Friday, March 24, 2006

Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot: A "V for Vendetta" Review

It's a little hard to begin this. I'm going to be chewing on this film and my reaction to it for a while.

To begin:

I have enjoyed dystopia fiction for most of my life. I always found such things interesting. Lord of the Flies, 1984, Alas Babylon. Great books. Very enjoyable. So when I first saw the advertisements for V for Vendetta, I thought, "Rad!"

Then the backlash began. Or, more to the point, the fore-and-back-lash began. The "liberal" reviewers call it "the ballsiest, angriest picture of the current administration" and said it "uses a futuristic totalitarian regime to skewer political fear-mongering and popular complacency in every age, including this one." On the other side of the aisle, the few "conservative" reviewers said that "V FOR VENDETTA plays like a comic book version of an al Qaeda recruiting video" and that it's "a paranoid, left-wing fever dream of what America is here and now."

I'm really tired of the political junk, but decided to brave the tide to see the film. Besides the fact that I deeply love Natalie Portman in a purely superficial way. And Hugo Weaving rocks.

So what did I think of the film? That's a difficult question.

First, the plot: To sum things up without giving too terribly much away, it's the story of an version of England in the future, where a totalitarian government has come to power to unite and protect the citizenry from the "outside evils" of the world. (Think "1984," complete with the giant screens of the "Chancellor's" face.) However, this security has come at a severe and steep price--the freedoms and rights of the people. Now, a mysterious figure who calls himself V and wears a Guy Fawkes mask is trying to lead a revolution of sorts, to overthrow the current regime. Destruction ensues. Caught up in V's 'war' is Evey, an employee of the "BBC" stand-in, who has to decide if she wants to side with the masked man.

I think that catches everyone up to speed.


I'm going to have to unpack this slowly, so bear with me. Let's lay aside the political aspects for the time being. How is the film-as-a-film? Excellent. I found it interesting and enjoyable. The performances were satisfactory-to-excellent. I especially enjoyed Hugo Weaving's "portrayal" of the title character. His vocal work and physicality made the mask an asset instead of a liability. I thought the cinematography and sound work were great. I liked the writing, and found it to be very literate. The special effects were cool. It was a very pretty film to observe.

The story was interesting. I found myself cheering V on a bit, though later I had to really think about why. V isn't a hero, in any normal sense. He's a hero in the way that The Bride in "Kill Bill" is a hero. He's a "hero" in the way Charles Bronson's characters are heroes. Or Edmond Dantes in "The Count of Monte Cristo" (which is often referenced in the film). You cheer for these vengeful characters because, though you "know better," you still enjoy watching the punishment of the wicked, even if it's by someone who isn't "righteous" themselves. It's a visceral reaction. Not a very Christ-like response, obviously. But, well, there it is.

How you see V may affect how you see the film as a whole. If V is nothing but a terrorist, then the film will seem nothing more than a glorification of terrorism (which can be argued, but I disagree). If V is a noble freedom fighter, then you will cheer as he threatens the life of innocent civilians in order to strike a blow for "the people." If V is a madman, fighting a mad government, then you may find yourself uncomfortably siding with him against the tyranny of the government he fights.

And there's the rub. It's hard to divorce the politics of this era from your understanding of the movie. I think that, in 30 years, once the rhetoric of this political time has died off, people will be able to view this film as just a film. A theoretical fiction, instead of an allegory. It's pretty clear that the filmmakers wanted to draw clear connections between the totalitarian regime and the American political system, even if that wasn't the original author's intent, twenty years ago. But maybe in three or four decades, this can be seen as an interesting piece of modern (post-modern?) dystopian literature, with little basis in reality.

For the time being, however, we have to address this work of art within the context of this politically-charged culture. In this context, I have to say that the film takes cheap-shots whenever it can. I do agree with the reviewer above that it can be seen as a "left-wing fever dream." Which is to say, it reads like a fiction created by an anti-Bush conspiracy theorist. Those with little sense will say, "the government in the movie staged a biological terrorist event to gain power...JUST LIKE BUSH DID WITH 9/11!!!" This is stupid. Utterly stupid.

I'm taking a side at this point. I'm gonna go ahead and say it. Are there aspects of the Sutler regime in "V for Vendetta" that are made to look like Bush's administration? Sure. Is it a fair comparison? Usually, no. Sutler himself was nothing like Bush. He was eloquent and angry--a dead ringer for Hitler, but nothing like Bush. But the fact is, all of the wicked things presented in the film that the "fictional" government does, some on the left are going to say, "That's the way it is now!"

[And forgive my language, but I call 'bullshit' on that whole line of reasoning. When dissidents, protesters, artists, homosexuals, and foreigners are "black-bagged" and dragged away by secret police--instead of given prominent platforms to express themselves in all levels of art and media--THEN maybe you can talk to me about how "oppressive" the "theocratic" Bush "empire" is. Theocracy? Are you frackin' kidding me? This administration has bent over backwards and kissed its own grits to be as open-minded as possible to other faiths. Bush has been pushing the "religion of peace" moniker as long as anyone else.]

Whew. Okay. I'm back. See what I mean? Politically charged.

There is also a surprisingly strong homosexual theme throughout the film. I wasn't expecting that. It served the story to some limited extent, so I don't have a huge problem with it. I'm not going to cry foul that "they're pushing their agenda" because it doesn't surprise me. I'm just commenting for those who get freaked out by such things.

Religion gets a pretty poor treatment throughout the film. The evil conservative goverment pushes faith, to the point where the church and the state are intertwined. While some believers will be offended by this, I was actually quite okay with it (which, I have to admit, surprised myself). Here's the deal: when the church gets in bed with the state, both are corrupted. It's been happening since the beginning. What I see in this film (though probably not what the filmmakers intended) is a corrupted church that has lost sight of Christ. That's why Christ is never mentioned (outside of being used as profanity, sadly). It's all about "faith." Because faith can be placed in evil things. So, when you see a lustful, perverted bishop, you know that he's serving something other than the true faith. The "Big Brother" has a Bible. The pill-popping political talking head ("paging Rush Limbaugh!") talks about diseases and disaster in America being judgment from God. On the other hand, the lovable closeted TV host has a secret copy of the Koran in his house, not because he is Muslim but because he appreciates the "beautiful imagery." Having that book gets him killed.

In short, Christianity (or at least the form of it presented) is shown to be pretty rotten. But like I said, you can view it two ways. Unfortunately, the unsaved viewer will see all Christians as abusers, murderers, and bigots. (As another reviewer for another film put it, this is where real Christians must step in and say, "it doesn't have to be this way.")

On the whole, I'll say this about the film:

I liked it. I almost wish it could have been made in a less politically-polarized era, but I know that it obviously wouldn't have been. Maybe I wish it could be enjoyed and viewed in a less-polarized era. But the performances were great, and the film gives the viewer dozens of tough questions and ideas to discuss with friends over coffee. For that aspect, it's an important film. I have a good idea of the ideological bent that spawned this work, but I'm almost choosing to read it a little differently, so that I can enjoy it and get more out of it. And that is what good art does. It provides different facets to different viewers.

Like I said, I'm still chewing on this, though, and my opinion isn't fully set yet. So forgive me if I miss something "obvious" that proves how "wrong" I am. I'm getting there.

So, recommended, but with reservations. If you think you can get past the obvious roadblocks, it's well worth the trip.

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