Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AiPT! Comics cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.
“Remember, remember the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot. I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.”
Alan Moore is a pivotal figure within the comic book community. Hell, with Watchmen being the only graphic novel on Time magazine’s “All-Time 100 Greatest Novels” list, Moore is a pivotal figure within the writing community at large.
And while not all the film adaptations of his work have been phenomenal (League of Extraordinary Gentleman and From Hell being particularly atrocious), V for Vendetta was a bona fide hit upon its release in the spring of 2006. Its amalgamation of Phantom of the Opera and George Orwell’s 1984, under the thin veneer of superhero spectacle, appeared to be just the crowd-pleaser people were looking for, proving sisters Lana and Lily Wachowski as more than the mere one-hit-wonders behind The Matrix, and permeating the cultural purview at large.
But is there something more sinister hidden within the subtext of this action feature? Does the film’s moral message on government oppression hold up to modern scrutiny? Is V for Vendetta a cutting commentary on America’s post-9/11 domestic policies, or a hero-worship fantasy for fringe fanatics?
Set in a totalitarian, neo-fascist, near-future London, Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman, of Léon and Phantom Menace fame) is reluctantly rescued from employment at her state-run television station by a Guy Fawkes-masked outlaw known simply as V (voiced by Matrix malefactor Hugo Weaving), the verbose vigilante responsible for blowing up the Old Bailey courthouse the night prior.
Kept captive in V’s subterranean lair (dubiously dubbed the “Shadow Gallery”) during his yearlong buildup toward blowing up Parliament, Evey learns the true meaning of liberty … or succumbs to Stockholm syndrome, Patty Hearsting herself toward terrorist acts of V-like violence. Depending on your point of view and your awareness of the OG graphic novel.
Revisiting V, I’d be lying if I said 4chan, Anonymous, the Occupy movement and several mediocre seasons of Mr. Robot hadn’t diminished my enthusiasm for this film and the titular character. The sad truth of the matter is, even when one agrees with the sociopolitical associations surrounding a film, it can (and does, more often than not) alter the viewing experience.
That said, none of those examples touch on my biggest issue with the feature, as at the heart of this seemingly innocuous film lies a rhetoric far more damning than even the mere Mr. Robot is capable of. Rhetoric regarding a “truth” movement that’s not only stranger than fiction, it is fiction.
But before we get into the things I staunchly disagree with regarding the film at hand, allow me to laud it for what does work. Director James McTeigue adequately balances the film’s action and drama. The basics of the plot are incredibly engaging and the acting from top down remains outstanding. Between Stephen Fry’s stellar performance as Dietrich and the latrine letter found by Portman’s Evey, the Wachowskis managed to put forth a presciently pro-LGBT message in what might otherwise come off as a superhero film aimed at cisgender males.
It’s no secret that as the Wachowskis adapted V for the big screen, they altered Moore’s critique of Margaret Thatcher’s U.K. to that of the Bush administration (George W., to be exact). BTN (the fictitious British Television Network) is Fox News, Prothero is an amalgam of Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck; take your pick. Mr. Creedy is Dick Cheney. In looser terms, the bumbling High Chancellor Sutler (played to perfection by the late great John Hurt), represents a British take on Bush (albeit far more malevolent).
When V infiltrates the aforementioned news station in the first act of the film, his pirate communication states, “He promised you order, he promised you peace, and all he demanded in return was your silent, obedient consent,” loosely alluding to the Patriot Act of 2001. This is reiterated again when V, in disguise as the Deep Throat-esque informant William Rookwood, states, “His party launches a special project in the name of ‘national security.'”
While all of the above is by and large acceptable (after all, the Bush administration justifiably came under heavy criticism, across multiple party lines), there is a point where the film crosses the boundary between healthy social satire and conspiracy quackery. This point concerns the detective heading the investigation to find V, Inspector Finch (Interview with the Vampire‘s Stephen Rea).
The historical backdrop regarding how the government became a dystopian/Orwellian regime revolves around the communicable outbreak of a deadly virus at St. Mary’s School and at the nearby tube station, hospital and reservoir, resulting in the deaths of nearly 100,000 people. As Finch attempts to track V, he discovers that the virus, widely regarded to be the work of outside terrorists, originated under a bioweapons program led by all the top brass of the ruling political party.
In exploring the above as veiled 9/11 Truther rhetoric, it’s important to see it in context with all the other allusions toward the Bush administration. It’s also important to understand the “Truth” movement itself which, having very little regard for actual truth, believes the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on American soil were an inside job or, at the very least, were allowed to transpire by a knowing/culpable government for purposes that range from oil interests in the Middle East to increasing the military industrial complex or increasing government oversight at large.
These beliefs tend to not be rooted in objective fact so much as wrongfully perceived motivation, and the proponents of these beliefs often posit misinformation such as the ever irrelevant “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams” (the intense heat produced from the large amount of jet fuel available in the average commercial airline can in fact compromise the structural integrity of steel).
V for Vendetta indulges this “Truther” rhetoric (again, I cannot place enough quotation marks around “Truther”) in two scenes. The first involves Inspector Finch speaking with fellow investigator Dominic Stone (Sherlock’s Rupert Graves), wherein Finch asks, “What if the greatest … attack on our country was not the work of religious extremists?” Finch continues to press Dominic, asking “What if someone else were responsible for all those deaths? Would you want to know who it was?”
After a yes from Dominic, Finch presses further, “Even if it was someone working for our own government? That’s the question I want to ask you. If our own government was behind St. Mary’s and Three Waters? If our own government was responsible for the deaths of almost a 100,000 people? Would you really want to know?”
These ideas are reiterated in a later scene in which Finch speaks with V, again in disguise as the mysterious Rookwood. “Our story begins, as stories often do, with a young, up-and-coming politician,” V says. “He’s a deeply religious man, a member of the conservative party. He is of single-minded convictions and has little respect for the political process.”
V is speaking of our Bush stand-in, Sutler, before delving into our Cheney equivalent, Creedy. “It is at this point in our story that along comes a spider,” V says. “He is a man who seems to have no conscience; for him, the ends always justify the means. It is he who suggests that the weapon be used not against an enemy of the country, but rather the country itself.” V goes on to mention “a pharmaceutical company owned by one of the party members,” readily alluding to the Bush family’s oil ties in the Middle East.
Here’s as good a time as any to note that the adoption of the Guy Fawkes mask by the likes of Anonymous, Occupy and the Truth movement is an odd one. Fawkes’ famous “Gunpowder Plot” was meant to destroy Parliament in order to establish a Catholic monarchy. Guy Fawkes wasn’t an anarchist, he was the exact opposite. Guy Fawkes was the establishment.
Taken in conjunction with all the above ties to the Bush administration, one can clearly outline the writers’ sympathies towards the Truth movement. Yes, the film is ultimately a work of fiction, however, to quote the film itself, “Artists use lies to tell the truth, while politicians use them to cover the truth up.”
The Wachowskis were using the medium of film as the Wachowskis often use the medium of film (see Cloud Atlas), to put forth social and societal issues as they see fit. The problem here is that the societal issue at hand is the Truth movement and the Truth movement is (to use an oft-stated slur from the film) a load of bollocks!
It’s a vile, vacant, villainous, vampiric vocation, and bygone vexation for “venal and virulent vermin, vanguarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition! The only verdict is vengeance; a vendetta held as a votive, not in vain, for the value and veracity of such shall one day vindicate the vigilant and the virtuous.”