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The trouble with V: compelling and affecting in its depiction of life under totalitarianism, V for Vendetta ultimately endorses the lawlessness on which totalitarianism depends.

The construction of a totalitarian system invariably involves an intense campaign of demolition. All impediments to the power of the emancipated state, both public and private, must be destroyed.

The intent is to deprive the individual subject of any refuge from the power of the state, which--in Lenin's famous formulation--can then exercise "power without limit, resting directly on force." This process inevitably involves deception, since the objective is not merely to compel subjects to obey the state, but to induce them to surrender jurisdiction over their minds and souls as well. Through propaganda designed to manipulate fear, hatred, and other potent base emotions, the totalitarian state and its controlling oligarchy seek to enlist the subjects as collaborators in their own enslavement and psychological reconstruction.

Celluloid Dystopia

George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Ayn Rand, and other gifted writers have created fictional dystopias that illustrate totalitarian methods at work. Many film critiques and essays of a libertarian bent have embraced the new film V for Vendetta, adapted from a 1989 graphic novel (that is, a comic book with unusual literary heft) by British writer Alan Moore, as a worthy entry in that anti-totalitarian canon.

The adapted screenplay by Andy and Larry Wachowski, creators of the Matrix films, is smart and well-crafted. Director James McTeigue coaxed remarkable performances from his stars--Natalie Portman as Evey, and Hugo Weaving as the titular hero/anti-hero "V," an enigmatic terrorist whose never-seen face is hidden behind a static mask representing Guy Fawkes, the terrorist who led an abortive plot to blow up the British Parliament in 1605.

The film's setting is England in 2019, years after a quasi-fascist party led by Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt) has seized power and engrafted a garrison state onto the country's traditional institutions. For Britons, life goes on much as before: they can go to work, shop, attend church, down a pint at the local pub, and--of course--watch television. But the state's influence permeates all of their activities. The church has been made an appendage of the ruling Party. The media "interlink"--particularly the official television network--is a conduit of state propaganda, with every "news" story and entertainment program designed to exalt the Party and its leader.

Everywhere they go, subjects of Sutler's state are under surveillance, both human and electronic. Severe travel restrictions and curfews are in place, and pitilessly enforced. Electronic communications and even private conversations are scrutinized for hints of disloyalty or a lack of "faith" in the ruling Party and its Dear Leader. The Party's slogan is a belligerent summons to submission: "Strength through Unity--and Unity through Faith!"

The story begins with Evey, a comely minor employee at the state television network, primping for a late-night assignation with her boss, a variety-show host named Deitrich (Stephen Fry). Caught on the streets after curfew, Evey is set upon by a pack of malodorous thugs called "Fingermen"--enforcers hired by the secret police who are entitled to rape and torture her as they please. She is rescued by V, who at first glimpse appears to be a hybrid of Zorro and the Phantom of the Opera.

V whisks Evey away to his lair, where--after climbing to a rooftop--the duo witness V's inaugural "masterpiece," the midnight bombing of London's Old Bailey Courthouse set to the climactic strains of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" (which is played through the city's ubiquitous public address speakers). After commandeering London's central television studio, V informs the public that one year hence he would finish Guy Fawkes' work by blowing up the Parliament building as a symbolic demolition of the ruling power.

What Is the "Idea"?

The film's narrative thread is the pursuit of V by Inspector Shea (Stephen Rea). From that thread hang several interconnected subplots: V's revenge murders of several prominent figures; Evey's transformation into V's disciple; and the discovery by Inspector Shea that the massive bio-terror attack that led to the rise of Sutler's Party and the permanent state of emergency had been orchestrated by Sutler and his co-conspirators, rather than the "religious extremists" who had been convicted and executed for the atrocity.

As the story approaches its climax, with V emerging as an icon of growing public hostility toward the regime, Inspector Shea--who has become increasingly disillusioned himself--grimly predicts the future to his partner. Public disaffection would lead to small acts of resistance, Shea explains. Overt martial law would be imposed, and a triggering incident of some sort would take place--such as the summary public execution of an innocent person. This would catalyze and radicalize the rebellion, leading to an ever-escalating series of rebellions and official reprisals--just as V anticipated and desired.

Inspector Shea's summary of V's strategy could have been adapted from the Mini-Manual for the Urban Guerrilla, a manifesto written by Brazilian Marxist Carlos Marighella that has served as a subversive blueprint for the Soviet-created international terrorist network.

The purpose of apparently random terrorism, explained Marighella, is to provoke governments "to intensify repression. The police roundups, house searches, arrests of innocent people, make life unbearable.... Rejecting the 'so-called political solution,' the urban guerrilla must become more aggressive and violent, resorting without letup to sabotage, terrorism, expropriations, assaults, kidnappings, and executions, heightening the disastrous situation in which the government must act."

While V's terrorism was targeted specifically at corrupt officials, his strategic purpose was to incite the public into a general revolt, and he fully understood how the radicalization/reprisal escalation ladder would bring this about. But to what end.'?

"People Power" Myth

The moral logic of the story makes plain the fact that V embodies the idea of power, rather than freedom. Created by the lawless state, V employs lawless violence to destroy the vestiges of institutions intended to restrain the state's power.

His first target is Old Bailey, which symbolizes--albeit in degraded form--the due process guarantees distinctive to Anglo-Saxon law. By blowing up Parliament, V symbolically accomplishes what all totalitarians seek--the destruction of legislative institutions intended to make government power subordinate to law and accountable to the people. En route to that climactic moment, the film is careful to extol the supposed virtues of homosexuals as the suffering saints of bourgeois society.

The destruction of Parliament is witnessed by an immense throng of spectators wearing Guy Fawkes masks identical to V's. This scene, comments libertarian reviewer Steve Persall, "is so revolutionary that I wondered how this movie ever got made, much less distributed by a major studio." Actually, this is very easy to understand once one appreciates that the insurrectionary version of cultural Marxism preached in V for Vendetta is kindred to the less militant version generally on offer from Hollywood, which focuses on the task of subverting faith, the family, and conventional morality, rather than unabashedly advocating the destruction of constitutional government.

The climax of V is an homage to versions of the revolutionary left's myth of "People Power," going back to the storming of the Bastille. The central conceit here is that the people, led by a charismatic figure freed from the restraints of law, can abolish tyranny by destroying oppressive institutions and beginning the world anew. The history of such movements, from the Bastille to the "liberation" of Iraq, demonstrates convincingly that leveling society's institutions simply creates a free-fire zone for the assault on individual liberty.

It almost seems as if Edmund Burke had V in mind when, writing of the French Revolution, he warned that "criminal means once tolerated are soon preferred. They present a shorter cut to the object than through the highway of the moral virtues. Justifying perfidy and murder for public benefit, public benefit would soon become the pretext, and perfidy and murder the end; until rapacity, malice, revenge, and fear more dreadful than revenge, could satiate their insatiable appetites. Such must be the consequences of losing, in the splendor of these triumphs of the rights of men, all natural sense of wrong and right."

Those who enjoy a well-crafted and unusually literate thriller will find V for Vendetta quite satisfying--once they understand that its moral message is entirely unsatisfactory.
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Author:Grigg, William Norman
Publication:The New American
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2006
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