V for Vendetta – first impression

V FOR VENDETTA is a blockbuster Hollywood movie that, for a change, lives up to its hype. The funny thing is that, as an action movie, it is not nearly what you would expect. Sure, there is enough excitement to make the film entertaining, but is reasonably spaced out through the running time, and it seldom seems overdone. This is no unending string of exploding buildings; in fact, the explosions are limited to two, which bookend the movie. V FOR VENDETTA is not a non-stop orgy of destruction; it’s a film calculated to get under your skin.

The big draw of the story is actually ideas and emotional content. In the context of a mass medium entertainment, the film does what pop art can do well: take on big ideas and dramatize them in a way that appeals to the public, without descending into academic abstraction. The result may not be subtle, but it’s not meant to be. V FOR VENDETTA seeks to start a conversation by setting off a few fireworks guaranteed to grab your attention. Where you take it from there is up for you.

I do think that some of the advance reaction has been misleading, with critics calilng V (the masked title character) a terrorist and even comparing him to Osama Bin Laden. Whether V is in fact a terrorist is open to debate: the government officials in the movie use that term to describe him, but his goal is not to terrorize the public; he is actually trying to foment a popular rebellion. He seeks not to instill fear but to inspire hope. The underlying message of the film is that many in the population already agree with him on some level, but they are afraid to act, because the facist government that rules them seems too powerful, too invulnerable. V manages to prove that they can be defeated, and this spurs the previous frightened public to stand up.

Of course, we can argue about V’s methods, which (not to whitewash the matter) do include violence and homicide. But that is part of the film’s point, to raise the question of when violence is justified. V’s use of violence certainly is, but that’s because the story is set up that way: he lives in the world where the powerful are corrupt and above the law: he even ponts out that “no court” exists that could have administered justice to one of his victims (who so richly deserved it).

Some critics are calling this approach irresponsble, because it seems to advocate terrorism, but I think this is overstating the case a bit. Just about everyone approves of violence in some circumstances; the key usually lies in the concept of “reciprocity” — that the use of violence be appropriate under the circumstances (i.e., if someone’s trying to hit you, you hit them back, but you don’t kill them unless they’re trying to kill you).

Certainly there is no doubt that mainstream America thinks that violece is justified in overthrowing tyranny (that was the rational behind the American Revolution). Just a few years ago, our president launched an unprovoked war to remove a dictator from power, and most everyone in the media was fine with that. The main difference was that America used traditional weapons of war against Iraq; that purges them of any taint of terrorism — regardless of how many innocent civilians were killed.

V, on the other hand, strikes down only the guilty. This is a pleasing fantasy that allows us to regard him favorably as at least an anti-hero, if not an outright hero. Like many classic movie monsters (think of the scarred sculptor in the 1953 version of HOUSE OF WAX), he has been wronged, and he seeks vengeance. The audience identifies with him because his motivation is just, even if his methods are questionable.

But there is nothing unique in this. V FOR VENDETTA shows frequent clips from an old film version of THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, which is of course a revenge-melodrama, in which the title characters settles the score with those who wrong him. There are few would object to that film’s subect matter, perhaps because its period setting makes it seems so remote.

V FOR VENDETTA deserves to be seen in the same context — as fiction. The film is hardly advocating the explosive destruction of parliment, any more than COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO was advocating homicide. In art, we can see our inner fantasies and impulse personified; on the screen, we can watch characters who embody parts of our psyche as they act our scenarios that would not work in real life, and yet they resonante with a sense of reality because they touch upon elements of our conscious lives. In real life, it’s hard to imagine that V would be so lucky as not to cause a little collateral damage (i.e., loss of innocent life), but this isn’t real life; it’s a movie. And in that movie, it is perfectly acceptable to have a character who symbolizes that desire to stand up to a corrupt authority. The more corrupt the authority is, and the more extreme the methods needed to defeat it — that only adds to the excitement of the story. Films should be writ large on the big screen, not narrowed down to the small confines of reality. In our actual politics, we need nuance and forebearance; we do not necessarily need the same in our politically-themed art.

Strangely, we seem to be living in a bizarro world, where the exact opposite is assumed to be true. A president can invoke simple-minded notions of good and evil to justify an unprovoked war, and the idealism of the language is allowed to mask the reality of the carnage that kills and wounds tens of thousands of innocent lives. But a film in which a character uses a few explosions to ask the populace to stand up to its government and say, “Enough is enough” — well, we can’t have that now, can we? That’s irresponsible art.