March 20, 2006

Review: V For Vendetta

The previews of V for Vendetta may be one of the more deceptive ad campaigns in recent memory. Based on the preview you'd think V was about explosions, guns, and Matrix style martial arts, but if I had to guess I'd say that out of the 2 1/4 hours that the movie runs the action scenes only account for fifteen minutes; twenty at a maximum. Now, some of the negative reviews that you'll find out there take this as a major criticism, but while I certainly think the studio could have promoted the film a bit more...accurately I guess, I certainly don't have a problem with movies that have lots of talking. This is a movie about ideas, both literally and figuratively, and sometimes if you're making and idea movie you just need to have a lot of talking. Heaven forbid we take a break from the admittedly cool fight scenes to think a bit. This is likely to turn into a long and rambling review, so if you'd like to get off the train here just know that I liked the film and I think you should all go see it, just don't expect non-stop action. It's also worth noting that as far as film adaptations of graphic novels go, particularly those based on the works of Alan Moore, this is among the most true to the source material. If you'd like to see me ramble on a bit more, check below the fold.

These lengthy talking scenes are carried off by a wonderful cast of both characters and the actors portraying them. Most, if not all, of the characters are conflicted in some way, and there's only one character that I would really consider a "bad guy" in the sense that they are irredeemably evil. Even John Hurt's Adam Sutler, the dictator of V's dystopic England, who commits atrocities but who, I believe it's implied, genuinly believes he's best for the country, even if we think he's rather misguided. The task of moving most of the movie forward is carried admirably by Hugo Weaving as the eponymic V. It's actually reletively amazing how Weaving, with I'm sure help from the direciton and editing, manages to make the masked V emote in one scene and become the indecipherable blank slate you would expect from a masked man in the next. Natalie Portman carries of Evey very well, which is all the more difficult considering the extreme emotional shift her character goes through. Yeah, she botches a couple lines with an imperfect accent, but it didn't bother me and I've always thought that the people that latch onto that sort of thing are really nitpicking.

The film is extremely political for a supposed action adventure and as you will surely read in some of the negative reviews, it comes down smashingly hard on the more facistic elements of the conservative movement. It doesn't hide the message and it's not embarrassed by its condemnations. My view is that if that turns some people off, well that's their problem. V is not fighting fiscal responsibility, nor is he debating the propriety of a free market or other conservative philosophy. V is fighting the tyrannical elements present in the modern conservative movement taken to their logical extreme. If some of the elements of their society look shockingly like ours, for instance the "Voice of London" Lewis Prothero who will immediately bring to mind any number of conservative pundits, that should just bring into relief how out of control some elements of modern conservatism are.

That said, there are some reviews out there that make the claim that the film endorses terrorism, and it's simply not true. What is true is that the film makes a statement that terrorism *can* be used for noble ends and that sometimes violence can bring about positive change. V himself, though generally treated positively, is also quite obviously a madman and a monster, but we see his goals as noble so we forgive him. As Obiwan taught us all, it's all a matter of perspective.

Ok, so this isn't my finest review. I've rambled on quite a bit now and the overall structure of this thing is horrible. I've highlighted the entirety of this text a number of times thinking that I'd start over, but then I sit here and try to think of some more concise way to sum up the film and I can't discover one. This is a film that will get you thinking and get a group talking, and much as I ramble on here mulling over my thoughts as they unravel bit by bit, you're just as likely to sit around with people bringing up various aspects of the film and talking about or debating them. I can't think of a better sign of the film's success.

Incidentally, here's the Wikipedia link for Guy Fawkes, since he and his plot figure so prominently in the film and comic.


Patrick said...

Ew. You called it a "graphic novel." I feel like someone's grandfather when I hear that phrase. I think, "Sonny! In my day we didn't call them 'graphic novels' - we called them 'comic books' and that was good enough! No need to differentiate between length and subject matter!" *coughsputter*

Drew said...

I think you're a little too quick to gloss over the "endorsing terrorism" charge. I wouldn't be so blunt as to say that this film endorses terrorism, but it does imply that terrorism, employed toward legitimate goals, is a legitimate tool. Yes, V is a monster, but Evey blows up parliament, and Finch lets it happen.

Personally, I think this film puts its finger on the essential hypocrisy of our views on terrorism, and that's why people find it uncomfortable. We recognize terrorism when we see it, but we frequently find a way to call it something else if it is service of ends we support, or if it's carried out by people we think of as "good guys".

MosBen said...

It's frightening how much I actually could talk about the semantics of naming the form of a comic work, but in a very general sense I use the term "graphic novel" for long form comic works with a unified narrative. Now, there are certainly people that use the term with with no small ammount of pretention, but I think it's akin to terms like short story and novel. They're useful differentiations that shouldn't imply any value.

To Drew: What I meant was that I get the distinct impression from the negative reviews that bring the "it's endorsing terrorism!" noise that they mean exactly the hypocritical use that you mention. These are people that see terrorism as absolutely wrong because in their mind it's defined as the act of bad people seeking bad ends. Actually, the movie does exactly the opposite, endorsing "good" terrorism and tacitly disproving of "bad" terrorism. V's framing of his actions as required by the circumstances, as well as the times he doesn't kill people, imply that unless the circumstances require it, and your goals are just, terrorism is *not* justified.

Drew said...

I think you're right, MosBen, that reviews tend to miss the distinction. But as far as I'm concerned, you can't endorse "good" terrorism without endorsing terrorism itself. If the moral character of terrorism depends entirely on the uses to which it is put, then terrorism itself is above criticism.

I don't accept that. I think that terrorism employed for noble aims is, at best, a necessary evil. Emphasis on "evil". I appreciate the film for tackling the issues, but at the end of the day, I am forced to condemn V and Evey (and even Finch), as much as I sympathize with their goals.

MosBen said...

Condemn them? What alternative did they have? Live under tyranny? While I think the film certainly contemplates the possibility of the ends not justifying the means, they certainly seemed to in this instance. And if the ends/means equation is fairly balanced I don't see how you can condemn them. Certainly there were some actions during our revolutionary war that could be considered terrorism, but it hardly seems like we should be condemning them.

And if terrorism is inherently evil, what then, if anything, separates it from more noble violence? If nothing does, are we forced to condemn every general and warrior through all time regardless of their goals or the outcomes of their actions?

Drew said...

But the ends don't justify the means. Ever. That's my point. There is no ends/means equation. There are evil means serving noble ends. As for "noble violence", I don't know what that means. But no, you don't condemn every soldier. Violence in war is separate. If the war is just, then it's all good. If the war is unjust, it's not the soldier who takes the blame. You know, like Henry V, or Vietnam.

MosBen said...

What intrinsic aspect of terrorism leads to condemnation and intrinsic aspect of conventional warfare leads to absolution? V is, for lack of a better term, an army of one, why is he not judged by the same system we use to judge wars and the (whole) armies that fight them? Why is a war fought through terrorism always going to be intrinsically evil, but a conventional army can fight a just war?

Your distinction, as I read it at least, seems awfully similar to the people implying the movie supports Al Queda, you're just granting that he meant well.

Drew said...

I'm not aware of any intrinsic aspect of terrorism... the word is unfortunately quite vague. But that's not the point. The point is that a soldier is basically a tool of the government, and therefore has lessened responsibility. A suicide bomber, for example, who blows up a cafe is making a choice to kill civilians in service to some political goal. Even if that political goal is totally wonderful, it doesn't justify blowing up innocents. That's all I'm saying.

Noumena said...

It's true that the soldier is a functionary of their government, but we can still ask whether the government itself has carried out morally permissible acts (or whatever other valuative term you'd like to ask about). The relevant concept is that of an agent, which need not be some particular human being. So we can compare the acts of all the following agents: V; Palestinian suicide bombers; and the British government during WW2.

Jim Sterba (whom I know personally) has made the following argument (paraphrasing): We generally seem to recognize that inflicting a harm -- even a very great harm, such as death -- on a small number of people is justifiable if it is a necessary but undesirable consequence of the only way of saving many more people from a similar harm. Sterba talks in particular about the essentially random bombing of German cities by the RAF early in WW2 -- the claim is that this was permissible because it was the only way for Britain to fight back against the Nazi regime. That is, it was necessary but certainly undesirable to kill German noncombatants because that was the only way to prevent Germany from invading Britain and killing many more people. But then we can argue that the Palestinians are in a similar situation: the only means available to them for fighting the Israeli occupation of Palestine is through suicide bombing. One might then further argue that V and, later, Eve, are in a similar position; or one might try to draw a disanalogy.

I think a parallel could also be made to the pro-choice position I've argued for recently: if foetuses (foeti?) have a right to life (and, of course, big if), then it is a regrettable but necessary consequence that some of these beings must die in order for women to have full autonomy over their bodies.

Noumena said...

I went and saw this today (procrastination is fun), and I prefer the graphic novel/comic book version, mostly just because the writing is significantly better ('People shouldn't fear their governments; governments should fear their people' is bad enough, but then they top it off with 'Behind this mask is a man, and behind this man is an idea. And ideas are bulletproof). However, I think the printed version is more ethically complex, particularly in regards to the portrayal of the Leader/Chancellor, who is much more than just a power-hungry pol.

Still, Hugo Weaving has some excellent moments, and Natalie Portman does significantly more than worry about Anakin and the Republic before dying in childbirth. It's not quite Batman begins, but it's still a nice way to spend a few hours.

MosBen said...

It's precisely the vagueness of the word "terrorism" that confuses me about your statement that it is at best a "necessary evil" with an emphasis on the "evil". How can it always be evil if we can't even define it conclusively, especially since actions that would almost certainly be characterized as terrorism can be so disparate in their content? It seems the only unifying aspect to all the actions that we actually designate as terrorism is that they are actions taken by a small group against a government to achieve change. It seems to me that we either need to accept that in certain circumstances terrorism isn't evil, or we need to subdivide the term to separate the morally justifiable actions from the non-justifiable actions.

One possible definition of terrorism is violent action taken to achieve governmental change by frightening the populace, which I think is a fairly reasonable definition if not the only one, I'm not even sure V's action qualify as terrorism. He certainly didn't intend to scare the populace; he intended to inspire them to his cause. There was no subgroup targetted by V other than the government.