“I want everyone to remember why they need us!” screams the High Chancellor’s projected visage, a stark Big Brother addressing his soulless co-conspirators in a shadowy government conference room.
Government reminders come in all forms in the new film “V for Vendetta,” from the fabrication of national disasters to the censorship and control of the media – all in the name of protecting the powerful. Luckily for the residents of the dystopian fantasy, one man stands against the tide of totalitarian terror.
But this is a movie, and anyone can guess the rest. Morally conflicted yet single-mindedly righteous, and coming off a stint in something decidedly resembling a Holocaust medical experimentation camp, the film’s hero V has no memory of who he once was. His only apparent goal is to finish the work Guy Fawkes started in 1605 by attempting to blow up Parliament.
Like Fawkes, V is a terrorist. It’s a term the Chancellor’s administration doesn’t mind throwing around, but an odd one for filmmakers to choose as a label for their titular hero – particularly when that hero chooses London’s Underground as the delivery service for his Parliament-bound explosives.
In light of the bombings of London’s public transportation system this summer and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 that left this nation stunned in fear and rage, and particularly in light of U.S. politics that have changed since then, giving your hero the marker of “terrorist” is a tremendously bold step.
Such a hero, fighting against such a regime, has been understandably scrutinized and dissected. In concept, they say, “V for Vendetta” is undeniably political.
But while any movie centered on a character like V is politically bold, the assertion that “Vendetta” itself is necessarily and inherently a piece of political art is not as easily defended. There’s a government cloaked in lies and shadows, exploiting and tyrannizing its people through a campaign of perpetual fear. There’s a vigilante terrorist challenging a conventional concept of just action.
But so they had those in “Star Wars,” too.
In the past year, America has become a wellspring of political art, from George Clooney’s stylishly subversive “Good Night, and Good Luck” to Stephen Gaghan’s incendiary “Syriana” to Steven Spielberg’s explosively powerful “Munich.” To call these films political in nature gets at the very heart of their existence. Politics is the point.
But now take “Vendetta,” a middling action film, its best assets good-enough special effects and Natalie Portman. Based on a graphic novel by Alan Moore (“From Hell”), the film’s most salient descriptors are probably “fun” and “noisy.” The happenstance of using a totalitarian government as the villain – OK, one that spews unsettling rhetoric, harnesses the public fear of national crisis and craves power above public good, sure – is ultimately a narrative device. If oppressive regimes, a sci-fi fanboy’s favorite nemesis, must by their very existence be allegorical to present-day governments, we may have to reconsider the political significance of, say, “Aeon Flux.”
“Vendetta,” which wears the well worn trope of political oppression, is not necessarily a political film. But then again, neither is it apolitical.
Political impact can’t be measured by intent or novelty (lucky, because “Vendetta” has neither on its side), but by effect. Indeed, it was not the politically vocal “Good Night, and Good Luck” that became the flashpoint in film this year, but a quiet love story about two cowboys in Montana that resonated. Whether it’s a 52-year-old lifelong conservative who finds himself empathizing with thwarted gay love, or a 13-year-old kid discovering a message of civil disobedience in a Guy Fawkes mask and silly, alliterative verbosity, in the moment when art connects with intellect – that’s political.