You know something is up when a film like V for Vendetta is a box office hit. Adapted from a series of graphic novelettes (i.e., comic books) written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd, the plot is set in a dystopian future Britain where "the Party" rules, dissidents are rounded up, the Koran is banned, and the threat of terrorism keeps the ruling elite firmly entrenched in power. From his underground lair, "V" is a kind of futuristic Scarlet Pimpernel, who strikes out at the regime destroying the Old Bailey in a spectacular pyrotechnic display while reciting sonnets from Shakespeare and wooing a beautiful girl whose fate has been delivered into his gloved hands. He wears a mask a sardonic visage reminiscent, at least in my mind, of Cyrano de Bergerac and as the plot unfolds so does the origin of his vendetta against the Powers That Be: he was tortured and disfigured by the regime’s renditioners. As he kills those responsible for his agony, one by one, the viewer is led toward the denouement: a reenactment of the Guy Fawkes legend, in which the modern-day incarnation of that early-17th-century English subversive succeeds in blowing up Parliament and sparking a revolution.
The right wing hates this movie, and it isn’t hard to see why: it explodes all their pretensions about being the party of "freedom," and it pretty clearly parallels the hypocritical cant of the War Party as it pretends to battle "terrorism" while engaging in a campaign of state terrorism that far surpasses anything a small band of amateurs could possibly hope to dish out. They must find particularly galling a subplot in which evidence emerges that a deadly series of biowarfare attacks attributed to "religious fanatics" (and we don’t mean George W. Bush and Jerry Falwell) turn out to be the work of a sinister cabal inside the government the perfect excuse for a crackdown. All of this economic collapse, political turmoil, the dictatorship of "the Party" is clearly identified in the film as the product of a series of wars, stretching from Iraq to Syria to Iran and beyond. I was particularly intrigued by references to "the former United States of America," and hints of a future history in which imperialism has drained the once mighty U.S. until it is a pitiful husk of its former self, crippled by economic dislocation and embroiled in civil war.
You would think that the Brits, themselves victims of imperial overstretch, would sympathize with "the colonies," but the anti-Americanism of "the Party" is virulent and that is a clever touch indeed. We are treated, early on, to a display of the most vulgar Yankee-bashing by a Rush Limbaugh-type bloviator, "the Voice of London," a preening, braying, drugged-out shill who barks out government propaganda over the British Television Network (BTN). He sneers at the "Yanks" who "had everything" and then, in a mere 20 years or so, gave in to softness, liberalism, and appeasement and "lost it all." The sound of gloating in his snarl and the vicious hostility in his voice as he rails against an offer of American aid makes a real point about the kind of nationalist vaunting represented by "the Party": it doesn’t allow for any international rivals. Every competing center of power is a threat, and when a competitor goes down one is expected to kick him in the teeth. Those weak-willed Americans, they thought they had it all: but they didn’t have the stuff of which real empire-builders are made. There is a faint echo, here, of Niall Ferguson‘s contempt for our lack of the proper Anglo-Saxon imperial instinct, as well as a unique twist on the War Party’s favorite charge of "anti-Americanism."
Another skillful touch is the evocation of the end of the Soviet empire as the regime of "the Party" dissolves. "Remember, remember the fifth of November": Guy Fawkes Day in England and the date chosen by "V" as the day his own personal insurrection is scheduled to become more generalized. As thousands gather in front of Parliament in response to his call, all garbed in "V"-style masks and flowing black capes, and move toward the massive legions of "the Party," one thing is clear: the regime has been decapitated. The gendarmes receive no order to move: the government’s response to a full-scale revolt is complete paralysis. The crowd cuts through the wall of steel thrown up around Parliament, like one of "V"’s whirling knives slicing the throats of his adversaries. "The Party" is finished.
There was an attempt to demonize this film because it supposedly "advocates terrorism," but that fell flat when it became a box office hit did the neocons and their fellow red-state fascists really mean to be saying that the movie-going American public is pro-terrorist? Clearly, the regime depicted in the movie deserves to be overthrown, and that lesson is eventually learned by the female lead (Natalie Portman), who spends a lot of time arguing with "V" over the morality of righteous murder. As he hunts down and knocks off his torturers, leaving a single red rose on the corpses as a sign of his authorship, "V" has to listen to her whining and caviling until he subjects her to a simulated imprisonment in the regime’s torture chambers (which her parents actually endured), and she finally! generates the requisite amount of rage to understand the meaning of justice. The two of them become a team of moral avengers, roles that evoke the origin of this script in the comic book genre. The movie version renders these characters in full, multidimensional reality while retaining the larger-than-life symbolism redolent of the graphic novel form. And the acting ain’t bad, either
Go see V for Vendetta, and remember this: by supporting a work of art that embodies your political and philosophical values, you are helping to fight the cultural rot that the War Party feeds on. There is a scene in the movie when Natalie Portman is going about her job at the BTN and passes a security guard watching some ridiculous "reality" show. She asks, "How can you watch that trash?" The contempt in her voice is clearly that of the authors of this script, who are acutely aware of the political consequences of entertainment as cultural "soma."
Alternately, a key moment as the anti-regime revolution gathers force is the rebellion of a BTN celebrity, who turns his show into a satire of the high chancellor (waspishly and brilliantly played by John Hurt). The catalytic revolutionary moment occurs when the public stops believing the lies of the regime a moment V for Vendetta brings closer to realization in our own world. The value of the media as a political weapon is clearly understood by the makers of this movie, and they utilize it to make their effort a resounding success.
I have to add that V for Vendetta seems to be part of a larger trend in which political analysis of a "subversive" sort is once again becoming embedded in popular culture, not only in the movies but in song lyrics particularly rap music. Now, I’m no fan of Eminem or Public Enemy this guy is more my style but I’m glad to see that song lyrics are now becoming concerned with something more than odes to sex, drugs, and a relentless narcissism.
In his famous essay "The End of History," Francis Fukuyama predicted that the arts would degenerate, under a regime of global American hegemony, into something that Alexandre Kojeve, his mentor, likened to "the buzzing of bees." "In the post-historical period," wrote Fukuyama, "there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history." And indeed this has seemed to be the case, recently, particularly in the field of music, where the cult of sensuality has seduced Americans away from anything that might upset the Regime too much except for an occasional reprimand from the FCC for a too-brazen display of sexuality.
In short, I am thrilled to learn, via this movie and other cultural phenomena, that history has apparently not ended, at least in the cultural sense and for that we should all breathe a sigh of relief.