Turn their name upside down, because the Wachowski brothers are Men on a Mission, Moved by a Message, Movie Makers with Meaning. Like their Matrix trilogy, “V for Vendetta” presents a futuristic tale dripping with meaningful dialogue (much of it alliterative with a capital V) against big government, big business, and fear itself, “the ultimate tool of government.” You could call it “M for Melodramatic.”
The film is set in a dark Orwellian future where fascists are running Great Britain, “the former United States” has been destroyed by “godlessness,” ordinary citizens are imprisoned for being out after curfew, and Big Brother orates from giant plasma TVs. Our hero, V, is a masked terrorist – er, I mean, freedom fighter – who wants to blow up Parliament as a way of uniting the common folk behind the idea of freedom. Like Zorro, he dresses in black, etches his initial on his opponents while sword fighting, and steals only from those in power: “Stealing implies ownership,” he says. “I merely reclaim. things from the government.”
Who is this Masked Man, and why does he have such a vendetta against the government? Finding the answer leads us on an intriguing chase through Hitlerian science experiments, conspiratorial politics, Holocaustic detention
camps, and Hollywood’s obligatory pharmaceutical company connection. The plot is engrossing, with enough twists and thrilling fights to maintain suspense. Occasionally the film seems to teeter on the brink of corniness; can V be taken seriously when he speaks through a grinning Guy Fawkes mask reminiscent of the Joker in Batman, cooks breakfast wearing a frilly apron, and speaks in pretentious Shakespearean quotations full of alliterations on his own name? For the most part, however, it’s an engaging and entertaining film – in part because Natalie Portman is so believable as V’s reluctant protege, Evey.
The film is full of profound mini- statements like “Ideas are bulletproof,” “Symbols are given power by the people,” and “Every action changes the fu-
The film seems libertarian on the surface, but it offers no alternative to the bad government except to blow up the Houses of Parliament.
ture.” One newscaster wryly observes, “Our job is to report the news, not fabricate it. That’s the government’s job.”
But when all is said and done, there are no bulletproof ideas presented here. In fact, V sets himself up as a new kind of dictator, turning his troops (the TV- watching public) into bizarre robotic imitations of himself. They violate curfew, resist the police, and come out to watch the demolition of Parliament, but what do they know of freedom and how to use it?
Yes, the film seems libertarian on the surface, with its antigovernment tag line, “People should not be afraid of government; government should be afraid of the people.” But it offers no alternative to bad government except to blow up a building I happen to love, the Houses of Parliament. The Wachowskis may want to associate Big Ben with dictatorship (the original graphic novel was written when Maggie Thatcher was in power, privatizing her way through Britain), but to me Big Ben represents Peter Pan and Chevy Chase, summer vacations and “our finest hour.” I could no more cheer its demise than the demolition of ancient mosques or Tibetan temples.
The least expected message of this film results from a casting coincidence (although V intones more than once, “There are no coincidences”). The Chancellor is played by veteran actor John Hurt, selected for this film because he evokes a chillingly authentic Hitlerian Big Brother. But I couldn’t help remembering that Hurt 22 years ago played Winston Smith, the protagonist in the film version of George Orwell’s “1984.” Despite Winston’s valiant attempt to resist totalitarianism, the book concludes with the words: “He loved Big Brother.” In “v for Vendetta,” Winston is Big Brother.
Perhaps this is the bulletproof idea of the movie: power corrupts. Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Leon Trotsky, and Mao Zedong all began as freedom fighters wanting to overthrow a dictatorial government, then became mass murderers in order to maintain their big ideas. “Veni, vidi, vici” – V is for the vanquisher, not for peace. As true libertarians know, the only way to effect a lasting change is to teach the principles of self-reliance, personal responsibility, and respect for property rights, and that means annihilating the NEA, not Big Ben. Until that happens, Winston will continue to become Big Brother, and the so-called Freedom Fighters will continue to destroy what we have without replacing it with something better. It will take more than an army wearing Guy Fawkes masks to make that happen.