If Andy and Larry Wachowski's Matrix trilogy turned millions of Americans on to cyberpunk culture and postmodern theory, then V for Vendetta, the brothers' latest project, might just do the same for out-and-out revolution.
Conceived by the brothers and directed by their longtime assistant director James McTeigue, Vendetta is a pop-culture attack on the current administration's multiple injustices -- a big-budget call to rebellion from deep inside the belly of conglomerate Time Warner. Warner Bros.' film unit already got flack from conservatives for releasing Syriana, Good Night and Good Luck and Palestinian suicide-bomber portrait Paradise Now, but just you wait: V for Vendetta is a pro-revolutionary action-adventure romp that makes those films look like Little House on the Prairie.
In perhaps the most glaring and controversial example of Hollywood's refusal to toe the Bush party line, Vendetta's hero is a terrorist -- a violent rebel on a mission to destroy his corrupt government in a blaze of explosives. Is this irresponsible? Does it glamorize terrorism? Perhaps. But for many progressives, whose anti-war protests have fallen on deaf ears and whose activism has been squashed by the powers-that-be, V for Vendetta should feel almost cathartic.
Set in the year 2020, V for Vendetta takes place in a fascistic London, some time after "America's war grew worse and worse," as one character narrates "when unfamiliar words like 'collateral' and 'rendition' became frightening." The government is a cross between a full-blown totalitarian state and the current administration's scare tactics; with constant surveillance, a citywide "yellow-coded curfew" that instills paranoia and restricts nighttime movement and a menacing band of secret police called "Fingermen" who patrol the streets and harass the citizens.
When we first meet Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman), she's about to pay the price for violating the city curfew when a mysterious masked stranger saves her from the authorities with an array of flying swords. Evey's savior is V, an erudite, Shakespeare-quoting burn victim who has literally adopted both the mask and the mission of long-ago subversive Guy Fawkes, who in 1605, plotted to destroy parliament with 36 barrels of gunpowder. With the help of the young, pretty Evey (the daughter of "activist" parents abducted and killed by the government), V plans to carry out Fawkes' dreams of violent insurrection. "Blowing up a building," he tells her, "can change the world."
If there's any question about the film's political targets, Vendetta opens with a ridiculously racist and homophobic screed by Prothero, the Bill O'Reilly-like "Voice of London" who speaks on what appears to be the country's only television channel. "The former United States is the world's biggest leper colony," he spits. "And it wasn't because of the immigrants, the Muslims or the homosexuals, or the war that they started. No," he says. "It's because they're Godless!"
In contrast to Edward R. Murrow's famous signoff of Good Night and Good Luck, the nasty Prothero ends his ultraconservative broadcasts with the jingoistic "England prevails."
This isn't subtle stuff. In a blatant nod to George Orwell's 1984, Vendetta's U.K. is ruled by Chancellor Sutler, a vituperative "deeply religious conservative" seen Big Brother-like on a large television screen (and played by John Hurt, 1984's ill-fated everyman). Sutler's ruling philosophy is the politics of fear. "We will show him what terror really looks like," he screams after V's arrival onto the scene.
Sutler's reign also involves media spin and propaganda, a la the Newspeak of 1984. When events begin to spiral out of control, Sutler declares that the government must make the people realize "why they need us," followed by panic-inducing reports of everything from civil war to avian flu. Sound familiar?
Like any classic comic superhero myth, Vendetta also provides an origin story for V, which is gradually glimpsed in flashbacks and a police investigation into his past. And not unlike the secret nuclear-testing that spawned Godzilla, or the class oppression that cultivated so many angry inner-city zombies (see Land of the Dead), V's transformation into a vengeful killer was the result of a crass abuse of state power involving (spoiler alert) a government plan to create a biological weapon with the help of a nefarious pharmaceutical company. If the political notion of "blowback" ever needed a poster child, V would be it.
And V for Vendetta isn't just about political revolt -- it's also about sexual revolution. After being captured and placed in an interrogation cell, Evey reads letters from a fellow prisoner, Valerie, a young woman who came out of the closet and embraced a forbidden lesbian love affair that landed her and her lover in similarly brutal confines. Another sympathetic character conceals his homosexual identity. And however ruthless V may be, he too is sexually ambiguous -- an effete hero who hides behind a mask, loves The Count of Monte Cristo, melancholy music, cooking and dancing ("A revolution without dancing is a revolution not worth having," he tells Evey, paraphrasing the slogan of anarchist Emma Goldman as he yearns for a whirl).
The movie's sexual politics are also brought to the fore in a quotation heard over the end-credit music "This is no simple reform," a woman says. "It really is a revolution. Sex and race, because they are easy and visible differences, have been the primary ways of organizing human beings into superior and inferior groups and into the cheap labor in which this system still depends." The voice belongs to feminist powerhouse Gloria Steinem.
Above all, "Vendetta" should be enjoyed as the first true anarchist movie Hollywood has ever made. Film historians speak fondly of the paranoid cycle of American cinema in the 1960s and '70s (The Manchurian Candidate, Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View) or the countercultural, anti-heroic outlaws of Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands, but nowhere in mainstream U.S. cinema -- and certainly not post-9/11 -- has there been a pop-culture phenomenon that advocates not only overthrowing a corrupt government, but blowing it up. As the film's tagline states "People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people."
Anthony Kaufman has written about films and the film industry for the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and Utne magazine.