its tyranical government (which he does within the first 45 minutes of the film) with absolutely no substancial opposition.
you do find that the high chancellor is potrayed as the primary villain in the story but he poses no threat to V's plans and is left helpless as V's terorist-like plot goes unhindered.
nowhere in the film is there any doubt as to whether his scheme would work or not. in that way the movie is quite a cliche and a drag for the most part.
so in the end all the movie does is provide a allegorical view on what present day international politics could lead to. where as when you consider it as a movie it is just another action movie with an unbeatable hero and a slightly significant political plot.

Posted by Malik on August 12, 2006 05:28 AM

Personally I thought V was just fantastic and was shocked at how it was not a big hit in the cinema. Was it because it was British and so the Americans didn't like it? I dont know but it is a film I can watch over and over.

Posted by martial on April 24, 2007 08:34 AM

I believe there were some throwaway anti-imperialist messages.

Posted by yosax on April 19, 2008 12:03 AM

As a political statement, I thought that it's too easy to draw comparison with the Bush-Cheney administration. And I agree with the cautionary message against having too much control. However, as a movie, I thought it missed a homerun by not allowing Hugo Weaving to fully connect and dazzle the audience. Hiding him behind a mask was a mistake.

Posted by Planet Comic Book Radio on June 21, 2008 05:36 AM

I do agree that Moore anticipated the dangers of creeping authoritarianism under the guise of security, that came with the GWOT.

Although I think it's a bit of a stretch to tie the characters directly to the Bush administration.

Posted by Sociocide on May 12, 2010 09:29 AM

I have been a huge fan of the comic book for a while now and I liked the movie. But I thought it could have been a little faster paced in some areas. That is probably what hampered it in the Box Office

Posted by Drexx on July 27, 2010 09:02 AM

I must have been living under a rock and have only just seen this movie after getting it as a gift 3 weeks ago and I have watched it like 5 times already, even my wife likes it. 10/10 on the translation from book to big screen

Posted by Western Jukebox on July 29, 2010 06:51 AM

V, 1984... Can't trust adults with power. Lord of the Flies... Can't trust children. Animal Farm... Can't trust animals. My graphic novels... Can't trust ones self. It's hard not to be afraid. Life is terrifying, with or without this or that form of man-made terrorism.

Posted by The Devil on October 7, 2010 08:29 AM

If you want to use V for Vendetta as a source of politics, I think you should also consider the Tron Legacy movie.

Strip away all the pretty graphics, and there is a political story of deep meaning.

here is a link that talks about it:


Posted by Star Wars on January 18, 2011 04:29 PM