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V for Vendetta is set in a futuristic Great Britain, but make no mistake: The themes of lies, loss of liberties, and spin control that dominate this adaptation of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s graphic novel have everything to do with red-statism run amok. The antihero of the story, a former prisoner simply named V, is out to change the U.K.’s now-fascist government, which posts signs around London that read, “Strength through unity, unity through faith.” The administration preapproves television scripts, too, and maintains a “vault of objectionable materials.” It even denies its citizens butter, because…because it’s for their own good.
So you want to root for this radical—after all, he’s introduced saving a young miss who’s out after curfew from a team of horny patrolmen. But then V says, “Blowing up a building can change the world,” and suddenly you don’t know whose side you’re on.
Perhaps that’s why Moore wanted his name taken off the credits. (Either that, or because the big-screen versions of two of his other comics, From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, were butchered.) Moore published Vendetta in 1989 as an attack on the Thatcher administration, but in the hands of scripters and The Matrix creators Andy and Larry Wachowski, the time frame has quite obviously been updated—with bioterror, wiretapping, discrimination against homosexuals, and even avian flu. When the curfew-breaker, Evey (Natalie Portman), tells V (Hugo Weaving) about the demise of her activist parents, she recalls her mother wanting to leave the country and her father insisting, “If we ran away, they would win!”
So the Wachowskis aren’t subtle. And as the Matrix trilogy proved, they won’t use one word when 10 will do, either. V, caped and sporting a Jack White bob, top hat, and creepy Guy Fawkes mask, introduces himself to Evey in a cascade of alliteration—V, naturally, being his favorite letter—and incomprehensible blather. At the end of V’s speech, a frightened but intrigued Evey asks, “Are you, like, a crazy person?” Remarkably, intelligible English takes over from there.
The two meet on the eve of Nov. 5, the day on which Britons remember Fawkes, a Catholic conspirator who was hanged in 1606 for attempting to blow up Parliament the year before. Traditionally, fireworks are set off and effigies are burned on that night to celebrate his capture, but V starts his party a day early. Asking Evey if she likes music, V takes her to the roof of a nearby building and starts conducting an invisible orchestra. At midnight, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture begins to blare out of street speakers, and fireworks go off as the Old Bailey is, you guessed it, blown up.
V and Evey, who works at a television station, run into each other again the next day, as V takes over the airwaves and declares, “The truth is there’s something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there?” He threatens that he will carry out Fawkes’ plot if changes aren’t made within a year. Police storm the building, and when one of them finally captures V, Evey finds herself helping him escape. She’s knocked out and wakes up in V’s cultivated underground lair, which is filled with art, sculpture, books, and even a 14th-century copy of the Koran. “I don’t have to be Muslim to appreciate its beauty,” he says.
The movie then follows the pair as they cycle through bonds and separations over the next year, though first-time director James McTeigue gives little indication of time passing. Nor does he craft Vendetta into quite the action movie the trailers make it out to be. For a big-screen version of a graphic novel, there’s not much flash, and though V proves to be rather adroit with knives when facing a group of authority figures and has a list of pro-government people that he systematically murders, there’s not much blood, either. Only the flashbacks get some real color—including one scene reminiscent of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates—while present-day London is all dark and gloomy, apparently indicative of the pall cast over its straitjacketed citizenry.
Except for Portman’s creditably accented Evey and Stephen Rea’s unexpressive investigator, who begins to discover how corrupt the government really is, most of the characters are outsized: Weaving, The Matrix’s Agent Smith, seethes behind his mask. Roger Allam is the loudmouthed Bill O’Reilly–ish host of a news program. And fighting to maintain control of his people is chancellor John Hurt, who’s always shown bellowing to his minions in giant-screen video conferences.
Question is, is all the bombast worth it? And here’s another one: Is it wrong to expect a Serious Examination of the Issues from a pop-cultural whirl that throws together 1984, Batman, Zorro, A Clockwork Orange, and just about any other dark-avenger/rebel-with-a-cause/totalitarian-futureworld source you can think of? Well, yes and no and yes and no. Overall, Vendetta ends up alternately mesmerizing and lulling, the latter mostly when each of V’s murders is investigated with little variation. The avalanche of issues is, for the most part, superficially dealt with, though the filmmakers do successfully leave you with the notion that a too-involved government is bad, bad, bad.
And what about V’s strategy of blowing up buildings? “I want this terrorist found,” the chancellor rages, “and I want him to know what terror really is.” The Wachowskis don’t quite deliver on that last part—but at least V’s revolution is no Revolutions.
It’s Big Tobacco, not Big Brother, that’s indicted in Thank You for Smoking, a satire based on a novel by Christopher Buckley about a spokesperson/spin doctor for the cigarette industry—or, as the character puts it, one of the few people in the world who “knows what it’s like to be truly despised.”
Not that Jason Reitman’s feature debut really shows us how that feels. With jaunty music, freeze frames on just-introduced characters, and even a cartoon or two—of, for example, a couple of airplanes when stats on various causes of death are trotted out—there’s little danger of taking Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) or his job too seriously. Not that he doesn’t: When Nick goes to a school—St. Euthanasius—to give a talk about what he does, he answers a little girl’s questions about her mother’s assertion that cigarettes are bad by throwing questions back at her about whether her mother is a doctor or scientist: “Well, she doesn’t sound like a credible expert, does she?” Nick urges the students not to take anyone else’s word on a subject: “Challenge authority! Find out for yourselves!” Even the teacher seems momentarily convinced.
Nick is so chipper and oily that he even triumphs on an Oprah episode featuring a 15-year-old lung-cancer patient. His son, Joey (Cameron Bright), asks questions about Dad’s dubious propaganda, but Nick answers simply, “If you argue correctly, you’re never wrong.” Still, the numbers are going down, and Nick’s tantrum-throwing boss, BR (J.K. Simmons), has to get his people together to come up with a new strategy to sell smokes. Everyone’s silent. “We sell cigarettes!” BR bellows. “And they’re cool, and available, and addictive. The job is almost done for us!” Nick finally suggests campaigning Hollywood to get actors smoking onscreen again, and he’s off to Los Angeles to get a movie made.
The tobacco industry isn’t the only target here. The press, particularly a “Washington Probe” reporter (Katie Holmes), takes a punch, too. So do the two friends Nick has regular steakhouse drinking sessions with: the spokespeople for the alcohol and firearms industries (Maria Bello and David Koechner). The three refer to themselves as the MOD Squad—for “Merchants of Death.” They like to discuss who’s in the most difficult position to spin the uproar du jour.
Reitman gets the dialogue and tone just right, and the performances are spot-on, too. Eckhart’s Nick is too personable to hate, Simmons is a terrific hardass, and even Robert Duvall gives his first unembarrassing turn in quite a while as a Southern tobacco patriarch. William H. Macy also makes an appearance as a flustered senator who’s out to hang Nick but never quite succeeds—especially after the tobacco lobbyist argues that the senator’s territory dishes out unhealthy fare, as well. (“The great state of Vermont will not apologize for its cheese!” Macy’s official stammers.) Eckhart and Bright also play their characters’ sometimes ridiculous bonding scenes—one occurs on a road trip during which both of them agree that they would take a bribe if it were large enough—with an assured wink.
It’s all in fun, but obviously there’s a message here—one of the many messages of V for Vendetta, in fact: You can’t trust anything or anybody, because even the worst of situations can be spun to look golden. The fact that there’s a doctor who can back up Nick’s slick sell with data says it all: “This man,” Nick says, “could disprove gravity.”CP