V for Vendetta
Produced and distributed by Warner Bros.
Directed by James McTeigue
Screenplay by Andy and Larry Wachowski
Thank You for Smoking
Produced by Room Nine Entertainment and ContentFilm
Written and directed by Jason Reitman from the novel by Chistopher Buckley
Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures
“Words will always retain their power.” So says the mysterious and much-abused V (Hugo Weaving), the masked vigilante cum political terrorist who swashes about in V for Vendetta, first-time director James McTeigue’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s would-be subversive comic strip. So take heed, all you high-schoolers. This latest avatar of action antics believes in word power. He is perfectly at home introducing himself to a startled young lady as
a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate. This visage [he means his oversized-grin mask], no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished; a vital voice once venerated, now vilified. . . . Yet verily, this vichyssoise of verbiage veers most verbose, so let me simply add that it is in my very great honor to meet you.
Whew! That’s enough to get you through three SATs, at least in the V for vocabulary category. As for grammar and syntax, I would not bet on its example unless you want to tumble into the fourth quartile.
And this is the film’s problem. It is all bombast and little sense. As such, it will appeal to a certain narrow segment of the youthful population along with many who are not so youthful, to judge by the preponderance of rapturous reviews from supposedly responsible film critics. Vendetta appeals to those who long for sophistication and mistake big words for its trademark. This is troubling. For, within this group, a percentage (one hopes tiny) may find the film’s romanticized violence a spur to action.
Taking his cue from Guy Fawkes, the Catholic rebel who attempted to blow up England’s Protestant parliament in 1605, V dresses in 17th-century garb and affects a dandyish verbal wit. (Why he sports a Cavalier’s long hair under a Puritan’s high conical straight-brimmed coptain, however, is more than I can figure out.) V is a man on a mission. He wants to blow up buildings, institutions, heads of state. Going well beyond Fawkes’ modest goal, V does not want to restore the true religion to Great Britain (he rather dislikes churches) but to institute universal anarchy. He believes fully liberated people will rule themselves spontaneously. Right from the Fawkes playbook.
The original comic book written by Moore and produced in serial installments from 1981 to 1988 was a protracted tirade attacking Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government. Like other liberals of the time, Moore was sure the Iron Lady was turning England into a fascist state. After all, she wanted to stop the dole and put layabouts to work. Members of her government had expressed concern about the influx of Muslims and Asians into the country. What’s more, her health officials even broached the possibility of quarantining AIDS patients. (An opportunity missed, as it turned out. How many tens of thousands might it have saved? Or is it fascist to raise this question?) So Moore created a dystopian state in the near future, 1997, in which the government has taken steps to eliminate foreigners and homosexuals and to spy on the rest of the population. The film updates this a bit. It is now 2020, and the government has armed itself with a weapons-grade virus, which it has turned on its own populace. Government officials reason that a scared citizenry is an obedient one. And it has worked. The Brits we see in the story’s background spend all their time in pubs sipping Watneys and watching the bar-side telly, visibly content to be under the fascist heel.
It is 1984 déjà vu—this time, however, with none of the wit nor the bite of Orwell’s nightmare. The film is content to show us John Hurt as the Leader, a head of state who alternately barks commands and threatens his staff from a theater-sized television screen. He demands they capture V, the one genuine rebel left in all England. Hurt is a good actor, but he is given only stock rodomontade to mouth here. Besides, who can take him seriously after having seen him play Winston Smith so affectingly 22 years ago? V, meanwhile, goes about his business. He blows up Old Bailey to the accompaniment of Tchaikovsky’s Overture to the War of 1812, having somehow arranged for it to be played on the lamplight speakers that are now part of London’s two-way public electronic-surveillance and communications system. Despite having nearly been burned to a cinder some years before while escaping internment in a government-run genetic-engineering lab, he handily dispatches well-armed government agents whenever they show up. It only takes a couple of short swords and a repertoire of whirling karate. (The film was produced by the Wachowski brothers of Matrix fame, as evident in its ungainly marriage of grand action choreography and stale, munchkin-sized ideas.) He even has time to save Evey, a puzzled-looking Natalie Portman playing a 17-year-old orphan. Coming upon her just as she is about to be raped by state curfew enforcers, he kills her assailants, then takes her back to his basement lair. There, he chastely falls in love with the waif as he educates her in the ways of higher terrorism. This includes his plan to make good on Guy Fawkes’ abortive assault. He has prepared an underground trainload of chemical fertilizer to blow up both houses of Parliament, along with Big Ben. As he informs Evey, “Blowing up buildings can change the world.” Right. Just consider how much better off we are for having been blown up on September 11 and then blowing up Baghdad in turn. Nothing like explosives to clear the air.
Vendetta was supposed to open on Guy Fawkes’ Day (November 5), when Brits set off fireworks and their children sell paper effigies of Fawkes—“A penny for the old Guy”—to be burned to everyone’s delighted edification. But Warner Brothers got cold feet after the London Underground bombings set off by Muslim terrorists last July and decided to delay the release—not long enough, by my clock. This is, after all, a narrative that attacks its fictional government for, among other things, having deported its resident Muslims. Audience members might get confused and mistake such a policy for statesmanlike foresight, thus undermining the film’s boldly antifascist message.
Vendetta trumpets its devotion to the power of language and ideas. At one point, V claims he cannot be killed because behind his mask is not a man but an idea. What is the idea? I’m not sure, really. Something about the world of do-what-you-will total freedom, a boy’s own fondest wish. But put that aside. Vendetta is really devoted to the blow-’em-up-big school of filmmaking. I am giving nothing away in mentioning that V succeeds in exploding Parliament. The Fawkes-ian fireworks have been playing incessantly in the television promos for the film. It is another special-effects marvel meant to be a climactic cleansing of all the bothersome rules and regulations of social life. But what it really does is explode the film’s pretension to be taken seriously.
Thank You for Smoking also blazons its love of language, but with considerably more justice than V displays. It also outdoes V in the Orwellian sweepstakes.
Smoking is a clever, knowing tribute to word merchants, those hacks who toil tirelessly in the cause of shaping public opinion at the behest of their various corporate masters. In this quest, they do not blink at twisting words until they say the opposite of what they are commonly supposed to mean. A p.r. flak for the alcohol industry proudly sits on the Moderation Council; a gun lobbyist speaks confidently of keeping the peace. Then we have Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart, whose smile has never been more charmingly feral). He fervently asserts that those helplessly addicted to nicotine are merely exercising their constitutional freedom of choice whenever they light up. Nick, who flaks for The Academy of Tobacco Studies, a.k.a The Tobacco Institute, explains it all to his ten-year-old son: “If you argue correctly, you’re never wrong.”
Argument is Nick’s game, and, like any other accomplished athlete, he plays not only for his ample paycheck but for the adrenalin high of the contest. No engagement is too inconsequential for his talents. Visiting his son’s fifth-grade class to talk about his “profession,” he’s revving on just as many cylinders as he fires when appearing on national television. Waiting in the hallway to address the kids, he meets a fireman dad on the same uplift mission. This rugged individual carries the tools of his trade, including a first-aid oxygen tank and mask. Nick is unfazed, even though he carries nothing but his kamikaze arsenal of superheated gab designed to pump something far less life-supporting into unwary lungs. Introduced by his son’s teacher, he glibly announces that he conducts public relations for tobacco. A girl in the third row protests, “My mother says smoking is bad for you.” Nick’s smile widens measurably. He relishes this innocent challenge. “Is your mommy a doctor?” he asks sweetly. When the little girl shakes her head no, he points out reasonably enough that, this being so, she could hardly qualify as an expert. He then launches into a lecture on the need to be wary of unfounded assertions. He tells the children that they will be told many things throughout their lives, and it is important not to accept everything uncritically. They should not mistake unfounded opinions for immutable truths. “You need to make up your own minds for yourselves,” he counsels them sagely, to the teacher’s growing dismay. The kids sit in their desks, looking up at him open-mouthed, clearly dazzled by his verbal legerdemain. Only his son takes exception, muttering to himself, “Please, don’t ruin my childhood.”
Director Jason Reitman, son of Ivan, includes many such scenes, and it would be ignoble of me to deprive you of their impact by retailing them here. Instead, I shall briefly touch on the provenance and circumstance of this amusing, if overly filtered, satire.
The film is an adaptation of the 1994 novel of the same title by Christopher Buckley, son of William F., and it suffers—seriously at moments—from being 12 years late. As in the novel, Nick is always coming up with superbly cynical initiatives, but now they are jarringly passé. Taking fire from antismoking crusaders, he recommends the Academy fund an antismoking campaign of its own, directed at children, “our most important resource.” The double entendre is precious. Kids, of course, are smoking’s first responders. Further, Nick knows that they will ignore public-service messages when enticed by his other plan. He intends to pay Hollywood producers to have big-name stars smoke on screen. In 1994, such shenanigans weren’t exactly new, but the general public was far less aware of them. Today, in the wake of so many successful suits waged against Big Tobacco, we have Philip Morris covering its future assets with ads solemnly warning us about the perils of smoking. Furthermore, along with its stock-market coverage, Time routinely reports which actors got what amounts to light up while rocketing to the next galactic frontier in the latest space extravaganzas. On the other hand, Reitman unaccountably leaves out some of Buckley’s more inspired moments. My favorite is Nick’s deft feint when the FDA demands a skull and crossbones be put on every cigarette package. Nick advises manufacturers that they can turn this lemon into lemonade by embracing the illustration and making it a product logo. Why not a brand of smokes labeled “Death”? Its appeal to histrionic risk takers, better known as adolescents, would be irresistible.
There is much to like about Smoking. As did the novel, it satirizes the tobacco industry, its hired flaks, and the antismoking zealots in roughly equal measures. I particularly enjoyed William Macy as the virtuous Vermont senator trying to further his career by noisily trampling on tobacco. He is so solemnly self-important that you can hardly wait for Nick to give him a word-power lesson. Then there is the leathery Sam Elliot as the former Marlboro Man, the one-time cowpoke whose lungs have turned to Swiss cheese, thanks to all the remunerative puffing he indulged in on the range. Elliott’s phlegm-clogged growl has rarely been put to better use.
In the end, however, Reitman makes the mistake Buckley did. He goes softly sentimental in trying to make Nick a nice guy. This material requires the satiric skills of a Preston Sturges or a Billy Wilder, directors who would never have let any of the guilty—or innocent, for that matter—off the hook. Still, Smoking is pungent enough to light your fire.