Thursday, September 27, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: V for Vendetta (2005)

The movie V for Vendetta and I have a long history. I don't remember seeing it in theaters when it came out, but I do remember using it as the basis for an opinion column I wrote for the University of Georgia student newspaper The Red and Black about the dangers of government surveillance and overreach in the age of terrorism.

It got a lot more personal when I studied abroad in Great Britain in 2006. I, like many other tourists, got caught up in the liquid-bomb scare, which broke out the night before we were going to leave to return home. My flight home had to wait for several hours on the tarmac at one of the London airports while we were all being background-checked. I had to pack up the books I'd bought in Oxford for the trip home rather than bring them on the plane. I could have bought new books at the airport bookstore, but at the time I thought the ban on all carry-on items not bought at the airport was a scam to make people buy all-new products and unnecessary to protect the security of the flights, so I didn't. Fortunately the airplane's televisions were on and I watched V for Vendetta as well as a significant chunk of The Wind that Shakes the Barley and at least one Doctor Who episode dealing with the Cybermen. I ended up watching the movie at least twice.

Now 12 years later, Myopia: Defend Your Childhood is doing a series on films people thought were So Profound when we were in college, to see if they still hold up. V for Vendetta was one of the films, and I made sure to appear on it. I may have mellowed out a little on politics since college, but governmental overreach in the name of fighting terrorism, a war, etc. is still a personal bugbear. Here's the podcast. Now for the review...

The Plot

Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) works for the British Television Network, a successor to the British Broadcasting Corporation in Great Britain. In an age of peril--the United States has fallen into civil war and there's been at least one global pandemic--Britain has turned into a police state under the rule of a "High Chancellor" Adam Sutler (John Hurt) and his Nazi-like Norsefire Party.

Sutler's regime, however, is challenged by the mysterious V (Hugo Weaving), a terrorist with near-supernatural fighting abilities who disguises himself as Guy Fawkes. V blows up Old Bailey on November 5 and vows, a year later, to blow up Parliament itself. Evey finds herself mixed up in the whole situation when V rescues her from some rape-inclined "Fingermen" (secret police) and ends up staying with him for an extended period. Meanwhile, some ordinary British police assigned to help investigate V find themselves stumbling onto a conspiracy dating back all the way to the founding of the Norsefire regime.

The Good

*There's actually quite a bit of intertextuality in the story, some overt and some more subtle. V's campaign against Sutler's dictatorship, though driven by the ideological belief that governments should fear their people and not the other way around, also has a strong element of personal revenge. The Count of Monte Cristo shows up repeatedly throughout the film. I also noticed a strong resemblance to the story of The Phantom of the Opera, especially the more Phantom-sympathetic interpretations--a pretty young woman falls under the thrall of an older disfigured genius and it's not completely non-consensual on her part. I can appreciate thoughtfulness.

*The script was well-done. I rather liked V's introductory speech and the vocabulary he uses. Very impressive.

*I also liked the acting in general. I don't think there's a bad delivery in the whole film. Hugo Weaving and Stephen Fry are particularly impressive.

*There's a really well-shot scene involving dominoes.

*V's strategy as a terrorist makes sense. Terrorist organizations often try to trick governments into overreacting and driving people who would otherwise not support the terrorists to do so. Some of V's schemes involve this.

*In the comic, the Norsefire government is able to seize control of Britain after the country abandons its nuclear weapons, causing it to avoid being nuked during World War III. Even without getting nuked, Britain would be cut off from world trade, inundated with massive flows of refugees, and subject to possible climactic disruption, and I could imagine that kind of crisis spawning a dictatorship. However questionable that proposition is in the first place--West Germany and other mainland European states part of the NATO alliance didn't have independent nuclear capability and they were going to get trashed regardless, plus the Soviet government has had a grudge against Britain from the beginning--that obviously needs to be updated. The descriptions of how the world and the United States in particular--which would not tolerate such a regime taking over one of its closest allies--are in a state of chaos are small and subtle, but they work for story purposes.

*Britain has an extensive security-camera surveillance system. The film shows how easy it could be used to track down enemies of the state (much like the film Enemy of the State, in which our own much less overbearing system is used for the same purpose) as well as stop crime.

*The subtleties of a British (or specifically English) fascism are well-done. The official action hero is named Storm Saxon and he's depicted as rescuing a British woman kidnapped and tortured by a caricature of an Islamic extremist, regime propaganda is delivered by something obviously based on the BBC, the Anglican Church is promoted heavily, etc.

The Bad

*Waaaay too much 9/11 Trutherism in the film. I'm not going to go into more detail for reasons of spoilers. It is entirely possible for a government to overreact to a legitimate danger rather than "there are no dangers and any 'dangers' are straw enemies to justify seizing power." The Japanese Internment doesn't mean the attack on Pearl Harbor didn't happen, the 1944 Sedition Trial doesn't mean the Nazis weren't dangerous, and McCarthy's excesses doesn't mean there weren't Soviet spies in the U.S. government. That was my single biggest beef with the film, as it undermines its credibility as a warning against government overreach.

*The movie drags a bit in the middle before things start ramping up toward V's endgame.

*We get a second "homosexual persecuted by the regime" story later in the narrative when we've already been given one, although to be fair, the second is more vivid than the first. Given how Norsefire is explicitly English-supremacist and a character having an Irish mother is brought up to threaten them, perhaps one of the two persecution narratives could be swapped out with a real or suspected IRA sympathizer? Even the democratic British government violated the rights of Catholics in Northern Ireland during the fight with the IRA, and I imagine Norsefire would be even uglier. Or to create an even more sympathetic victim, someone totally unconnected with terrorism who's a little too publicly proud of their Irish or Scottish heritage for the regime's taste?

(There's also a timing issue as to when homosexuals start getting persecuted that I'm not going to get into for reasons of spoilers. Making the second victim into someone falsely accused of being an IRA supporter for advocating for Catholics' rights in Northern Ireland and keeping the first victim as-is makes more sense chronologically, given the origins of the Norsefire regime, when it takes power, and when it starts persecuting different groups. Another alternative: Perhaps the second victim could be a Muslim falsely accused of being a terrorist? A prominent Norsefire official served in the military in various Middle Eastern places before the regime took power, so that's where he could have gotten his guinea pigs. Given how the film is a cautionary tale against anti-terrorist overreach, perhaps a Muslim victim would have been too on-the-nose, or the suits would have thought bigoted consumers wouldn't see the movie. I remember people complaining about a character having an illegal Koran, so that might've pushed them further along the boycott-denounce road.)

*The sense of time gets a little wonky toward the end. How long is Evey with V?

*Given some of the stuff that happens to Evey in the film I would expect her to be a lot more screaming-angry than she ends up being. Her reaction comes off as really understated. Natalie Portman can do better angry than that. Hell, she sounds angrier here when she's rapping on Saturday Night Live.

*Per the above, what happens to her would realistically require multiple people to pull off, not just one. Not going into more detail for reasons of spoilers.

*The back-story for the Norsefire regime on the level of Britain itself starts breaking down once we get deeper into it. Sutler is depicted as being a powerful Conservative politician with Nazi-esque banners, marching paramilitaries, etc. even before the St. Mary's plague that threw society into crisis and swept Norsefire into power. That he'd even get that far seems extremely unlikely--the British National Party suffered quite a bit when they got prominent enough for their then-leader Nick Griffin to get a spot on the BBC show Question Time, where he showed himself to be an idiot. And the BNP was trying to avoid looking like a bunch of Nazis. Sutler's crew is even more overtly evil than the BNP--they would have been marginalized (and potentially outlawed if they did more than prance around) and Sutler would never get into the position he was in before the St. Mary plague breaks out. And if he's not part of the British government (no more details for reasons of spoilers), the whole story doesn't work.

*Historical accuracy problem: Guy Fawkes was not a freedom fighter trying to overthrow an oppressive regime. He was part of a scheme by some English Catholics to re-impose the Catholic monarchy on an increasingly Protestant country. Yes, the British government was persecuting Catholics and that's not cool, but assuming the plan even succeeded--rather than provoking an even more extreme anti-Catholic backlash--the resulting government would have had to become oppressive simply to stay in power and keep its conspirators alive. We're talking Inquisition-level stuff here. Fawkes has more in common with Osama bin Laden than with V, even if V is borrowing his aesthetic.

The Verdict

Good, but could be better. I'd have liked it a lot better without the 9/11 Trutherism. 8.0 out of 10.

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