Ideas are bulletproof


V for Vendetta
Directed by James McTeigue
Written & produced by Larry and Andy Wachowski
With Natalie Portman & Hugo Weaving

V for Vendetta
Created by Alan Moore and David Lloyd
Published by Vertigo Comics
1988, Washington


"You would have liked [my father]", Evey (Natalie Portman) explains to V (Hugo Weaving), early in the Wachowski brothers' film V for Vendetta, "he used to say artists use lies to tell the truth while politicians use them to cover the truth up". In this statement, V for Vendetta explains its reason for being. As they did in The Matrix, Andy and Larry Wachowski have produced a film that aims to reveal our world, while portraying a different one.

V for Vendetta did not start life as a Wachowski brothers' production. It was in the early 1980s that Alan Moore, comics' only certifiable genius, scripted the cult hit — a dystopian tale of a Guy Fawkes-masked avenger in a post-World War III world in which fascism had been embraced by a terrified British public. But the Wachowski brothers have taken Moore's anarchist manifesto and substantially re-written it for a post-Iraq war world, with surprisingly effective results. (Moore views the film as unconnected to his work, and has had his name removed from it and his royalty money given to artist David Lloyd.)

Vendetta stands out firstly because it is unashamedly about political ideas. "Behind this mask is an idea, Mr Creedy", V explains, "and ideas are bulletproof". And the ideas that the film raises — that "acts of terror" can be useful and that people hold power over their governments — are ones that few film-makers would be brave enough to touch in the current political climate.

Far from veering away from obvious parallels, the Wachowskis have been careful to link the film to current events. Whereas Moore's dystopian society was the result of a US-initiated nuclear war, the Wachowskis have traced a world wracked by unending US-led war, that has devastated the Middle East and plunged the US itself into civil war. "History" summaries in the film include footage from real anti-war protests, and a "coalition of the willing" poster appears. Where Moore had emphasised the anti-feminist, anti-"Paki" and anti-gay hysteria of the ruling regime, the Wachowskis have brought in anti-Muslim hatred. A reference in the film to governments that have killed 100,000 people rings particularly poignant, and the population, which does not believe its government, invokes the political atmosphere of today.

V is a solo avenger, bent on a mission as personal as it is political. On November 5, he blows up the Old Bailey courthouse to a background of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, and promises, on national television, to return in a year's time, to meet those who are brave enough at parliament to invoke the legacy of Guy Fawkes. The film then follows both V's vendetta, and Mr Finch, the police superintendent, who is trying to understand V's plans and motives. We see much of V through the eyes of Evey, a young woman who is rescued by V and becomes his acolyte.

Published throughout the early years of British PM Margaret Thatcher's reign, V for Vendetta was one of a series of British comics that rebelled against the resurgence in "conservative" values in Britain. Moore was more involved than most in the campaigns against Thatcher, publishing an illustrated tribute to/history of homosexuality as a fundraiser for gay and lesbian rights. Shortly after Vendetta, Moore wrote Watchmen, a devastating critique of the superhero genre, which has become the most widely studied graphic novel in the world.

Moore's V is an educated anarchist. He explains to Evey: "Anarchy means 'without leaders'; not 'without order'. With anarchy comes an age of ordnung, of true order, which is to say voluntary order." At the close of the book, V appears on a rooftop to tell the populace, "With anarchy comes hope, hope reinstated". Moore's V is heroic, but also uncomfortably ruthless, and many of his actions are abhorrent.

In 2005, Moore told an interviewer for Giant magazine: "I didn't want to tell people what to think, I just wanted to tell people to think." Moore's portrayal of the Conservative Party leaders, cut from the film except one scene, reveals frailty and compassion as well as hatred and sadism, and many of the book's heroes have a different world view to V.

The Wachowskis have fundamentally changed Moore's morally ambiguous anarchism versus fascism tale into a tale of freedom versus tyranny designed to comment unambiguously on the current world (unfortunately, in the process, they have also butchered and re-written some of Moore's most powerful prose). The film retains Moore's belief that evil governments rest on complicit populations, and political extremism could grow out of our current system. For example, the fascist government was not imposed, but elected, and its leaders are members of the Conservative Party.

But the Wachowskis have chosen to emphasise more the possibility of working people changing the world they live in for the better, and have arguably made a more useful political work. V's anarchism has all but disappeared, his ruthlessness is somewhat watered down, as is his manipulative and paternalistic attitude to Evey (to be replaced by a non-credible romantic relationship).

One of the most progressive aspects of the film is its attempt to inject optimism about political change in a world that is despairing. "Every time I have seen the world change, it was for the worse", Evey tells V, echoing the reality of an entire generation in the First World. V sets out to prove to Evey that "governments should be afraid of their people", and, despite the terrorist trappings, the film's fundamental message is that responsibility for political change lies with the mass of people, not institutions or politicians or stars.

V's detonations are not aimed at frightening the ruling elite, but at awakening the masses. He blows up the Old Bailey to symbolise that institutions must be swept away if they do not serve the people.

The film is not a recipe for revolution. V is a symbol of resistance, not of a political alternative or a leadership capable of leading a sustained struggle. He has no political program, or alternative solutions. The uprising of mass action is spontaneous, and how effective it will be in the long-term is unexplored.

However, V for Vendetta is fabulous entertainment. Natalie Portman plays Evey with a perfect mix of damage and defiance, making a scarcely credible personal journey believable and moving. While the mask restricts Hugo Weaving as V, the fact that he manages to even pronounce much of the Wachoswki-written pretentious dialogue deserves a medal. Notable performances from Stephen Fry (whose standard Oscar Wilde-esque character works with surprising poignancy) and Stephen Rea round out the film.

Vendetta cries out in defiance, not only to the conservative elite leading the Earth into destruction, but to those who argue that we must be restrained and reasonable in the face of it. Its enormous success in the US and locally is a strong indication that people in the First World have not lost their will to struggle, and a strong sign for the future. If you haven't seen it - do! If you saw it and loved it, you might want to check out the original graphic novel.

From Green Left Weekly, April 12, 2006.
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