V for Vendetta,a dunderheaded pop fantasia that celebrates terrorism and destruction, is perhaps the ultimate example of how a project with modest origins becomes a media monster.
- David Denby, The New Yorker
The tree of liberty must be watered periodically with the blood of tyrants and patriots alike. It is its natural manure.
I WAS GOING TO write a review this morning calling V For Vendetta, the Wachowski Brothers adaptation of Alan Moore's and David Lloyd's mid 1980s comic book series, the greatest ever movie from a comic book source. But when I wrote the phrase it just rang hollow. It cheapens the achievements of the movie. The movie is a great one on its own terms and needs no reference to its source material to justify it. Like Kubrick's film The Shining, the movie is better than its source material by a long shot--thrilling where the comic was slow, visceral where the comic was preachy, focused where the comic was obtuse. In short, the comic had the typical failings of most political art, where the movie suffers from none of those.
The original comic book read like a creepy, didactic screed, with a stagy, theatrical vibe that recalled mid 60s British TV shows like The Avengers and The Prisoner. It got over on Lloyd's design work, centered around a "V" logo a Guy Fawkes mask, and lots of inky shadows. The images from the comic book were indelible where the story was a chore.
The Wachowski's and director James McTeigue (one of their ADs on The Matrix films), have manage to latch on to those visuals while at the same time tightening the story--unfolding it with an easy mastery of narrative structure that steadily gains momentum towards an inevitable cataclysm. If the ending seems inevitable--the razing of Parliament, hundred of thousands of Britons in the streets in cloaks and Guy Fawkes masks overthrowing their totalitarian government--the story that leads us too that point doesn't.
Sure, there are references to other pop literature that seemed to cheapen the film for critics like Denby. The movie, even more than the comic, recalls other futuristic dystopian political potboilers like 1984 and A Clockwork Orange. It also features a morally troubled, shlubby police inspector right out of Prime Suspect, continually name checks The Count of Monte Cristo, and most of all recalls Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera. (Literary references are a signature of V's creator, Alan Moore -- who's greatest invention is a superhero team of figures out of 19th century literature and whose most infamous book is a series of erotic tales about all-grown-up lost girls Wendy Darling, Dorothy Gale, and Alice). But, unlike, say, Harry Potter or Star Wars, V for Vendetta is no pastiche. If you don't know by now the story is set in a future England in which fascist totalitarians have taken over the country, consigned homosexuality, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion among other liberties to the dustbin of history, imposed an 11 pm curfew, carried out biological attacks on their own citizens. A terrorist in a cloak and Guy Fawkes mask--a survivor of a black op government experiment in biological warfare--is carrying out a vendetta, murdering all the officials who had been involved in the experiment twenty years before. But his personal vendetta is wrapped up in a larger political struggle to overthrow the totalitarian regime by realizing Guy Fawkes 17th century dream of burning Parliament to the ground.
The terrorist, never known by any name other than "V," despite wearing a mask than betrays no emotion, is a complex figure. He's correct that the world has gone wrong and can only be set right by cutting the cancer out. But he's in it for what seem like all the wrong reasons--personal vengeance for one. Plus, he's no hero. He's a murderer, pure, simple and unrepentant; and when he psychologically and physically tortures a young girl he's taken in, in a successful attempt to radicalize her, it has a discomfortingly sado-sexual bent (especially in the comic). V espouses no political program; he merely destroys. In truth he's an anarchist, the v-in-a-circle logo conspicuously echoing the anarchist's "A" tag that was showing up in spray paint across Europe in the days when the comic first appeared.
Is V a good guy or a bad guy? It's never clear in the comic--even though it is always clear that the totalitarian government is bad. If the moral balance is more obvious in the movie one suspects that is only because of the zeitgeist -- in the current political climate you're either for civil liberties and the rule of law or for unchecked government power and the legislating of morality. Neocon manichianism has pushed everybody to the wall.
It is to the credit of the film makers that they didn't simplify the moral equations of Moore's original. At one point V argues that in the proper context blowing up a building can change the world, an obvious reference not to Fawkes but to Bin Laden--a passage hardly designed to curry favor or put V on the moral high ground. Nor did the filmmakers dumb down the relationships in in the movie--resisting the typical Hollywood temptation that would have, say, turned V into Evey's long lost brother. The relationships remain random, like most adult relationships--V inspired by his experience as subject of secret military experiments, Evey inspired by her parents. In fact, the film makers did such a faithful job translating Moore's dark, complex vision into a Hollywood blockbuster it's hard to imagine any reasons other than contrarianism and ego for Moore's distancing himself from the movie (he asked to have his name removed from the credits and gave his portion of the proceeds to artist David Lloyd).
On the main the movie has received favorable notices. When bad reviews have come they've come at the hands of neo-cons objecting to the movie's politics. David Denby's March 13 review in The New Yorker is typical. (Ever since Denby lost all his money in bad Internet investments he's become an old scold--a former liberal turned neo-con Denby is like a reformed drunk ever on the pulpit, bitching about how much fun everyone else is having.)
In his review Denby sets up straw men that have nothing to do with V for Vendetta's currency. Denby hails Orwell as a way of belittling V, saying at least Orwell was responding to REAL totalitarianism (ie, Hitler, Stalin). Today's London, Denby writes, is a bourgeoisie playground. That dismissive argument is a classic logical fallacy. Denby might feel uncomfortable with the notion that that secret lawless prisons, open ended detention, torture, military overthrow of foreign governments, warrantless searches and seizures, and the use of churches as tools of political power are classic tools of totalitarian governments; but the truth hurts pal. More than it did in the 1980s, when it was written as a reaction to Thatcherite England, V speaks to the zeitgeist. What's going on here is the beginnings of REAL totalitarianism buddy. Denby then asks, why blow up Parliament, a classic symbol of liberal democracy, why not blow up another symbol, or invent a fictional one? Maybe, David, just maybe, the message of the film is how quickly and easily the institutions of liberal democracy can be turned into tools of totalitarianism and repression. In the language of the film, Parliament is NOT a symbol of liberal democracy. Quite the opposite. Denby's gotta work on his suspension of disbelief if he's going to continue reviewing works of fiction.
The unfortunate truth is that Thomas Jefferson was right. Fertilizer for the tree of liberty sometimes must come from the blood of tyrants who act in the name of patriotism. The true denouement of V for Vendetta comes not with the destruction of Parliament and the "people power" bloodless march of unarmed Britons overrunning the military lines that guard the building. That's a feel good coda. The real denouement comes with the grimier scene in the London underground station in which V butchers a cadre of armed guards as well as the high chancellor and the head of state security before going down in a hail of gunfire. Sam Peckinpah would have loved it!