The movie V for Vendetta (V) is a thriller set in London’s dystopian future of 2020, where an anti-government anti-hero named “V” (played by Hugo Weaving) uses violence to bring down a totalitarian right-wing state called Norsefire. V’s motivation is partly personal; he was brutalized by a state-run medical experiment. It is partly political; he wants to spark revolution by awakening the masses to their oppression and their own power.
When V opened in 2006, the movie was reviewed more as a political manifesto than as a film. The Wachowski brothers of Matrix fame, who wrote and co-produced the movie with Joel Silver, clearly wanted to provoke this reaction; for example, one of V’s popular tag lines was, “People shouldn’t fear their governments; governments should fear their people.” With the “war on terrorism” raging, these words slapped the face of government.
Since V was presented both as a movie and as a political statement, it is appropriate to address its artistic value and its politics separately. For me, the dual approach is doubly important because I enjoyed V the movie and disliked V the political statement. As a movie, I found V to be engaging, often original, visually stunning but ultimately flawed; it was a good ride that could have been great one if the scripting had been better. As a political statement, I thought V was not at all libertarian, as so many have claimed.
The movie V
First, consider V as art. The movie originates from a ten-issue graphic novel series written by Alan Moore and illustrated primarily by David Lloyd. With one exception, the plot is not complicated. The very bare plot is as follows: After escaping from a state concentration camp, V reinvents himself as a revolutionary determined to blow up Parliament on Guy Fawkes Day, November 5th. In the meantime, he avenges himself on the former staff of the prison camp as well as revolutionizing a young woman named Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) and awakening the mass of people who have fallen into deep apathy. In the end, V succeeds in bringing down the government but he dies before the process can be completed, leaving the final triumph to Evey.
The plot is fast-paced, swash-buckling, and fun. But, ultimately, the plot damages the movie due to internal inconsistencies and occasional incoherence.
Most of the plot and other problems come from adaptations that the Wachowski brothers consciously made to promote their own political agenda. In interviews, the Wachowski brothers were explicit about using the movie as a weapon against right-wing America. The movie script is so unfaithful to the graphic novel that Moore yanked his name from the movie’s credits. (The source material is acknowledged merely as being “Based On A Graphic Novel Illustrated by David Lloyd.”)
The deviation is unfortunate because the novel is far more politically sophisticated and less cartoonish than the movie. For example, in the novel, Norsefire’s leader Mr. Susan is a complex man who fully understands that he is destroying liberty, and he knows why. Susan states,
I believe in strength. I believe in unity. And if that strength, that unity of purpose, demands a uniformity of thought, word, and deed, then so be it. I will not hear talk of freedom…. The war put paid to freedom. The only freedom left to my people is the freedom to starve. The freedom to die. The freedom to live in a world of chaos. Should I allow them that freedom? I think not. I think not. Do I reserve to myself the freedom I deny to others? I do not. I sit here within my cage and I am but a servant. I, who am master of all I see….
By contrast, the movie’s High Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt) is a poor man’s Hitler, a one-dimensional head-on-a-TV-screen that spews rants.
A movie’s failure to reflect its source material, however, says nothing about its own artistic value. A piece of art should be judged on its own merits, not with reference to another work. In V’s case, the failure is worth mentioning because the adaptation resulted in an awkward mix that blunted the impact of the novel and reduced much of the characterization to political caricature.
The political caricatures sometimes take over the movie — for example, the pedophile priests who are meant to epitomize the hypocrisy of the right-wing government. According to Moore, the Wachowski brothers introduced the priests to recast the story in terms of “current American neo-conservatism vs. current American liberalism.” The original series was anti-authoritarian per se, not one governmental ideology versus another. Thus, the movie is a strange blend of Moore’s theme of the individual versus power and the Wachowski theme of attacking one particular expression of power.
The adaption also introduces major inconsistencies. Consider just three.
Number One: After being rescued by V from attackers who would have raped and possibly killed her, Evey freely helps V enter a TV station where she works so that he can make a broadcast announcing his rebellious intentions. Then, she betrays the presence of her rescuer. No motivation is offered for the harsh betrayal nor for the subsequent flipflop when she helps him escape. Neither are explained or explored.
Number Two: V kills the doctor who experimented on him in the state facility. Before she dies, however, the doctor clearly indicates that she recognizes him from the camp and that she expected his visit. Why? Earlier, she had received a Scarlet Carson rose, which is V’s calling card. But how can she make the connection between her tortured “patient” and V on the basis of the rose? Unless V chatted about horticulture with his torturer or grew exotic roses in the state camp, the doctor has no reason to associate roses with her former patient.
Number Three: the climax is a scene in which oppressed Londoners en masse don Guy Fawkes’ masks that have been mailed to them by V. In other words, in a total surveillance society, V uses a state agency — the post office — to anonymously deliver seditious material to the masses. It is implausible that Norsefire could not identify the source of the mass mailing or thwart the delivery of masks.
Coherence is also damaged by a convoluted back-story that constantly and awkwardly interrupts the main plot. The back-story subplots depict V’s victimization at the medical camp and the duplicitous rise of Norsefire.
Chief Inspector Eric Finch (Stephen Rea), the detective investigating V’s case for Norsefire, slowly unravels a tangle of official lies and his narrative provides after-the-fact insight into the disjointed scenes. Even so, the flashbacks shift context so abruptly that they jar and confuse as much as they inform. Moreover, much of the information seems unnecessary. Although some background on V’s victimization is crucial, it is not clear that details of Norsefire’s rise to power are important. As it stands, the intricate subplot lumbers and adds little.
In one area, however, I declare V to be an unqualified triumph. It has incredible cinematography, dramatic settings, and satisfying special effects. It achieves an eerie blend of future and retro by using grey tones to render the dreary stagnancy of totalitarian London; it is a stylistic delight that draws on imagery from classic totalitarian movies and symbols, including George Orwell’s 1984 and swastikas. The head of Norsefire. Adam Sutler, is immediately identifiable as Big Brother by the large video screens and portraits on which his grim face appears.
V the political statement
Many libertarians embraced V as a quintessentially libertarian movie. Some anarchists declared it anarchistic. But does it really present a libertarian vision of individual rights, the state, and social change?
This question is separate from the emotional impact that V had on many libertarians. Anyone who loves freedom will applaud quite a few scenes in the movie. V’s call to topple a brutal totalitarian state is eloquent and rousing. The demolition of Parliament is exhilarating even to those of us who are committed to non-violence. But this emotional reaction does not answer the question of whether V is objectively libertarian. People can be swept away by a romantic portrayal of forbidden love and, yet, not advocate adultery. Equally so, libertarians can be swept away by V and, yet, not embrace its political philosophy.
Is V’s message objectively libertarian? I don’t believe it is. In significant and insuperable ways, I view V as anti-libertarian.
But, first, consider a related question: is V a movie about anarchism as it is sometimes claimed to be? Certainly V demands the utter absence of a coercive government.
From its onset, the political message of V is muddled, if not self-contradictory, and does not support the claim of anarchism. The movie opens in 1605 with Guy Fawkes’ unsuccessful attempt to blow up the English Parliament. The movie then jumps forward 408 years and continues the parallel between Fawkes and V. The identification is so strong that V is never seen without his Fawkes mask. The movie concludes with Evey realizing Fawkes’ political goal of blowing up Parliament. It is inescapable: Fawkes is V’s political role model. But Fawkes was very far from being either anarchist or libertarian.
There is nothing inherently anarchist or libertarian about destroying a political symbol or regime; everything depends on why you do it. Fawkes’ purpose was to replace Protestant rulers with Papist ones. He did not fight for freedom but against the imposition of one religion in order to impose another.
The movie offers no reason to believe V is more anarchistic or libertarian than Fawkes. Whereas the graphic novel was a wholesale cry to rebel against statism itself, the movie rebels against a particular criminal government. This is a key point because opposing a specific state does not make anyone anarchist or libertarian; if it did, then Fidel Castro and Leon Trotsky would be libertarians. The absence of an explicitly stated philosophy leaves us without a real sense of where V falls on the political spectrum. The close and constant identification with Fawkes, however, implies that he is not against all government but merely seeking revenge on the government that tortured him.
Perhaps the biggest reason to doubt V’s libertarianism is his own willingness to torture innocent people “in a good cause.” He imprisons Evey and brutalizes her for days. When she is threatened with execution unless she betrays V, Evey chooses to die. At this point, V releases her and reveals the imprisonment as an elaborate ruse through which he stripped away her fears and freed her.
What distinguishes the imprisonment and torture by V from that committed by Norsefire? V’s is purportedly “in a good cause”; it is noble torture performed for Evey’s own good.
Only if you accept the propriety of violating rights in a good cause, only if you accept that the ends justify the means, can you view V as a libertarian torturer. I accept neither. For me the torture scenes obliterated any fundamental moral difference between Norsefire and V. They were both willing to brutalize innocent people for the greater good. V became the essence of what he railed against: the oppression of innocents.
Other libertarians have excused the kidnapping and torture on three grounds, none of which are sustainable.
First, the torture is defended because it was done in the noble cause of freeing Evey. Equally, the Spanish inquisition put people on the rack to free and purify their souls through confession. An act is not libertarian based on its intentions but on whether it respects the person and property of others. V utterly fails this test.
Second, the torture can be dismissed as just one part of a much larger picture. But the torture is a crucial turning point in the movie and a vivid window into V’s character. Fans cannot cherry-pick the scenes that “prove” V is a libertarian while discarding glaring counter-evidence. Downplaying torture is like calling Hitler “weak” on the Jews.
Third, Evey ultimately forgives V, which makes everything okay. But if you believe that forgiveness justifies the violation of rights, then what actions can you not justify? Theft, rape, torture … after all, the victim might ultimately forgive the perpetrator. Ultimate forgiveness is irrelevant to whether an act violates rights. What is relevant is whether the victim says “yes” or “no” when the act is occurring. Forgiveness may well affect a legal prosecution but it does not change the violation of rights.
For me, V’s embrace of torture in a good cause absolutely destroys any libertarian credentials.
But if the movie V does not embrace an anarchistic or libertarian approach, what is its view of government and the governed? The lack of explicitly stated political views means that they must be gleaned through V’s actions and the movie’s framework.
Norsefire’s specific structure is a literal expression of “the body politic.” All power and instructions come from the “head” or leader. The visual-surveillance department is called “The Eye”; the audio-surveillance department is “The Ear”; the Secret Police agency is “the Finger,” with enforcers known as “fingers.”
The movie’s political denouement occurs when a London mob, inspired by V, rushes a group of armed military who are standing guard. Soldiers scream into their radios for instructions that do not come. Why? Because the head of Norsefire has been assassinated by his second-in-command who, in turn, is killed by V. In short, V has beheaded the body and, so, the mob rushes through the military without resistance.
V’s view of the governed is equally straightforward. They are the masses: beaten down by authority, numbed by television, grim and grey in their emotional responses. They are nameless and almost interchangeable units. Other than V, there is little indication of resistance or political awareness until the very end of the movie when a woman blurts out, “This could be the chance we’ve been waiting for.”
“The chance” seems to be a revolt, not a revolution. A revolt is when people rise up to throw off an injustice; it is an act of mutiny with no necessary underlying ideology or overweening plan. A revolution is ideological; it aims at replacing an unjust system with a new political blueprint. Of course, both may be occurring at the end of the movie but all that is certain is that a revolt has happened; nothing clearly indicates revolution.
V the revenge movie
Where V succeeds best is not as a political manifesto but as a revenge movie. Many of V’s attacks on Norsefire are as much acts of personal vengeance as they are bids for liberty.
Moreover, in addition to Fawkes, V has another role model: Edmond Dantes, the hero of Alexander Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo. V embraces the portrayal of Dantes by Robert Donat in the 1934 film which plays in the background of V’s sanctuary. V slashes and parries in sync with Donat’s screen swordplay; he quotes lines in tandem.
The character V mimics is a man who has escaped unjust captivity in order to wreak absolute devastation upon those responsible. The Count of Monte Cristo is not a tale of political revolution; it is one of personal revenge. Equally V for Vendetta lives up to its title and this competing sub-theme. In the end, its clearest message is vengeance, not justice.
Perhaps my harshest criticism of V is that it could have been an astonishingly good movie if it had not been burdened by the Wachowski brothers’ agenda and poor scripting. A glimpse of this possibility is found in the scenes portraying Valerie Page, a character lifted intact from the graphic novel. Due to her homosexuality, Page is imprisoned by Norsefire. The journal she writes there provides inspiration to Evey who discovers it during her own imprisonment by V. Those scenes are among the most compelling that I have ever seen on screen. But the movie quickly returns to the muddled and cartoonish agenda of the Wachowski brothers and, so, betrays its own potential.