This weekend finds the critics furiously scrambling to de-politicize the fiery, amazing V for Vendetta. “I couldn’t get the parallels to work,” insisted Ebert on his show. “Not as blatant a comment on current events as some reviewers might claim,” assures Berardinelli. And the filmmakers were quick to inform us that this isn’t supposed to be commentary about any regime in particular.
Weird. Why should this be? We’re living in an age when people are making serious arguments that greater censorship leads to greater freedom (on the grounds that people will be “free” to live without exposure to the morally objectionable), when the specter of war and terrorism is used to frighten the populace and spineless politicians into cowering submission before a deranged executive branch, when a President can simply keep repeating that “freedom is on the march” to get away with instituting a massive, illegal surveillance program to spy on citizens, when those who dare to be cynical about the state of affairs are earnestly, loudly accused of treason. Oh, there are no parallels here at all.
Of course, this isn’t a 1:1 allegory for the Bush administration. There is a plethora of different imagery and allusion mixed in — a good deal of Nazi Germany, for example, and a fair amount of simple fancy; this is a “comic book movie,” after all. But look: this paean to rebellion and defiance is relevant, hugely relevant, vital. Owen Gleiberman sneeringly declares that V for Vendetta is “designed to let political adolescents of every age congratulate themselves.” In the process of congratulating himself for recognizing that — oh no! — the movie is being released by a major corporation, he has forgotten to actually watch it.
The alternative seems to be to label it an “al Quaeda recruitment film,” which is of course infinitely more idiotic, ignoring the allegory and pretending that the movie is propaganda. Like all great dystopian works, V for Vendetta is a call for awareness and collective introspection. The world it depicts is far removed from our own in some ways, but so close in oh so many: Lewis Prothero (Roger Allam), the “Voice of London,” a tv talking head who spouts aggressive patriotic inanities and ends his broadcasts by growling “England prevails,” is so close to O’Reilly and Hannity that I had to shiver. The governmental and media spin machine that whirrs into action following an address by the titular masked revolutionary, labeling his wake-up call “a message of hate” and rewriting history to conform to the talking points, apparently needed little exaggeration.
In a sense, this is simple stuff, and I realize that none of it is terribly trenchant. Politically, V for Vendetta is not subtle. One angle is to say that we are beyond subtlety. Another, perhaps less condescending one, is that the movie is simply bold, making up for its political directness with intricate craftsmanship and real emotional force. It is inherently dealing with powerful stuff, and some of the imagery it creates made me cry: the montage of televisions blaring in empty rooms is so strong, so triumphant, so important. V himself, presumably played by Hugo Weaving, though for all we know only his voice was involved, is a masked avenger in the best comic book tradition, but rarely have I been able to root for a superhero more unabashedly.
The film, written by the Wachowski Brothers and directed by first-timer James McTeigue, believes in the values it espouses and has faith, ultimately, in people’s desire for freedom and justice. We do not live in London circa V for Vendetta; no one is making that claim. And though the similarities are chilling, the question isn’t really “how close are we,” either. What this brilliant and angry movie is telling us is simply this: Pay attention.