Based off of the 1988 DC Comic series of the same name by the legendary Alan Moore and David Lloyd, “V for Vendetta” explores a dystopian London after a series of bioterrorist attacks allowed for the rise of an oppressive neo-fascist authoritarian regime, led by conservative extremist, Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt). Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) works for Britain’s primary news organization, albeit, in a minor role. She is aware of the government’s fabrication of events and the news’s compliance in distributing the fabricated truth to the public, although she really feels no push to do anything about it. V (Hugo Weaving) is a mysterious terrorist who wears all black, including a black hat and cape, and Guy Fawkes mask. V saves Evey from being raped one night and invites her to witness his musical display, which is really the fiery demolition of a prominent government building. After being seen with V, Evey is reluctantly tied to the actions of the terrorist, and Chief Inspector Finch (Stephen Rea) is tasked with finding her and stopping V before his promised attack on Parliament on November 5th of the following year. “Remember, remember, the 5th of November…”
The leads, played by Portman and Weaving, are stupendous. Portman’s Evey undergoes a brutal character arc of both understanding and physical beatings and she uses a convincing English accent, especially for an American actress. But it is ultimately her burden to bear to show the audience’s perspective, and it is a role in which she succeeds. Weaving plays V, which must’ve been a very difficult task because he wears a rigid metal mask the entire film, yet he portrays such humanity and feeling. He is a charismatic extremist who preaches his ideals with the fluidity of a poem and a sophistication of a scholar. He is hellbent on revenge, but that story is less compelling than his ideological crusade. He models his actions after real life freedom fighter, Guy Fawkes, who tried to assassinate King James I in 1605 by blowing up the House of Lords in the British Parliament. Rea is good in his role, although nothing exceptional to write about him, and John Hurt is also very enjoyable as the English Tyrant. Everyone plays a role well, but the two leads carry the film.
This film explores a great deal of themes that I find pertinent when discussing the world. When we are growing up and growing through the school system, we as students are not given full stories of historical events. Curriculums are just simply not designed to give that much depth to history. Instead, we are given abbreviated “cliff notes” on what transpire, in order to gain a vaster knowledge at the expense of said depth. As a result, when historical civilizations are taught, it is with the omission of just how the rise to power truly came to be. “V for Vendetta” paints the picture for us in a visual way we can understand.
We can often wonder just how people could be complacent with a government that does objectively evil things, but we say that from the comfort of an outside vantage point. What few of us in our society have lived through that can attest that civilians who may not have been evil go along with it because it is considered right. Evey begins the film knowing that the news is being faked but feels as though there may not be a real issue because everyone is going along with it too. She also fears what would happen to her if she dissents. Furthermore, the truth that the public knows is not the actual truth, which brings us to a major focal point of the film: propaganda.
To me, propaganda is fascinating. It is all around us every day and we do not even realize it. It is a side-effect of speech, be it free or controlled. Propaganda, like almost everything else in the universe, is not inherently good or evil, it is how it is used that matters. Propaganda could create positive change, such as promoting vaccinations or encouraging people to quit smoking. Likewise, propaganda can be negative, forcing compliance and weaponizing ideas. But did you notice anything in that contrast? Could someone believe that vaccinations are bad or that smoking could be good? Those people would be wrong, but in theory, they could exist, which would turn that positive propaganda into negative propaganda. The justification of its existence depends on the eye of the beholder.
In the film, the government-controlled news is propaganda. The workers at the news station justify their actions because they believe helping the government preserve order is important for the greater good. There are slogans such as “STRENGTH THROUGH UNITY UNITY THROUGH FAITH” that are meant used to encourage conformity and compliance, but can be perceived by the public as a call for security and religious faith, two things that are generally viewed in a positive light. Every action taken by the government can be justified in some way, by some logic. But that same way of thinking applies to V as well. He is viewed more favorably by the audience but as a terrorist by those in the film. His actions are seen through the lens of government news, but to us he is deemed as a freedom fighter. He is objectively a killer and very dangerous, so what changes our perception of his morality?
Propaganda is the primary tool the government uses in order to justify its actions of oppression. They scapegoat those who do not conform and deem them enemies to rally against. Chancellor Sutler uses this fear as a medium to seize power. Only he could offer a solution to the problem. People saw how chaotic life was before his reign and they lived in fear. Sutler tells one of his chiefs “I WANT EVERYONE TO REMEMBER WHY THEY NEED US” which is a revealing line, confirming that fear empowers his rule. But could his actions be justified? He wants to keep order and security and V is threatening Chaos. Do the goals of Sutler have merit even if the means are morally dubious?
But V is not an innocent man, at least not objectively. Perhaps his ideals of freedom are praiseworthy, but do his ends justify his violent means? That is only for you to decide. V could be a hero or a villain. He brutally tortured Evey for months to teach her not to be afraid. A good end but an awful means. I ask you this: If he existed in our world, would your perception of him change? My guess is that he would be viewed as a dangerous terrorist by the government and the media, just like he was in the film. I do not see it as a likely outcome that the public would support his actions, regardless of whether or not you deemed his goals admirable.
I would like to draw a comparison to a moment in American history that is universally praised: The American Revolution. We all know the story so I will not patronize you by reciting the details. But, could it be that perhaps the American Revolution was instigated by a group of radical extremists who fought an oppressive government through violent means? I know it runs against the grain by putting the Founding Fathers, the deities of our nation, in the bin of extreme terrorists, but I do not see how they were different. I am willing to bet that England might have seen the similarities. But next time an unfortunate act of violence happens, and you see Facebook and Twitter lighting up with posts saying “I don’t know how something like this could happen”, ask yourself if you really can’t understand. It was justifiable for us, perhaps it could be justifiable for someone else. Remember, our hero could be someone else’s villain, and in turn, our villain could be someone else’s hero. Having these thought experiments do not make you a bad person or sympathetic to terrorists, they allow you to lift the censors in your mind and think for yourself. I submit to you that perhaps allowing yourself to understand how someone could justify actions such as these could help prevent the genesis of new events in the same vain in the future.
The film does a great job explaining why all of this is. V says it so many times throughout the movie. Everything: propaganda; the Parliament building; V; they are all just things. By themselves, they are nothing more than a pile of bricks, or words, or a man in a mask. It is ideas that give everything strength. “Ideas are bulletproof”. It is why V couldn’t be stopped with bullets and why The War on Terror hasn’t stopped terrorism. You cannot bomb an idea. An understanding of the idea is the only way to combat the idea. V’s violent acts represented the idea of Freedom. Sutler’s repressive acts represented the idea of Security. Both are extremes but both were justifiable at some point, to some degree. And both only had power because the people gave those ideas power. The people wanted security, and as V’s Address in the beginning of the film said, it was the people’s fault for the rise of Sutler. When the people wore the Guy Fawkes masks and charged on the Parliament building, the masks were given meaning by the people.
The philosophical implications of the film could be dissected for weeks, and unfortunately, I will not be able to cover every base. Ultimately, “V for Vendetta” is about ideas. The actions portrayed in the plot are nothing more than people talking and killing without the ideas behind them. Every action has meaning because of ideas. It is a beautiful lesson in perspective and comprehensive thinking that can sometimes be sorely lacking in movies and in the realm of public discussions. The reason for this film’s impact is because of its ability to make you think and its layered real-world application. It is my hope that after you watch this film, you are not afraid to see the world just a little differently.
I give “V for Vendetta” a vigorously visceral 9.1 out of 10
Directed by: James McTeigue
Written by: The Wachowskis
Starring: Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rae, John Hurt, Stephen Fry, Tim Pigott-Smith, Rupert Graves
Runtime: 2 hours and 13 minutes