Bigger, badder brother
A new Hollywood film poses questions about terrorism that are as relevant - and controversial - now as they were 25 years ago, writes Richard James Havis
A GOVERNMENT THAT keeps its subjects in check by playing on terrorism fears? A government that spies on its citizens? A government that tortures in the name of freedom? Some might think this is a description of the Bush administration - but it's a fictional British government in the film V for Vendetta.
Written by brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski, creators of The Matrix trilogy, and directed by James McTeigue, the film is adapted from a British graphic novel about a lone revolutionary who tries to overthrow a fascist state. Written by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, the novel was published in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government was in power. The film updates events to a contemporary - but alternative - Britain and takes a swipe at the post-September 11 policies.
The main character is called V - a masked superhero who models his look on Guy Fawkes, one of the instigators of a failed plot to blow up Britain's Houses of Parliament in 1605. V believes people are better at governing themselves than are the politicians they elect.
As a Hollywood production, V for Vendetta is a bold marriage of politics and entertainment. Concerns about the erosion of human rights by governments under the guise of anti-terrorist laws are clearly put. It also asks a question that's almost taboo in the US: Is there a difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist?
McTeigue is proud of his hero's revolutionary credentials. 'Some people have called him an anarchist, but I think he's more of a classic revolutionary,' he says during an interview in New York. 'What he's saying is that there's another way to go forward. You don't have to go where the government is telling you to go.
'Politicians are meant to be the voice of the people. But when they get into power, the tables are turned and they start telling the people what to do. Everything they do is to serve themselves. V wants to redress the balance - to put the power back in the hands of the people, where it belongs.'
V for Vendetta will doubtlessly be vilified by the right-wing media. In the US, the producers are preparing for accusations that they condone terrorism. But to invoke discussion is the point, says McTeigue. Terrorism should be discussed, or we'll never discover the motives of those who participate in it.
The novel was written 25 years ago, but it has a lot of relevance today, he says. 'The writers were confronting the same ideas back then as we are now,' McTeigue says. 'They were posing a question: Is V a freedom fighter or a terrorist? Is there a difference between the two? I think it's important to ask these questions. Terrorism doesn't happen for no reason. We have to think about why it's happening. We have to try to find out why it's going on. We have to investigate what motivates these people.
'V doesn't think he's a terrorist. He wouldn't call himself that. I think there's a difference between a terrorist and freedom fighter, too. It depends on where you're looking at it from. Was Nelson Mandela a terrorist or a freedom fighter? Was Che Guevara a terrorist? Were the founding fathers of America who rebelled against their British rulers terrorists or freedom fighters? All of these have been called terrorists at some point, but we wouldn't say that now.'
Wire-tapping, Guantanamo Bay, the Patriot Act and social issues such as paedophile priest scandals are also referred to. McTeigue says many of these issues came from the original novel. Political concerns and government methods are prone to repeat themselves, he says.
'They wrote the novel during a reactionary period - the Thatcher government in Britain,' he says. 'They were trying to write a story about where a democratic society would go if its government's powers went unchecked. It was their view of how Britain could end up if things continued the way they were going. Some people will think the film is only about Bush's America. But I think it's about all societies and democracies.'
Abuse of power exists far and wide, he says. 'These things are not only happening in the US. They go on elsewhere. A lot of the stuff you see in the film was shot before we knew about it happening in the US. Like the wire-tapping.'
As with the novel, many of the beliefs and methods of the film's ruling party are modelled on Nazism, including a belief in the superiority of the Aryan race, manipulation through propaganda, and a desire to change society by brute force. McTeigue says he also wanted to show that political methods have changed since the 1930s. 'Governments operate at a far more insidious level now,' he says. 'The idea is that you don't even know what they're doing - your life seems normal and free, but in reality you're being controlled.
'I think we've seen the end of that kind of visible Nazi totalitarianism. Governments today aren't so in your face about their methods. So I thought that it would be interesting to make the society in V a comfortable society, which is different to the depressed, post-nuclear one of the novel. That's how it is now in the west. I wanted to show how this could happen in a comfortable, middle-class society.'
Although he admits the film is political, McTeigue says it's still good entertainment. It's not a political tract.
'Nobody wants to go to the cinema to be preached to. So I think it's interesting to put political ideas inside entertainment. Terrorism is a big part of our lives today, and we discuss it. But there are a lot of other ideas in the film as well.'
V for Vendetta opens next Thursday