Remember, remember, the 5th of November,
the gunpowder treason and plot.
I know of no reason the Gunpowder Treason
should ever be forgot.
You want a movie that asks an impossible question and offers up an extremely un-pc answer? If so, then this is a flick for you.
The overlying query in this film is as such: can a terrorist be a hero? Arriving on the heels of September 11th, with Oklahoma City a distant yet still relevant memory, the creators, the Wachowski brothers, took a definite risk. And my, oh my, did it pay off.
(Note: This film is actually an adaptation of an Alan Moore comic which came out it the early to mid-eighties. It differs greatly from the source material – Moore’s vision was one of the struggle between Thatcher-era fascism and anarchy, whereas the film version deals more with the modern trend towards ultra-conservatism and 1984-style control. The original book is fantastic and a worthy read, but please do not judge the movie based on its differences. Coming today, the way it’s constructed and with what it says, the film is poignant, even necessary. No matter what Moore says.)
V would be a villain in most stories. He is proficiently violent and blows up buildings, all the while waxing poetic in a naïve yet intelligent way about the need for people’s revolution. He idolizes Guy Fawkes, he of the aforementioned Gunpowder Treason, to the point of wearing his visage in the form of a mask. He is a man without a face in a literal sense. His Fawkes disguise is as much his identity as his message is; he’s become the definition of revolution, railing against the dystopian, controlling, almost Nazi-like culture that has swept through England.
In Evey, the woman he saves from “fingermen” (the new regime’s version of the SS) in the beginning of the film and then brings to the top of a building to act as his audience as he blows up the Old Bailey while Tchaikovsky’s 1812 plays in the streets, he finds one bound to him as much through fate as mere circumstance. She is a symbol as much as he, a vision of what happens to people lost in a system of control. She is generally untrusting, as her parents, being activists, had been taken away from her at a young age because of their anti-government battlecry. Yet she is passive and even a bit lazy; she’s more than willing to go about her everyday business and turn a blind eye to the evils that occur around her in an effort to make her life, which she is imminently afraid of living, pass by without incident. It’s a brilliant illustration of society as a whole: bludgeon the people into submission with fear, and it will be far less likely they try to rise up against you. This is what she signifies.
It is through the relationship between V and Evey that the crux of the story unfolds. He befriends and protects her, even acts as her mentor. In a prolonged scene he imprisons her against her will, pretending to be a government official, in order to absolve her of her fear. The act seems outwardly cruel without subtext; whereas the suffering and humiliation she is subjected to is horrible, she cannot be truly free to live her life – a life of true freedom, in mind, spirit, and action – without it. So, even though horrible, this is actually a gift to her. The gift of autonomy, a gift V wishes to give all people living under the umbrella of manufactured phobia.
That brings up the second point of the film, which is actually the one that is the most dangerous. To what level with those in power go to maintain, and build, control? In the film, the administration befell horrors on its own populace in the form of a killer virus, in essence murdering thousands of people, to gain power over the national psyche. It is a despicable move, to be sure, but not necessarily outside the realm of possibility. Countless examples can be found in history of many the same things done in different ways, though most times they occur in third-world countries, not the west.
Depressing as this is, however, it has to be said that there is a bit of Faustian karma to the storyline. Make a deal with the devil, and you’ll eventually have to pay. Through their biological manipulation to create the ultimate weapon against their own people, those in power created V. His is their Frankenstein’s monster, their problem, their offspring. Just as Evey is a reflection and henceforth evolution of V, V is the reflection and evolution of his makers. This is why V says to Evey, as he’s ready to make good on his promise and take down the Houses of Parliament, that the world he is to create he could not exist in. He is a fiend, albeit a well-spoken one. Without his rage, without his vengeance, he would cease to exist. There is a balance inherent in being human he simply doesn’t possess. V isn't human – he’s the living embodiment of an ideal. He understands this, and also understands that Evey is the next step. She feels what he feels, yet also knows what it’s like to exist. She takes it to the next level, a level V was never prepared to enter.
The end of the film I’ve heard lambasted at times, but I cannot understand why. The people gathered, all wearing their Fawkes masks and capes, signify a convergence of ideals, not conformity. And the shedding of the disguises at the end is purposeful, as well. In disrobing and revealing their individual selves, they are giving visual representation to the ideal V states just before he dies. Free of the bonds the symbol of government represents, the terrorist who created them ceases to exist as those buildings go up on flames. At least for the moment, they have gained resolve, and that can be equalized by a connection to their emotions and individual thoughts; in other words, that which makes every person different. Sure, it’s a bit of grandstanding, but it works. It helps make the film great, and I place it at number 19 on my countdown.
Which brings me back to the beginning, and the forbidden question the movie asks. Can a terrorist be a hero?
Perhaps, given the current state of world affairs, that’s a question best left unanswered.