"V For Vendetta"
Directed by James McTeigue
Written by Andy and Larry Wachowski
Based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore
Running Time, 132 mins

With the recent wave of films addressing the worldwide political, social, and economic malaise, it is no accident, indeed inevitable, that such conditions would influence popular culture. This happened in the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, with the popular discontent with the Vietnam War and the civil rights, feminist, labor rights movements gaining broad support. During this time, films like Easy Rider, MASH, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and other films praising the counterculture and anti-Establishment sentiments were hit movies. It is a complex process as to why this occurs. While popular opinion is turning against the Bush administration and its military and corporate axis, it has become profitable for the entertainment industry to capitalize in kind. The results can be seen with films like Syriana, Brokeback Mountain, and Good Night, Good Luck, which have received prominent play in American theaters in recent months. Once in awhile, despite the inanities of Hollywood, a few films slip through the cracks that display bold political protest.

V For Vendetta, adapted from Alan Moore’s graphic novel, takes discontent with the Establishment and puts it in the context of the action genre, which has historically celebrated the basest, reactionary instincts of law-and-order and protection of wealth. The film centers on a masked, debonair superhero, modeled after Guy Fawkes, a seventeenth century English soldier and Catholic dissident who tried to kill King James I, his heir and the predominately Protestant Parliament. Fawkes failed and was executed a few months later. The day of the attempted assassination, November 5, is celebrated as a holiday in the United Kingdom and other countries.

The film is set in a dystopian futuristic London in the not-too-distant future (in the year 2020), during the reign of a fascist Norsefire regime. The Big Brother-esque Chancellor, Adam Sutler, (John Hurt) gives orders to his subordinates from a large monitor (Hurt, ironically, plays Winston Smith in the film adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984). During the film’s opening, a mysterious masked figure named V (Hugo Weaving) rescues a young woman named Evey (Natalie Portman), who is about to be raped and killed by the regime’s secret police (called the “Fingermen”) for violating the government-imposed curfew. V takes her to a rooftop where Evey witnesses an explosion and destruction of a city landmark, Bailey Tower, to the strains of the Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.”

The government immediately cracks down as it investigates the incident. Chief Inspector Eric Finch (Stephen Rea) leads the investigation into the identity and motives of V. Evey is later tagged as a suspected accomplice when she helps V escape after he seizes control of the state-controlled British Television Network, in order to broadcast his message of liberation. During a skirmish with the police, Evey is knocked unconscious and V takes her back to his underground lair. We discover that V intends to kill the top officials of the regime, culminating in a grand act on November 5th, to mark Guy Fawkes’ failed insurrection against English Parliament. Meanwhile, Inspector Finch incidentally stumbles on a series of coincidences that leads him to suspect the government is covering up something larger. V’s relationship with Evey becomes complex when he engages in morally ambiguous actions (to say the least) to get her to understand his motivations.

The film is gaining notoriety in anarchist circles since V espouses decidedly anti-authoritarian views through propaganda by the deed. It should be noted, however, that the film version tones down the politics of the graphic novel (much to the consternation of author Alan Moore) in favor of generic anti-authoritarianism. The film doesn’t make V’s political intentions clear either, opting to make him a stock freedom fighter against government tyranny (through grand property destruction) rather than an anarchist looking to transform society.

Nevertheless, V For Vendetta makes bold parallels to current social and political circumstances. Even though the film is set in England, there are obvious allusions to the U.S. regime and the criminal cabal that currently heads it (along with various collaborators of the Democratic party, reactionary religious figures, and the corporate elite). The Norsefire party, we learn, rose to power, with the toxic combination of religious fundamentalism and profiteering. It maintained fear by instigating a viral epidemic that killed nearly 100,000, but is blamed on Islamic terrorists. Today, many people have suspicions regarding the circumstances behind 9/11 and the Iraq war, which would have been dismissed as mere conspiracy theory five years ago. The fact that the film is willing to venture into these waters, to suggest that governments and their institutions will fabricate an event to control a population, sets it apart from most if not all mainstream action films.

Also of note are the attacks on traditionally cherished or off limits institutions such as the police, official religion, and to a lesser extent global capitalism. In a genre recognized for glorifying law-and-order, V routinely dispatches with policemen, often graphically. He also assassinates top government officials and cronies involved in crimes against the people. But instead of doing this to weed out a few bad apples while upholding the system (common in past action films), the film hints at systemic malaise, which can be cured with radical methods. Few films in Hollywood would go as far as this, certainly a positive attribute to the film.

V For Vendetta has its weaknesses including a rather clichéd, Hollywood build-up to the finale. It also self-consciously avoids the question of anarchism by not exploring V’s intentions regarding revolution. Some will argue that this is another example where the Spectacle capitalizes growing distrust of authority, in order to funnel it into safe channels. All of this is true, but the content of the film is a reflection of the growing tide of antiwar and the public’s concerns with domestic spying in the U.S. This seems to be getting the attention of Hollywood, as well as the politicos and corporate barons in the ruling circles.

With all of this in mind, V For Vendetta offers genuine (though unsatisfactorily vague) sense of revolt, which probably would not have been possible a year ago. The Wachowski brothers, who wrote the screenplay, also wrote and directed The Matrix movies. Those films, as visually impressive and conceptually intriguing as they were, had an air of pseudo-rebellion about it and it seemed lacking in the fundamental issues of authoritarianism. Their latest effort fares better.