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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