March 24, 2006


Julia and I just got back from V for Vendetta and I really enjoyed the movie. It did a very good job of building tension, making the oppression palpable, and making you feel invested in the characters. The dialogue, which began with the unbearable pretension of V's alliterative and eponymous soliloquy, eventually found its stride and "worked" with the story. This despite the Wachowskian tendencies towards verbosity familiar to fans of the Matrix. The relationship between Evey and V was complex and satisfying, the back story horrific, the torment credible.

The movie pays unabashed homage to Orwell and owes much more to Nineteen Eighty-Four than just John Hurt – though it is gratifying in some twisted way to see an aged Winston recapitulate Big Brother's close-up talking head. Still, it manages to allude to the previous depictions of totalitarian governments without being exactly the same.

It achieves this partially by examining the moral ambiguity behind the fact that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter". While often questionably applied (the takfiri "resistance" in Iraq are in no way comparable to Minutemen), there is a relativistic point worth making here.

In short, the movie was a decent parable of the dangers of totalitarianism and demagoguery in the modern age, layered on top of an exploration of acceptable forms of resistance. Unfortunately, rather than be content with the eternal relevance of that theme, it ended up a weaker movie than it could have been by trying to be especially relevant for today. This was my fear going into the movie, and it was born out to some extent.

More, including maybe spoilers, below the fold...

First, I recognize that I come to this movie from a particular perspective, not shared by all, and that it's quite possible that most of my criticism will be blunted if you don't share my world view. But that is the risk, I suppose, of all true and honest criticism.

The core problem of V for Vendetta was that the bad guys fit too neatly into the mold of traditional liberal bugaboos. The people to be afraid of were white, Anglo-Saxons, male, conservatives, Christians, capitalists, and.... gasp... owners of pharmaceutical company stock. The troubles began with "America's war", presumably in Iraq. Islamic extremists are fearful props used to manipulate a bovine population, rather than real threats. Biological weapons are more scary in the hands of greedy, power-hungry capitalists than "terrorists". Qurans symbolize intolerance, but ours not theirs.

A more complete list of the Left's bogeymen would be hard to compile. (Thankfully, the evils of Zionism seem to have been left on the cutting room floor.)

Unfortunately, in this day and age, it's difficult to take in this litany of right-wing bad guys without soaking up the implied message: we need to worry more about the Religious Right and Republicans than the Islamic terrorists.

The most outrageous example of this is the story of Valerie, the lesbian actress who is marginalized, imprisoned, and eventually killed by "the Party". Through her letters, she sustains Evey and V in prison, connects their experiences despite the time between them, and helps them complete their transformations into freedom fighters. Her humanity is touchingly revealed, only to be crushed by the jackboot of the homophobic Party. Perhaps the irony is only apparent to me, but to use gay rights as the ultimate condemnation of the Party, while the Islamic extremists we're told pose no real threat are actually – right now, today – executing people for homosexuality... well it seems a bit rich.

To me, one of the great strengths of Nineteen Eighty-Four is the fact that it's not overtly political even while it deals with the political. Sure, Orwell was a committed man of the left going back to Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia. But like Trotsky, he recognized in Stalinism the common threads shared with inter-war fascism and national socialism. And so, what he wrote about in his last novel was totalitarianism and its tools: the cult of personality, propaganda, fear, the secret police. In the end, this leant the book a universality and timelessness that it would have lacked if it had been a simple screed against fascism from the left or communism from the right.

That said, Orwell is an extremely high mark to hold an adapted graphic novel up to. And, as a simple drama, it was powerful and engaging, so it's hard to complain too much. I just can't help thinking that it could have been great.

Posted by richard at March 24, 2006 11:33 PM


Before anyone goes off on my review (ahem... Brad), can we just pause for a moment and savor my choice of the word "recapitulate". I was (overly) proud of that one.

Posted by: richard at March 25, 2006 03:23 AM

I didn't read the whole review, because you said there was a spoiler in it, and I haven't yet seen the movie.

Posted by: Phutatorius at March 25, 2006 09:36 PM

Okay — I just read this, even though I haven't seen the movie. I had heard that the original graphic novelist had written/drawn V for Vendetta to take on Margaret Thatcher. I don't doubt that the film adaptation got traction in part because it could be presented as "timely."

I agree that a work is more timeless than timely if it explores the methods that prop up totalitarian regimes rather than the issues or ideological agenda that the totalitarians pursue. And in that sense, 1984 will have more enduring meaning to readers.

I expect that when I see this movie, I'll feel a bit cheated by its obvious "message." In that sense, I expect it to fall short of, say, Brazil, which makes many of the same points, but in an ironic and sophisticated way. So I'll probably feel insulted by the unsubtle delivery of the movie's message — just as I feel insulted pretty much every time I go to the movies, as it becomes increasingly clear that Hollywood holds the collective intellect of the viewing public in low esteem.

What I find interesting, as an academic matter, is the susceptibility of democratic regimes to totalitarianism — and how elected officials can effectively suppress dissent, arrogate power to themselves, and restrict civil liberties with the people's ostensible "consent." This, to me, is more insidious than a coup. After all, we hear every day about how great a democracy is. It must be immune to tyranny, right?

I'm not saying we're going there as a society, but I think we'd be silly to rule out the possibility just because we all can vote. First, not all of us can vote. Felons can't. Imagine that sodomy laws were upheld, and the government systematically prosecuted and disenfranchised everyone who went to The Wrong Hole. Second, the vote itself isn't particularly meaningful when a dominant party draws districts to consolidate power.

Third, "democracy" alone doesn't cut it. You have to protect civil liberties and political minorities. You have to assure free speech and freedom of conscience. Bush loves the notion of spreading "democracy." Well, great — in Afghanistan there's a Constitution, and you can vote for your leaders, but you get beheaded if you convert to Christianity. (And by the way, given his attitudes at home, I don't think Bush is as well positioned to impress the "ancillary" values of free press, speech, civil liberties and minority civil rights on other nations as he is democracy.) Fourth, polls and studies show that voters will willingly cede their civil liberties in exchange for assurances of safety from terror.

So how would you introduce a totalitarian regime in a constitutional democracy, if you were so inclined? You'd create a perpetual state of war, call for incursions on civil liberties while that war persisted. You'd attempt to suppress domestic dissent on the ground that troops are at risk, and dissent emboldens the enemy. You'd identify your constituency as an embattled minority (didn't you hear? there's a war on CHRISTMAS! and the gays are coming for your CHILDREN!). You'd take steps to neutralize the votes of the opposition, through gerrymandering and intimidation. In short, you'd do a lot of the things this government is doing.

I'm not saying this is what Bush and the Republicans are after. They're doing what all politicians have to do: get power and hold on to it. One hopes, though, that our Constitution affords us enough give and take, enough process to forestall a significant backslide into an Orwellian or Portmanian nightmare.

On that score, I think one advantage this movie has over 1984 is that the events occur in Britain, and not in some made-up Frankenstein's Country like Oceania (which incorporates London, admittedly). That is, the notion that the U.K. could sink to this level provokes some thought: how could this happen? Isn't Britain a democracy? A constitutional monarchy? The flipside of this is the risk that the audience recognizes the immediacy and dismisses it: it's just someone who hates his current government spouting off.

Anyway, I'm off on a tangent. My guess is this movie will appeal to me because it will give a window into the instrumentation of a totalitarian system — and because it offers the romance of rebellion, which I enjoy in part because I wear a suit and go to work every day.

Posted by: Phutatorius at March 29, 2006 06:18 PM