The directors of The Matrix make a movie where the hero is a faceless terrorist trying to blow up London. Yes, you read that right
By LEV GROSSMAN
These are not rhetorical questions. V for Vendetta, set for mid-March release in most markets, is that movie, and it is the most bizarre Hollywood production you will see (or refuse to see) this year. It's the kind of film that makes you ask questions like, Who thought this was a good idea?
It definitely started with a good idea. The man who had it was Alan Moore, probably the greatest writer in the history of comic books. In 1982 Moore — who also wrote Watchmen and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen — began publishing an almost unbearably dark series of comic books set in a dismal, dystopic future Britain ruled by an oppressive Orwellian government. V for Vendetta starred, instead of a superhero, a bitter, brilliant, at least half-insane resistance fighter known only as V, whose face was permanently hidden behind a grinning mask that, if you're English, you recognize as the face of Guy Fawkes. (Who — again, if you're English — you know as the proto-terrorist who tried and failed to blow up Parliament in 1605.)
V had superhuman strength — he was the product of a monstrous government medical experiment — mad fighting skills and a cruel sense of humor, and he used them to manipulate the media, assassinate officials in creative ways, stab people with big shiny knives and blow up buildings. Early in the comics he rescued a woman named Evey from government thugs, and she became his sidekick; later on he tortured Evey, to "help" her see his point of view. V was a freedom fighter, no question, but Moore never let you forget that he was also a terrorist, and as such he was both hero and villain. That was the sick, sad genius of the comic book: the government had taken everything from V, even his goodness.
You can see why all this would have appealed to Larry and Andy Wachowski, the band of brothers behind the Matrix trilogy. In the same way those movies did, V for Vendetta melds big ideas about power and liberation with futuristic blowuppy thrills. "I've made a lot of stupid action films," says Joel Silver, a producer on V. "But when we made The Matrix, we saw that people wanted more than that." In the mid-1990s, back before Keanu knew kung fu, the Wachowskis wrote a screenplay of V for Vendetta. When Matrix mania finally subsided in 2003, they had the time to get the movie made. Just as important, they'd earned Warner Bros. $600 million in the U.S. at the box office, and that kind of money buys you the kind of good will you need to make a risky film. Instead of directing it themselves, they tapped James McTeigue, who worked under them on the Matrix trilogy. (The Wachowskis no longer talk to the press, and their personal lives are the subject of considerable speculation. Larry, the older of the two, is a transvestite in a relationship with a Los Angeles dominatrix.)
The project they handed McTeigue was a tough one. Some of the challenges were cosmetic. For one thing, Evey would have to get her head shaved, on camera. But Portman was game. "The only scary thing was that it's the first time I've ever done anything on film where you don't have another chance," she says. "This was a one-time deal. There's a lot of pressure." For another, Portman's leading man would be spending the entire movie behind a mask and a big, black Herman's Hermits wig: you never once see his face. That was too much for James Purefoy, the first actor cast as V, who left the film four weeks into shooting. McTeigue managed to bring in Matrix veteran Hugo Weaving on short notice.
"I figured it's a very technical exercise — Does that work, does this work, does that work?" Weaving said last year on the set of V, tilting his head experimentally. "It's a beautiful mask, really exquisitely made. But making it live, that's the challenge. And I tend to bump into things a lot," he added. Even the kiss that V and Evey share in the movie presented highly technical smooching issues. "That was a giggle moment for me," Portman says. "They're like, Can you place your lips between his frozen lips?"
There were some noncosmetic challenges too — difficult, ideological challenges. V for Vendetta is a movie about a heroic terrorist. However unjust the regime he opposes — and we know it's unjust because it features a pedophile bishop, a jowl-shaking Big Brother figure, a spittle-spewing telepundit, concentration camps, institutionalized racism, religious intolerance and homophobia. V is a guy who goes around blowing up parts of London, and he likes his work. That was repugnant enough back when Moore wrote his comic book, two decades before Sept. 11. It's become even more so since last July, when terrorists actually did bomb three subway trains and a bus in London.
Everybody associated with the productions — Portman, McTeigue, Weaving, Silver — forcefully, insistently stresses that V is an ambiguous, ambivalent figure. They express their hope that the movie will spark debates about the definition of terrorism. Portman in particular does so: a recent Harvard grad still in the habit of philosophizing, she name-checks, among others, Gandhi, Elie Wiesel, Menachem Begin, George Washington and the Maccabees. Portman is also, lest we forget, Israeli-born. "In Israel you know tons of people who have been hurt by terrorist violence," she says, "and you know people who have committed violence. It's ever present in a way that you don't feel in the States."
She points out, quite correctly, that the question of what is and is not a legitimate use of violence has never been more vexed and that hyper-charged labels like "terrorist" aren't helping much to clarify matters. "I think the most important thing is that people will go home and fight about it," she says. "We all realize that at a certain point, violence might be the only means of effectively combatting injustice, but it's always going to be subjective — what injustice is great enough to provoke you to harm someone else?"
Here's another tough question: whether V for Vendetta is the movie that will start that conversation. The kind of delicate ambiguity that Portman talks about is hard to achieve within the narrow constraints of a popcorn movie — morally speaking, they tend to be shot in black and white — and V may come off as a bit too noble for the movie's good. As both the product of violence and its perpetrator, he should be doubly twisted. "What was done to me was monstrous!" V snarls. "And they created a monster," Evey replies. But if V plays as a Phantom of the Opera monster, a Beauty and the Beast monster, a monster with a sweet, sad center, he becomes less than he should be: a mere action hero. Maybe that's a lot of nuance to ask of an action movie, but terrorism is a subject that demands nothing less. Give poor, tortured V back his goodness, and you take away his greatness.