V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta ★★★★★

I like to periodically watch this on Bonfire Night, despite being an American and having zero awareness of the holiday before the film. For me, it's a way to refresh my memory of how deeply I believe in art and beauty and history and People Power and how much I despise most big modern governments: groups that people join to stand up for their people but end up becoming out-of-touch cadres interested in protecting their own positions at the cost of the very people they're sworn to serve.

'Guy Fawkes was the only man to enter the Houses of Parliament with honest intentions...'

This quote comes up in the recent WB retrospective features released on Youtube for the anniversary of the film last year. It's a great point of entry into thinking about corruption and the duty that governments have to their people... but also the duty people have to keep their own governments honest. As we are principally invested in V as our protagonist here, we tend to view him as a freedom fighter rather than a terrorist. But in the real world, it often goes the other way. In the US, for instance, our first domestic terrorist was probably John Brown, a white abolitionist who offered shelter to runaway slaves and eventually lead commando raids with them to free slaves. He was caught and executed in 1859, just 4 years too early for the presidential Proclamation that all enslaved people should be free.

As much as the original graphic novel of this story was addressing Thatcher-era England (and could have well applied to Regan-era USA), the movie is clearly adapted more to speak to the Bush Jr. era, and to make the Nazi and Stalin parallels more obvious. So this is not a uniquely British issue, and in fact the founding fathers of the US were well aware of it, with Thomas Jefferson saying "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." He would surely approve of V's actions, but what of the actions he tries to encourage of the general populace in the finale of the film?

Benjamin Franklin said "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." Now, the original context of the quote was actually about a rich family trying to avoid taxation (sound familiar?) but it's often used as an easy soundbite to explain Franklin's broader sentiments, essentially: people get the government that they deserve. That is, the government they settle for. If you do not do the hard work of investing and building something worthwhile, you get something weak and corrupt and insecure.

So how does this apply to the film? Well, amidst all these cool action scenes and dramatic beats from first-time helmer James McTeigue, there is a vibrant and voracious discourse going on that is not present in McTeigue's other projects. Aside from this one that was written by the Wachowskis and personally handed off to their former 1st A.D., McTeigue seems to pick just the WORST scripts. It's a shame, too, because he has a great instinct for working with the actors here and getting the most out of their performances. V and Evey debate for much of the film whether V's killings are justifiable or just revenge. He definitely has a personal agenda, but his broader point is that we ALL have an obligation to keep our own governments in check. Jefferson would agree.

"The people can not be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty." Jefferson was speaking of Shay's Rebellion, the first challenge to the new US, less than 10 years after the Declaration of Independence. He had sympathy for these men, saying that they fought the government out of ignorance and should not be executed. But many of the comments of his, of Franklin's, and within this movie take on new relevance in the wake of Trump's misbegotten presidency. Active disinformation is now a strategy of populist fascists, and it makes the line between terrorist traitor and freedom fighter harder to discern.

....there is a side story in this film that I think is very revealing. We see a common theme in this movie (as in many others of the early 2000s like Equilibrium) where art and self-expression is oppressed and must be hidden away. But also here where people are derided and persecuted for simply being who they are. The society is systemically less-equal for these undesirables, in this both a closeted gay man and a lesbian who comes out. I think it provides a useful barometer for the liberty/terrorism argument. When one person's beliefs start to negatively impact the liberty and safety of others, THAT's when fighting back is justified. But if they aren't, that's where we're dealing with ignorant people who mistake their entitlement for infringement on their "rights".

Looking back on the film now, post-transition for Lana (FKA "Larry") Wachowski, this sub-plot seems vitally important to the ideas she was trying to express both in the script and on set. This particular Youtube interview: youtu.be/ArdSPaBGv2w really answers that question of HOW involved the Wachowskis were in making this movie. As producers, it seems they were on set and very hands-on based off the comments here. Much of the crew that made the Matrix films also worked on this, just rolling right over as soon as post-production on Revolutions wrapped up. The film certainly feels like a more British, more grounded version of much of what was going on in the first Matrix film, and I have to say I love it just as much.

For many reasons near and dear to my heart, this is one of my absolute favorite movies. Where we are now with the role of the media being hamstrung by capitalist concerns and government curtails, we really need a sequel from Alan Moore addressing new world government issues. We've got Anonymous, but what next? What happens when a government leader doesn't even need to convince half the people of an extreme idea, just an impassioned and aggressive minority? You see it post-Brexit, post-Trump, now-Covid...? What is the role of Evey and all We in this new world? How do we honor the sacrifices of the freedom fighters that came before us, and keep our countries free?

It's easy to feel disempowered by these massive modern governments, but V reminds us that we all have the potential for a little anarchy, and it's up to us to decide the government that we'll settle for. I hope the film motivates others to get off their couches and act on that as much as it does me. The best movies are the ones that impact you long after you turn off the screen, and this one never fails to do that to me.

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