V for Vendetta Graphic Enough?

Kurt Jacobsen

You say you wanna a revolution? Well, you know - or readers of a certain age will know - that even beloved old reactionary Walt Disney was a passionate fan of revolutionaries, if they were of the right lily white breed. Exhibit A is the stirring 1950s Disney TV series 'Johnny Tremain,' chronicling a handsome and dashing young minute man's adventures during the early days of the American Revolutionary War. Yet another Disneyfied Revolutionary War TV series, 'Swamp Fox,' celebrated Francis Marion's legendary hit-and-run exploits in South Carolina while the infinitely evil British Colonel Tarleton (a villain reprised with relish in Mel Gibson's The Patriot) stayed hot on his elusive heels. Even the TV theme lyrics – hum along - were, for the grim McCarthyite era, kind of kickass: "Swamp Fox, Swamp Fox, Tail on his hat, Nobody Knows where the Swamp Fox is at. Swamp Fox, Swamp Fox, Hides in the Glen. He runs away to fight again." Sensible guy.

‘Hit and run’ is what you do if you are sane and up against a vastly superior military force. Maybe the Viet Cong watched Disney reruns? So our autistic American pop culture really isn't ignorant of the concept of justified guerrilla resistance to a tyrannical government or foreign occupier. True, driving out the redcoats did not do much at the time for the status of Blacks, women, native Americans, or poor whites, as Howard Zinn and other glum historians remind us, but nothing's perfect.  Again, at the pre-Contra height of Reagan's era an awesomely preposterous film Red Dawn (1985) portrayed a successful invasion of the USA by robotic Soviet airborne troops and sniveling Cuban sidekicks, and it imagined how a rag-tag band of angry teens responded to their oppressive occupation.

In a rip-snorting all-American fantasy fest, scripted by uber-rightwinger John Milius, our juvenile commandos commence putting to shame the comparatively pallid antics of Castro in the Sierra Madres, Tito in mountain fastnesses of Yugoslavia, Ho Chi Minh and General Giap in steaming Vietnam jungles, or Mao anywhere in China. What do the resourceful young Yanks get up to?  Why they strike at enemy weak points, hit key vulnerable installations, assassinate enemy leaders, pick off stragglers, rub out informers (and anyone suspected of informing), and even plant a few concealed IEDs here and there. They play dirty simply because they have to. Had Red Dawn bothered to caricature standard TV newscasts audiences would have watched purse-lipped anchors primly proclaiming that outside agitators were inciting trouble among an otherwise contented American people. (V for Vendetta delightfully conjures a mad lapdog Bill O' Reilly clone.) So far as armed resistance goes, it's perfectly okay when Yanks do it. No one else - or not if they are not serving the interests of big US investors. Red Dawn swirled with more unintended incendiary ironies than the average White Hiouse press conference contains these days

But ironies are unusually scarce in the intriguing hit film V for Vendetta, a rancorous ‘lefty’ graphic novel made cinematic flesh. A decade into our – what else? - dire future a Blade Runner Britain labors under the bleakest Orwellian conditions after a neofascist 'High Chancellor' (John Hurt, who brings eerie echoes of turnabout from his 1980s movie role as Winston Smith) and his henchmen exploit terrorist attacks of unknown origin so as to seize total power. It’s resonant, all right.  Everything that happens is merely grist for cynical power-seeekers, and always was, and always will be. The United States, by the way, is embroiled in ferocious civil war, though between whom exactly we don't know. The grim globe is afflicted as always by spreading plagues, poverty and violence. Ordinary decent Brits, puzzled and placid, comply with brutal police state codes for the sake of what is trumpeted to be the common good or the national interest, or some other mind-numbing deceitful abstraction. Step out of line and you either are snuffed straightaway or else wind up a quivering specimen in secret human experimental labs jointly run by the government and its even more vicious corporations who helped to create the foul regime, which is in their pockets, in the first place. Familiar?

Fear not. Into this cruel wasteland boldly strides a swashbuckling Guy Fawkes-masked champion in swirling black cape, a man dedicated to demolishing the Orwellian regime.  The subversive saga mixmasters '1984', the Bionic Man series, Terry Gilliam's Brazil, and the treacly melodrama of The Count of Monte Cristo into a smart commercial blend.  Guy Fawkes, incidentally, is a fascinatingly ambivalent character in British history - either a religious malcontent or a civic hero who in 1605 lent a hand to the bungled ‘gunpowder plot’ to blow up the House of Lords, which wasn’t much of a democratic institution at the time. (The plotters weren’t champions of democracy either.) Poor Fawkes, who wasn’t even the mastermind, was nabbed, tortured  and hideously executed, a la Braveheart. It's difficult today for an innocent observer to tell whether the annual Guy Fawkes Day celebrations on November 5th are cheering the rescue of the Crown or a damn nice try by Fawkes, who recently was named among the 100 greatest Britons in a BBC poll, alongside such benefactors of mankind as David Bowie and Princess Diana.

V, sporting a bulletproof rictus grin mask, is a biologically enhanced escapee from a punitive government detention center that is half Abu Graib and half Dachau medical atrocity camp. Somehow, the vengeful V has amassed apparently unlimited resources stored in an underground bat cave decked out with a screamingly hip blend of high and low art, a juke box chock full of syrupy 1940s crooner standbys, and a flashy armory capable of derailing the best-laid plans of conceited authorities. The regime cabal comes treacherously replete with an unmistakable slimy Dick Cheney stand-in who really pulls all the strings of the splenetic unstable supreme leader. A lecherous lout of a Bishop is pleased to lend the Church's clammy hand to the maniacal agenda of the authoritarian clique.

Plunked into this grand guignol narrative is a somber high level cop (Stephen Rea, deploying his signature hangdog features and a shabby Columbo demeanor to good effect)) just doing his job pursuing wicked outlaws, as arbitrarily designated by what he suspects are thoroughly unlawful bosses. The diligent cop, oddly, is one of very few characters who exhibit qualms or even smidgen of ethics. His quarry, apart from V, is Evey (Natalie Portman), the daughter of 'disappeared' dissident parents, who nonetheless contrives to remain implausibly naïve, not to say, obtusely thick about the nature of the regime and its role in making her however fetching an orphan. Eleven out of ten such tragic offspring, one imagines, would more likely be utterly obsessed with tracking down the true culprits.

Evey is a four-star terminal slacker, just trying to scuffle along in as low key a life as possible. A young audience clearly is intended to be enticed by this annoying device of pseudo-humility so as to identify with a very pretty, if disappointingly dimwitted, heroine. One supposes this listless stance is what the wiseass filmmakers view as the default mode of the average citizen: a self-induced state of cluelessness. (One can't help recalling the post-2004 election bitterness of 'blue state" denizens toward 'red states' electing Bush's imbecilic administration - and, in doing so, discounting media propaganda, dirty tricks, and easily hacked electronic voting machines.) If so, then V's infantile adventurism might make an iota of sense, and blowing landmark buildings to colorful smithereen will come off as really cool. Finally, puffy middle-aged Stephen Fry plays a gay TV variety show host who is unwilling to endanger his high life style in order to blurt what he really thinks about the malevolent and petty rulers. Everybody just wants to fit in, sort of like in, you know, Vichy France.

The queasy screen universe depicted in V for Vendetta is one of a people utterly depleted in spirit and courage through a stringently state-engineered atmosphere of fear and loathing. How did society come to this pretty pass? Well, a band of Islamic zealots are held officially responsible for gruesome terrorist acts. The Koran consequently is banned as incendiary reading matter (and in the Britain today it is certainly no fun to be a young Muslim man). The United Kingdom regime wallows, almost smugly, in its permanent state of peril. A perpetual state of emergency awards conniving authorities and their corporate sponsors free reign. Terrorism is the answer to every authoritarian’s prayer.

Shades of Halliburton, a very well-connected mega-business backs the Cheneyesque vice-chancellor and, whether by accident or intention, inflicts the first domestic fatalities, a sour circumstance reminiscent of the forgotten anthrax attacks after 9/11 whose source US authorities seem so unwilling to locate or disclose. Muslim are the patsies. Anyone raising so much as a peep about civil liberties is snared by riot-geared thought police, and whisked off into Japanese 'Unit 731'-style biological warfare experiment stations where, in a mishap the cop uncovers, all but one subject dies. (A single doctor - just one - feels guilty about it.) The escaped survivor turns out to have been a prodigious biological success, emerging as the stronger, fleeter, and - must be testosterone enhancement - romantic revolutionary known as V, a dazzling martial arts aficionado who disembowels bewildered police squads in seconds flat. Mercifully, he performs no flying trapeze tricks.

V's ripe first speech is, according to taste, either a dazzling tour de force or a tediously alliterative manifesto delivered just after he rescues little Evey from the lascivious clutches of the secret police. Evey is suitably grateful but also strangely reluctant, given that she's a marked woman anyway, to take up arms with him against malicious authorities. By contrast, the gay Stephen Fry character, and a beautiful pair of lesbian lovers, are, in a militantly anti-gay society provided with a gender preference-based motive for resistance. All that’s missing is pink triangles. Eventually, even the prudently pusillanimous Fry character, the broadcaster, pokes deeply barbed fun publicly at the High Chancellor, and pays dearly for it.

But Evey, alas, herself sorely needs consciousness-raising, an awakening -and V put her through an induced psychotic experience in order to achieve it. She clearly is a stand-in for the masses - a word I shudder at - who likewise need a miracle worker vanguard to show them the truth and the way. With the slightest of mental twists this haunted golden-tongued man V with shiny mask and billowing cape transmutes into the flinty taciturn hombre in dusty cowboy hat and poncho - a Clint Eastwood vigilante wraith smashing the rotten old order to restore justice, and to balance his personal account. This shadowy mirroring of modern Britain and America is, I suppose, the best that commercial film makers can get away with, so more power to the Matrix-generating Wachowskis for their calculated audacity.

The Wachowskis rabidly invest every action scene they concoct with slo-mo whirling stab marks  -  wispy laser trails hanging in the air so audiences can relish the trajectory of killing blows to each sniveling or sneering creep. That's the tiresome part. The sly message in a mass market film that the world is smothered in corrupt corporate bullshit abetted by faithful state underlings, with Jack Abramof-like middlemen sealing the deals, may be boring too but it is encouraging. As in Samuel Johnson's remark, it is not that the dog danced well, the remarkable thing is that the dog danced at all. V is for Vendetta, to give it credit, does play around with the notion of legitimacy, suggesting how terribly dependent elites really are upon willing compliance of the hoi polloi. Withdrawing compliance, as counseled from Aristophanes through Gandhi and Martin Luther King, is surely one way to undercut or even overthrow lunatic hubristic elites.

Is this any way to run a revolution? Judging by V For Vendetta’s box office success, it's the half-assed thought that counts. Audiences 'get it' insofar as the film is a warning of the ugly places our leaders are dragging us into. The final sequence of a jamboree of thousands of Fawkes-attired citizens storming Parliament, Winter palace style, may well be a memorable pop culture visual moment, but the political awakening behind this frilly uprising isn't at all apparent. Ultimately, as the story line demands, the citizenry, cowed into acceptance of their monitored lot, require a catalytic spark from a maverick superhero to smash the tissue of lies which the state, like all states, assiduously wrapped around them. It's revolution, Jim, but not as we know it. – graphic novel style.

The film’s climactic swarming of the solemn, costumed crowd over heavily armed troops is as dangerously dubious a scene as the Wachowskis ever dreamed up. British troops - witness Bloody Sunday 1972, for one – always have been willing to kill UK citizens in Northern Ireland without hesitation or remorse. Our daring film makers most likely had the 1989 transitions, especially in Romania, in mind. While, say, Romanian troops in 1989 may have decided not to massacre crowds, Chinese soldiers at Tianneman square performed all too obediently. The film makers, going for surreal sensationalism at all costs, fall headlong into a standard narrative cinematic trap that works to extinguish any truly radical notions. Such as the historical inkling that perhaps people are able to organize themselves, and would be better off without any distractingly charismatic leaders around to show them the way.

Kurt Jacobsen is a research associate in Political Science at the University of Chicago and the book review editor at Logos. His latest books include Maverick Voices: Conversations with Political and Cultural Rebels (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004) and, co-edited, Experiencing the State (Oxford University Press, 2006.)