V for Very Good
By Lady Liberty
V for Vendetta
*** 1/2 out of **** stars
I've read early reviews of V for Vendetta with some interest and not a little trepidation. In general terms, the movie critics have appreciated the film (such luminary critics as Roger Ebert, Rolling Stone, and USA Today have given the movie 3 or 3 and a half stars out of 4; others, such as the Village Voice — which calls the film "supremely tasteless" — haven't been so kind; some have even called the movie propaganda in and of itself, and which "blurs the line between freedom fighter and terrorist"). Although I understand the viewpoint of the latter critics, as far as the movie — and its thought-provoking subject matter — goes, I'm solidly on the side of the former.
V for Vendetta takes place in the near future (2020) in London, England. After disengaging itself from a "war America started," terror attacks — including an horrific biological attack that killed thousands — have resulted in a totalitarian government there. Using tools ranging from strictly enforced curfews to surveillance cameras, and from "disappearing" political activists to government-controlled news outlets, Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt) is firmly in control. That control is exercised, of course, for the security and good of England's citizens.
A man known only as V (Hugo Weaving) disagrees. His stance against the Chancellor's government is two-fold: he hates what the government has done to him personally, and he loves freedom. In a series of violent attacks he personally orchestrates, he sets out to prove his point to the largely oblivious population. Through no real fault of her own, a young woman named Evey (Natalie Portman) meets the mysterious masked V in a dark alley where V saves her virtue from a trio of government-appointed citizen informers (aptly called "fingermen").
Before Evey goes home, V invites her to see something. Standing beside him on a rooftop, Evey listens as speakers on the streets suddenly begin to boom with the strains of the 1812 Overture. Then, as London's citizens awaken and peer out their windows to see what's happening, the nearby Bailey (courthouse) explodes in a cloud of fire and spectacular fireworks. Evey is understandably terrified by V and his actions, but her fears of V don't outweigh her fears of the government so she tells no one about what she's seen when she returns to work the next day.
Employed by a government television station, Evey doesn't occupy a place of authority but is positioned quite well enough to know that the news anchors often must relay stories that they personally know to be untrue. That knowledge is only further cemented when the newscasters try to pretend that the explosions the night before were the result of a planned demolition. It's also more than enough to make her fear that a visit from the state police could be targeting her. In reality, however, it's not her the police are after. It's V himself.
V is at the television station this November 5 to claim responsibility for the bombing of the Bailey as well as to challenge the people of London to join him on the following November 5 — Guy Fawkes Day — to destroy Parliament itself. V only narrowly escapes the police who are there to arrest him, and again by accident, Evey gets involved. V tells Evey much, including more about the fate of her own dead parents. But she's still torn between the world she's always known and her fears, and the world that might be if only she can overcome those same fears. As a result, she's also conflicted as to whether V is good or evil, and whether she should work to stop him — or to do all she can to help.
Meanwhile, the ongoing machinations of the Chancellor and his minions, including the apparent head of an intelligence unit, Mr. Creedy (Tim Pigott-Smith) and a police inspector, Finch (Stephen Rea) serve to show just how far a tyrant will go to hold on to power. But when the anguish of Evey's friend, Dietrich (Stephen Fry) and a woman she'll never meet (Valerie, played by Natasha Wightman) offer a heart-rending counterpoint from the other side, Evey isn't the only one whose loyalties and motivations are conflicted!
Natalie Portman proved she can really act in her superlative turn in 2004's Closer. She stays at that level here, with her speechless terror while the authorities shave her head eloquent far beyond words, and her quiet courage evident even as she acknowledges her own great fears. Hugo Weaving's face is never seen, but his voice alone is terrifying, poignant, and powerful by turns. Some well choreographed body language merely adds to the effect of a man whose expressions are invisible, but whose emotions are always clear. The supporting cast is also very good, particularly Stephen Fry who offers up a wonderful rendering of a publicly resigned man who slowly lets his own disillusionment grow into some brave action of his own.
Though much touted as being a movie from the same men who brought us the brilliant Matrix series, in reality the Wachowski brothers are responsible for the screenplay alone (they're also credited as producers). Based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore (who doesn't like the movie and has publicly disavowed it), the Wachowski brothers actually worked on V for Vendetta before they set it aside to do The Matrix. Director James McTeigue is instead behind the cameras here, and he ably brings a complicated story to life (his experience as an assistant director on such "little" projects as the three Matrix movies and Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones may have been helpful).
The sets are spectacular and the effects even more so. But I maintain that it's the story itself that makes V for Vendetta as impressive as it is (whatever Alan Moore may personally think — I've not read the original, so I can't comment on whether or not I agree with his opinion). I really enjoyed my movie-going experience simply from the standpoint of suspense and entertainment; but what really got to me was the view of the near future and its horrifying plausibility. Though I had a hard time divorcing the two points for myself, I can tell you that my friend's 17 year-old son and a buddy saw V for Vendetta this weekend as well, and neither has shut up about it since. They don't care anything about politics, and yet they both loved it. So did I.
POLITICAL NOTES: There is literally no moment of this film that doesn't have a political impact. From the moral judgments of a government formed on a religious conservative basis to the methods of its tight control over its population, there's plenty to think about and certainly more than a little implication to our own present-day circumstances to ponder.
In the movie, political activists are watched and sometimes punished; in America today, we know that, at a minimum, many are surveilled. On screen, we see the "for your own good" and "for your safety" extolled by government officials; today, more than a few laws, including the freedom-stealing PATRIOT Act, are based on those very notions — and are largely supported by the public as a result. In the film, "fingermen" are everywhere to report on the activities of their fellows; on more than one occasion, we've been encouraged to do the same, up to and including the infamous TIPS program and even a law that would make us criminals if we didn't report known drug use.
There are frankly many, many more parallels to name, and most of them are at least as awful as the few listed above. V for Vendetta takes place in the near future, and it's all but impossible to watch the movie, as enjoyable as it is, without wondering just how "near" that future really is. Perhaps an early warning can help us avoid the nasty fate — as well as the very violent ultimate release from that fate — depicted in the movie. And while V for Vendetta is certainly not a movie to be taken literally, there's some very real and legitimate early warning here that I personally believe should be heeded.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: V for Vendetta is rated R for "strong violence, [and] some language." This is not a movie suitable for young children either in its overall topic or its rendering. From its opening scenes of the execution of Guy Fawkes in 1605 to the penultimate (beautifully choreographed, I might add) fight, the blood and guts are fairly graphic. In addition, everything from Shakespeare to classic movies are quoted or somehow otherwise involved, and the politics is sometimes complicated in and of itself. This is not a film for the faint of heart or those unable to understand such vocabulary or ideals. But for the rest, whether they consider V a terrorist or a freedom fighter in the end, there's so much of thought-provoking value here that I'm inclined to consider V for Vendetta required viewing.
Find Me Guilty
*** out of **** stars
Okay, I know how many of you love true confessions, and here's mine: I'd pay to watch Vin Diesel eat cookies. I fell in love with him in the darkly brilliant Pitch Black, and I thought he was perfectly cast in xXx. I don't buy a lot of movies, but I own those (along with the much-maligned follow-up to Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick). I didn't know much about Find Me Guilty, but I knew Vin Diesel was in it so it was a given I'd buy a ticket despite having last seen him in the formulaic and awful The Pacifier. What a thrill it was to see not only Vin Diesel on screen, but to see him in a really good movie to boot!
Find Me Guilty tells the true story of the federal government's RICO case against some alleged members of New Jersey's Luchese crime family. With 76 counts, 20 defendants, and a mountain of exhibits and witnesses from both sides, the case resulted in the longest criminal trial ever conducted (some 21 months). Among the 20 defendants: Giacomo "Jackie Dee" DiNorscio (Vin Diesel).
Jackie is already behind bars and facing a 30 year sentence when he's also named in the extensive RICO indictment. The lead prosecutor in the case, Sean Kierney (Linus Roache) offers Jackie a deal he doesn't believe he can refuse: a mitigation on his drug sentence if he'll testify in the RICO case. Jackie turns him down flat. Kierney is upset, but he still has a witness he believes can ace the case. That Jackie happens to have a relationship with that witness is incidental (though it does serve to make parties on both sides of the case just a little nervous).
When the 20 defendants and their defense attorneys appear in court, Judge Finestein (Ron Silver) asks Jackie about his defense attorney. Jackie, who is none too pleased with his lawyer after losing his drug case and receiving such a stiff sentence, announces he intends to serve as his own counsel. The judge works to dissuade him; the 19 defense attorneys in the room are also not happy with the idea. But against all advice, Jackie insists and so is permitted to defend himself.
The apparent lead defense attorney, Ben Klandis (Peter Dinklage) calms the other attorneys with a "let's wait and see if he causes any damage" attitude. At the same time, he subtly helps Jackie in small ways. But Jackie, either with or without advice, is unstoppable. He doesn't know how to keep his mouth shut, and has a terrible tendency to speak his mind. Eventually, the judge does what he can to rein him in with contempt charges.
Meanwhile, despite Jackie's obvious legal ineptness, the prosecution is worried. It seems the jurors are laughing at Jackie's jokes. Worse, one is overheard telling another that she thinks Jackie is cute. Kierney takes what underhanded action he can to ensure Jackie is as uncomfortable as possible in his holding cell. Unbeknownst to him, he's got some help in that department. Jackie's purported boss and co-defendant, Nick Calabrese (Alex Rocca) is no friend to him, either.
Written and directed by noted director Sidney Lumet, Find Me Guilty is fascinating in no small part because almost all of the court dialogue wasn't written by Lumet. It consists, instead, of actual court transcripts made during the real trial. Of course, none of it would work if not for the quality of acting from the men who play each of the major roles, and to a man (and in the case of Annabella Sciorra's brief but scorching turn as Jackie's estranged wife, to a woman) they live up to the requirement.
As much as I like Vin Diesel, I think it's perfectly fair to say he's best known as an action hero in the vein of Arnold Schwarzenegger rather than an actor (and he's good at it, thank you very much). In Find Me Guilty, though, he's gained weight, sports hair on his previously shaven skull, and typically appears onscreen in either an ill-fitting suit or jailhouse garb. He couldn't be further from the action hero, and yet he's just fantastic. Both I and the friend who saw the movie with me couldn't stop talking about just how good he was in this role.
That's not to say that others weren't also very good, because they were. Peter Dinklage in particular was terrific, exhibiting just the right amount of brilliance and solemnity as required in the courtroom, and the same time being a very human and decent guy (dare I say "for a lawyer?") behind the scenes. Linus Roache also did a fine job as the prosecutor utterly consumed by this case and his unwavering determination to put each and every one of the defendants behind bars. Meanwhile, Ron Silver took what could have been a merely authoritarian role and injected some humanity and even a little humor into it as the trial slowly moves along.
The script, even though much was taken from transcripts, also went outside the courtroom where creative license certainly had to be taken. To Lumet's great credit, the lines spoken by characters under those circumstances meshed with entirely believable reality with those heard inside the courtroom. The editing was on a few occasions a bit choppy, but as a whole both the cinematography and film edits contributed almost invisibly to the time and place the movie depicts.
I honestly don't remember this trial (it was conducted in the 1980's), but the movie made it seem very real. In fact, it was real enough that today it almost seems a true memory for me, and that's saying something for the quality of the drama (and honestly, the comedy, too) presented on screen. But better yet, my friend and I both enjoyed every minute of Find Me Guilty, and that's what movies — no matter the subject — are really all about.
POLITICAL NOTES: There's been much made of racketeering laws and both their utility and their potential misuse. In this case, I can't honestly say the laws were misused, but certainly the very expensive (in both time and money) Luchese family trial is an indicator that perhaps some consideration should be given as to RICO's strict applicability (in fairness, perhaps it has been since this particular trial was conducted). Otherwise, I don't know how much can be learned from such a film outside its historical context except for this one very important message: juries have all the power in the end. It would behoove both sides of every court case to remember that, and even more importantly, for each of us as potential jurors to keep that in mind as well.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: Find Me Guilty is rated R for "strong language, some violence." Most of what you'll see and hear in the movie isn't particularly objectionable for the average 14 year-old. The real danger here for younger children, I think, is to come away looking at gangsters as heroic figures. While the movie makes no bones about the significant grey area between black and white in this case, it's also tempting to come down solidly on the side of the alleged bad guys. While you and I can make various distinctions and offer some legitimate rationale for those distinctions, younger viewers can't (or won't). As a result, if you intend to let your kids see this movie, I'd encourage you to see it along with them and discuss it afterwards to inject your own lessons where you feel those on screen have fallen short — or have been skewed — from your own.
Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at email@example.com.
Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!