Villian or Vindicated Valiant?

Can A Popcorn Movie Also Be Political? This One Can

Mar. 13, 2006

The first thing a film critic (this one, anyway) should say of V for Vendetta is that it’s a terrific movie. I love the look and the verve of the thing, the confidence of its epic design, its smart use of half a dozen noted British thesps, lending weight and wit to the supporting roles. Hugo Weaving gives the finest no-face performance since Eric Stoltz in Mask, and Natalie Portman, always an eye magnet, does her sharpest film work yet. In her sobbing scenes, when her will must be broken, then forged anew, she comes darn close to acting.


Which is to say, Vendetta is up there with the Wachowski brothers’ first Matrix film, which anybody could see had more on its agenda than aerobatic martial arts. The brothers, who wrote the Vendetta script that James McTeigue spiffily directed, are back in top form–not larding political meaning on an action plot but finding a seamless blending of the two. Whether you’re mindless or Mensa, you’ll find stuff here to challenge and trouble you, the way a good piece of speculative fiction should.

The second thing: yes, it is weird that the original 1980s comic book, an updating of the Guy Fawkes tale (“Remember, remember, the 5th of November”), should so eerily foretell the 2001 bombing of another famous building (Remember, remember, the 11th of September). It’s more audacious still that the Wachowskis, rather than scrubbing their script clean of 9/11 references, would emphasize the connection, proposing a dapper quasi-hero who is part Zorro (with the fancy swordplay), part Phantom of the Opera (but with a jukebox in his underground lair instead of a pipe organ) and just a smidge of Osama bin Laden (but with tastes more aesthetic than ascetic).

That a government should literally poison its citizens, and that a terrorist should be considered a hero, is a pretty nervy premise for a mainstream film. But that’s dystopic fiction for you. (In his novel Winter Kills, Richard Condon posited that the brains behind the J.F.K. assassination was–Joe Kennedy!) These days, with many millions around the world seeing every evil in Bush and Cheney, a film like Vendetta is, at least, timely. And if the villains are the big guys, the hero can be a terrorist–or should we call V an insurgent?

That is surely an apt subject for a movie–even, and especially, a popcorn movie. If a cheapo ’50s fantasy called Invasion of the Body Snatchers could also be a rich parable of conformist paranoia, and if The Matrix could clue kids into mathematics and philosophy, then a film as bold and thoughtful as V for Vendetta is allowed to stoke a multiplex debate on the use and abuse of state power. The best works of popular art get to play by their own rules.


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