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V For Vendetta

Mar 26, 2006 • Karen

I went to see V For Vendetta with Carolyn and the posse Friday night. Very well done--clearly the two Matrix sequels did not, in fact, signify the death of the Wachowski brothers' directorial skills.

The film has a way of showing you just as much as you need to know--and no more. You only see the horrors of the prisons in the movie in quick flashes and well-edited clips. That's all you need to see--a glimpse of a tasered prisoner, a mass grave, or a black bag on a man's head, is sufficient to put the grim images of Abu Ghraib, Rwanda, or Gilliam's Brazil in your mind. Unlike pretty much every other film with a masked man, the audience never sees what's behind V's mask. Having seen his scarred hands and scorched silhouette, looking at V's damaged face would have been superfluous, somehow.

Regarding the political message of the film, however, my feelings are more ambivalent. Is the purpose of the film to make audiences feel sympathy for terrorists? Some of the reviews I've read suggest this, but V For Vendetta really doesn't humanize V very effectively. We cheer for him, sure, but he isn't "one of us." V has two settings, it seems: his rather clinical search for revenge and his weird, chaste love for Evey. We don't know his former name, his parents, where he came from, as Evey points out. V is an abstract, dramatic force, the embodiment of the drama-loving "anarchist" in all of us. He's a superhero, not a human.

I'm uneasy about the film's conception of anarchism as well. Although V is the hero, he doesn't get far beyond the stereotype of anarchists as bomb-throwing loonies. He has some good one-liners ("People should not be afraid of their government. Government should be afraid of its people.") that I could nod along with--but that's all they were, one-liners. Modern anarchism has many internal divisions, but let it not be said that anarchists have nothing to say about, say, free-market capitalism, religion or the environment! It's a very opinionated lot! Yet V has little to no comment on any of these.

As Hollywood films go, V For Vendetta is a pretty intelligent one. The movie assumes that its audience is conscious and can apply the movie's references (Middle East neo-imperialism, TV spin--even bird flu!) to real-world events. The audience has a pretty easy time concluding that "something has gone terribly wrong." But what to do now? Besides some pretty explosions, the film doesn't really have answers.

Or does it?

The most significant political act in the film is not the deaths of the head honchos of England's fascist government--it is a rather minor point at the end. Without direction from the top, the soldiers on the ground have to make a choice whether or not to shoot the protestors. If the soldiers actually believed in that "England Prevails!" stuff, they could have massacred the lot. If the soldiers feared their own countrymen, they could have committed a large-scale Kent State. But the soldiers not only put down their guns--they let the protestors push past them! I'm pretty sure that has never actually happened anywhere--if the guns come out, they stay out! However, the scene shows that the soldiers feel greater solidarity with the protestors (fellow citizens, and perhaps friends and family members too) than with their cloistered, hypercentralized government-employer. As they should.

Or maybe the most significant political moment is the way that Evey says "No" at gunpoint to the cop trying to keep her from blowing up Parliament. Evey used to be completely under the thumb of the regime--a "security mom"-type. She knows how awful the regime is--better than most, given what happened to her parents--but she's too petrified to do anything about it. After her trials by fire, however, she's afraid of nothing. And she's completely, radically free.

What if we were all that free?

It has been argued many times before that the War on Terror is an unwinnable war. It's true. But it is not an unendable war. The War on Terror will last only as long as we consent to be terrified. Imagine if every "security mom"-type in America woke up, got in the driver's seat of her minivan, and thought, "It is thousands of times more likely that I'll die in a car crash than in a terrorist attack. And I'm okay with that." The War on Terror would become instantly irrelevant. The government would be forced to stop obscenely exploiting 9/11 and waving fear in our faces. Instead, the administration would have to answer for its irrational, fascist policies.

America can only be the "land of the free" if it is also the "home of the brave." Otherwise, we end up wa(i)ving our rights with our desperate flags.