Adapted by Andy and Larry Wachowski from a graphic novel by Alan Moore and directed by James McTeigue, V for Vendetta is the story of a violent struggle against tyranny. It is 2020, and Britain has been taken over by a right-wing, forthrightly "faith-based" government headed by Adam Sutler (John Hurt), whose double-cross red insignia and endless harangues manage to suggest Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich's swastika without the filmmakers pushing the connections terribly hard.
Cameras and listening devices are everywhere. Individual privacy is reduced to clandestine whispers. Freedom of speech is so non-existent that people are even afraid to joke about their political leaders. A sneering TV personality (Roger Allam) rants about the refuge of faith from the danger of countless enemies and touts the Sutler administration as the nation's only hope for survival. The media print and broadcast what they are ordered to, even when they know their "news" is a concoction of lies.
Into this dystopia comes V (Hugo Weaving), a disfigured survivor of a government camp devoted to biological warfare experiments on live human subjects. V dresses up like Guy Fawkes, the 17th century anarchist who plotted to blow up the houses of Parliament, his disfigured face always hidden behind a grinning mask. V starts out like Batman, redressing small wrongs to innocent individuals. He saves TV producer Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) from being raped by government goons. But V's ambition is to overthrow the government, and he soon takes over national television to announce his intentions. The basic narrative is entirely conventional: a brave man, a wicked system, evil leaders, a love story and a climactic fight involving swirling kicks, flashing knives and spurting blood.
Throughout, though, V for Vendetta stands apart in its urgency to buttress its story with genuine ideas. There are aphoristic jewels: "Politicians employ the truth to promote lies while artists use lies to tell the truth." And: "You wear a mask long enough, you forget who you are beneath it." And there are little subtleties. The picture acknowledges how a decent man like police inspector Finch (Stephen Rea), who is searching for V, could have been duped by his government and even nods at the misguided humanity of a doctor who did experiments on unwilling humans.
But in the main, the picture explores four big ideas, three of them worthy and one exceedingly dangerous. Two of the picture's philosophical concerns wrestle with the role of the modern media. In the liberal tradition out of which the United States was born and Britain has flourished, the press functions as an independent force, a fourth estate that both communicates information and holds government accountable for its actions. But it is ever easier for the government to control the media, either directly or indirectly, and in the absence of an independent media, the populace is left ignorant or, worse, consciously manipulated.
But, echoing Michael Moore's concerns, even an independent media can foment social problems when it succumbs to sensationalism. People desire freedom, but they fear chaos more. And when the media promote an atmosphere of fear, they serve those who would proffer security in exchange for liberty. Along with Wisconsin U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, I worry how readily America has surrendered long-standing legal protections and rights to privacy to the "terrorist alerts" in the aftermath of 9/11.
V for Vendetta also dares to insist that we search for the humanity in those who would strike at society in acts of terrorism. Without forgiving, much less condoning, those who would shed innocent blood in the name of a political or religious cause, we best remember that George III regarded our national forefathers as terrorists and that the French Resistance sometimes killed innocent bystanders when they bombed Parisian cafes full of Nazi officers. Agents of the government vastly underestimate V when they say of him, "You can't expect him to act like you or me; he's a terrorist." On the contrary, only by recognizing terrorists as human can we hope to thwart their violence.
All of this is quite fascinating, so it is all the sadder that the picture finally surrenders to the thrill of spectacular violence and not only concedes the inevitability of terrorism but asserts its viability and even justification as a political tool. I can't conceive the filmmakers actually embrace such insidious nonsense, but I do believe that it will draw in audiences who flocked to Fight Club. In that scenario, in the end, shame on them.