Ice Cold War: Red Army (B+)

Possibly the most telling revelation in the hockey (and so much more than hockey) documentary Red Army?

If it seemed like the almost-but-never-quite-a-war between the Soviet Union and the United States was actually being fought on the ice, with stick-wielding skaters as soldiers, it’s because – at least for the Soviets – it essentially was, and the skaters essentially were.

Director Gabe Polsky – in a fun, graphically arresting documentary – recounts the saga of the Центральный Спортивный Клуб Армии, known colloquially as the Red Army Club. This examination of the Soviet sporting mindset is filtered mostly through the recollections of Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, a soldier (and yes, he was a drafted soldier, as were all the members of his team) who was the undisputed hockey star of the Soviet Union from five years before the Miracle on Ice until five years after it, and struggled mightily with higher ups in the Soviet military (including his coach, installed by the KGB) before being allowed to play in the NHL without any of his contract being sent back to the USSR.

This is the story, then, of the all-too-familiar (Miracle, Rocky IV, etc) American underdog complex of 1980s sports, but told told from the perspective of Ivan Drago.

It’s a fun twist, and revealing in its own disarming way.

The main point is this: to demythologize our deeply-embedded notion of Soviet athletes as monosyllabic steroidal hunks of learned doctrine. This mission is helped along immensely by Fetisov, one of the more vivid interview subjects a “talking heads” style film like this could hope for. Slava is charming, well-spoken, and far enough removed from both his highs and lows to add a wry, ironic perspective to most of the proceedings (though notably, watching the Miracle on Ice game still dims the twinkle in his eye). He’s also ornery and stubborn – Polsky goes out of his way to show us that his subject is not a trained monkey reciting the filmmaker’s hoped-for script. As soon as a distracted Slava raises a middle finger to an inquiring Polsky within the film’s opening sequence, we are reassured in knowing that what we’re getting isn’t Polsky speaking through Slava – Polsky would have an easier time blowing out a forest fire – but Slava unfiltered.

It’s a neat trick – it lends an air of authenticity, important when dealing with a subject like the Cold War, which still has people who were on the “front line” tight-lipped to this day – but it is a bit cute. Polsky uses a similar device to defang the KGB. The seasoned KGB spook he’s interviewing – the guy who went along with the team to places like Canada to ensure none of them would defect – is occasionally interrupted by what appears to be his adorable Russian granddaughter, who will hop in the frame and remind the audience of a few things: that modern little girls in Russia don’t know what the KGB is, that many years have passed since the fall of the Soviet Union, and that even KGB agents grow into adorable old men who eat ice cream with their granddaughters. That KGB agent isn’t just there to recite his interpretation of facts; he lends atmosphere, context, and more than a little bit of metatextual hindsight.

So yes, Polsky’s documentary may be presented in the fairly straight-forward talking heads format, with no narration or personal editorializing, but the director’s guiding hand is obvious in these peaks behind the curtain. He has an innate narrative sense. Look at how he contrasts the Red Army coaches: he presents the jolly, red-nosed eccentric Anatoli Tarasov as a mix between a Soviet Santa Claus and Yoda, and really does a number on his KGB-installed replacement Viktor Tikhonov, who may as well be hockey’s Gran Moff Tarkin.

I’m sure there’s evidence out there that would complicate both of these readings, but Polsky keeps it simple so that – when Slava, feeling exploited and missused by Tikhonov, takes a stand and leaves the Red Army and is unofficially banned from pretty much every hockey institution – a narrative circle is closed and an immense feeling of catharsis is triggered when the padowan returns to his disgraced, hobbled master, Tarasov, for the training that will keep him in shape for his imminent victory lap in America. It’s poetic. It’s perfect.

It would be too perfect if the story ended here, with Fetisov freed to earn the big capitalist dollars in the good ol’ USA and the Soviet Union whimpering red-faced and defeated. Instead, the documentary truly takes off in its third act as it faces the complicated reality for Russian superstars in an America that still resented them. In many ways, American teammates, coaches, and fans were as cruel as the Soviets had been to the Fetisovs and their ilk; they had no way of knowing what a ballsy move Fetisov had made in essentially telling Soviet higher-ups to shove it and using his immense celebrity to make an unprecedented move. He was just Ivan Drago in ice skates, the face of the red Army hockey team in a New Jersey Devils jersey. The situation uses the sports underdog complex we so love to further humanize the Russians while also speaking, as so much of this doc does, to the sociopolitical.

Vindication for Slava and many of his teammates, now cast-offs, came when they were assembled by Scotty Bowman on the Detroit Wed Wings and allowed to replicate thier nearly telepathic ice ballet by a coach who appreciated rather than resented the Russian system of play. The documentary doesn’t dote on it, but many of the hockey star’s late-career and post-career achievements color our ultimate understanding of a figure like Fetisov. He could have been an exile from his homeland, but when he won the Stanley Cup, he fought to bring it to Russia. This tugs at the heartstrings. But… During many of his interviews, he wears a Sochi Olympics shirt, and we come to find out that, during filming, he is actually working under Putin to help plan the now divisive 22nd Winter Games. He and many of his teammates, after fighting with resolve to part ways with the Red Army, have returned to offer a helping hand. Having told us this, Polsky leaves us without commenting too much on the current regime. Are we proud of these Red Army stars for returning to their homeland to act as benevolent Tarasovs for a new generation of Russian sports fans? Or are we dissapointed that they have become a new generation of Tikhonovs, enforcing the doctrine of an increasingly dark regime. For once, Polsky keeps out of the way and lets us demythologize this conundrum on our own.

Spinning Its Wheels: Furious 7 (C+)

As big a game as we, as a culture, talk when it comes to the ubiquity of sequels, franchises, and the attendant fatigue that comes with them, we’ve rarely had occasion to tackle something like the Fast and Furious franchise. Something this massive, lumbering, unwieldy, convoluted, and – on the flip side – brilliant, awe-inspiring, and utterly cinematic is almost entirely unique. Perhaps only the James Bond films, the Harry Potter franchise, and the current Marvel Cinematic Universe have built to a place quite like this one, a place where their seventh film (or beyond) wasn’t some tired retread or affront to the memory of fans, but instead established the series as a continuing and well-regarded institution of the cinematic arts. Of those, only the Fast & Furious series couldn’t get the principles of its cast to return for its second and/or third installments, seemingly relegating the franchise to forgotten speed-freak curio status.

These films are 21st Century Cinema’s Strange Symphony. Where most contemporary tentpoles are at least adapted from other works, it is entirely original, based on no existing property (unless you count car makes and models). It is unabashedly goofy (in an adorably tone-deaf way initially, though now, endearingly and artfully). Its melodies combine elements – revving cars, roaring explosions – that everyone finds cacophonous in just about every other composition (especially when the composer is Michael Bay). It is also burdened with the unique distinction of nearly forcing everyone in its audience outside of true diehards to nod off or duck out of the concert hall during its third movement.

Everyone has some snippet of the symphony they don’t love; for most it’s that sojourn to Tokyo. (For me it’s Letty’s amnesia.) Many would argue that more than half the movements in the symphony are nothing more than mediocre. And yet – and YET – if film historians aren’t using this series 100 years hence as a case study for the ways it typifies the blockbuster culture of the early 2000s… and for the ways it defies and confounds just about everything we’d expect from said culture, then film historians 100 years in the future probably aren’t doing their jobs very well.

Fast Five is, for many, the peak of not just this still-in-progress symphony but of action cinema of a recent vintage, period. A heist movie set in Rio, it may as well have been a standalone movie for as little as it had to do with the street-racing drama that had come before it. It also could not have existed, or assembled the group of actors and themes it did, without the first four films (whatever their merits) having already done most of the heavy lifting. It felt simultaneously weighty – in the way it assembled the previously segregated gangs of racers, and an already insane amount of continuity, under one Robin Hood-steal-from-the-rich umbrella, giving us a franchise that felt as diverse and representational as its audience, which is still novel four years later – and light as air. None of this continuity seemed to weigh Fast Five down at all. If you hated Tokyo Drift, that was okay; Fast Five was going to make sure you loved Fast Five.

Furious 7 feels heavier. Part of this is out of necessity: Paul Walker’s death came abruptly, halfway through what should have been a long life and long career, and halfway through production on this film. This necessitated rewrites and ensured a sense of finality would color this movie even if there are countless more Fast films yet to come.

If we were grading on a curve, then Furious 7 would get a massive boost for managing to pull together a full, fleshed out, and fitting farewell storyline for a character who had been the lynchpin of the franchise from the word “go” (or in the parlance of the films’, from the moment a scantily clad woman dropped both her hands and ducked between two oncoming cars) in spite of the fact that the actor who played him could no longer perform (a fact which, as is well-known publicly, left the rest of the case in legitimate and ongoing mourning).

Paul Walker’s Brian is a major part of Furious 7. He is always present, in on the action, playing off the other characters. There’s never any plot device that sidelines him in an overly obvious way; by that metric, an uninformed viewer might accidentally assume that it was the actor who plays Hobbes, rehabbing in the hospital for most of the film’s runtime, who had met an untimely end and not the guy who is in nearly every scene. At a certain point, I stopped trying to gauge which scenes had been played out by real Walker and which had been fudged using body doubles, CGI, and archival audio. Taking stock at the end of the film, I had simply assumed that only some action work and an obvious climactic car scene had been manipulated. Let it be a testament to movie magic, then, that in truth it was actually much (MUCH) more all-encompassing than that and I was blissfully none the wiser.

Still, even if nothing about Brian seems that off, something about the film does.

Reversing Out of the Driveway

Furious 7 begins in media res – we don’t find out until after an imposing speech from Declan Shaw (Jason-mutha-f’in-Statham) to his comatose brother that an entire throwdown has already occurred. We have to play catch up as we follow Declan out of the hospital and see the aftermath of what he has already done. This subterfuge right out the gate is a brilliant move on the part of new director James Wan. It shows confidence. Confidence that we’ll play along, that we’ll follow him wherever he’ll take us. Confidence that he can live up to the promise previous director Justin Lin made when he brought Statham into the picture for a continuity-solidifying seconds-long cameo.

It’s also just about the last time for almost an hour that Furious 7 stays out ahead of the curve and actually leads its audience somewhere it doesn’t expect to go. Because now the film proceeds to pretend that the previous film’s post-credit tag doesn’t exist. Maybe, for some, it doesn’t (there are still actually people who, at a film like Fast Five or Iron Man 3, get up as soon as the credits role as if they have some important appointment they might miss; with how bad post-credit teases of recent vintage have been, they may be the lucky ones), but for someone who saw Declan blow up Han and finally close the circle on Tokyo Drift’s time displacement, for someone hoping for forward moment, this is downright painful.

We now spend an almost unfathomable amount of time learning three things we already know – Declan Shaw kills Han, Dom Toretto goes to Tokyo after Han’s death, and Letty has amnesia. Until Kurt Russell shows up and blessedly gets the plot moving after Han’s funeral, this is really all Furious 7 is; an in-depth flashback examining events that were pretty nicely summed up in much shorter, much better scenes in previous films. The swerving and speeding will still come, but first Furious 7 has to reverse slowly out of the driveway. In the course of doing so it even brings back Lucas Black as Shane, pretending to talk to Dom mere seconds after they last interacted on film nine years ago. We can now do wonders with movie magic. We can make it seem like Paul Walker was present for scenes in which he could not have been present. But we cannot ensure that Lucas Black (who was already an unconvincing high schooler in 2003) does not wear every one of those nine intervening years on his face.

The only new material in the film’s opening act deals with Letty’s amnesia. Now maybe this is a personal bias, but amnesia is a pretty silly plot device by any metric. I understand that, scientifically, it is an all-too-real affliction, but it still seems like something a bad screenwriter came up with to make sure something that needed to be conveniently forgotten was. Such is the case with Letty in the previous Fast and Furious film. Her amnesia dragged down that sixth installment even when it was a necessary evil (how else to explain Letty’s extended absence?) but, once that plot necessity was fulfilled, I fully expected it to be swept under the rug. Instead, it is used in Furious 7 not for any discernable plot reason, but as an “important emotional struggle.” Translation: a crutch.

Letty is having trouble adjusting to what she is being told is her “real” life. This is a life she doesn’t remember. It seems like a nice life, and the lumbering fellow who gazes at her with googoo eyes seems decent, but all she knows of her life to this point is a terrorist cell and a grave with her name on it. To some extent, this is just filler to pad a runtime – something for non-Brian characters to deal with that has absolutely no consequence on the story. Still, it could be a pretty okay hook. But it necessitates an unfortunate nostalgic detour even further back into franchise mythology (further even than Lucas Black drifting in Tokyo), all the way back to film number one and its NOS-fueled street races. It’s a neat idea: Dom and Letty have built a street race utopia where no innocent bystanders can get hurt and no one has to listen to police scanners or block roads. There is racial harmony, none of the segregated posturing of that first Fast film. Still, it feels extremely retrograde in one aspect – the way it ogles women. It helps little that a woman wins the race when every other woman in the scene (hi there Iggy Azalea?) is fetishized. As the camera crawls up and down the body of the “starter girl,” making sure to catch her from behind as her skirt flaps up revealing her thong, it feels less like an acknowledgment of where this series started (pretty much every film has featured a street race scene like this) or celebration of a cultural milieu, and more like a palate cleanser for the male gaze. “Hey male gaze, there’ll probably be tears coming from your gazing eyes later because of the whole Paul Walker thing, but before we get there, how about… this!”

Bro-oap Opera

It’s important to remember – and easy to forget – that as sensitive and progressive as these films have become in most respects, they are still catering to the “bro” element – that element of energy-drink-hoarding, GTA players to whom it is easiest to attribute the franchise’s success. (Which is utter nonsense at this point; Furious 7, the fastest film to reach 1 billion dollars worldwide, is being watched by everyone, everywhere. Especially women, including women who hoard energy drinks and play GTA!)

Take our only new gang member as an example: Ramsey is a brilliant computer-programmer, but, to Roman’s surprise, she is also a beautiful black woman. She defies stereotypes on all counts, which is a really, really nice thought. She is also comically beautiful, ogled in a slow motion bikini shot, a la Ursula Andress/Halle Berry (let us never forget that Daniel Craig got equal treatment). It straddles a line this franchise has never been great at straddling, between including competent women in the action at critical junctures and condescending to them because they are, above all, pleasant to look at. Gal Gadot was a particular victim of this before she joined the Justice League as Wonder Woman. But it’s also hit Mia Toretto hard too. She is the mother of Brian’s child and, if she’s put in danger, a really good way to get the gang riled up. Because of Walker’s limited availability, she is kept far from the action this time.

Perhaps because of the way women were written into corners, the Fast films prioritized male relationships, sometimes to an almost comical level. Sure, Brian and Mia are in love, and so are Dom and Letty, but anyone who got more out of their relationships then they got from the extremely close bond between Brian and Dom was reading against the grain of what the film’s explicitly spelled out.

Michelle Rodriguez does an incredible job of carrying the climactic scene where she coaxes Dom back to life by telling him that the real Letty is back, but something feels off, because, in our hearts, this is where Paul Walker’s absence is truly felt. If Walker were really there, he would be the one propping Dom up, asking him to come back. Because Dom and Brian aren’t just friends or associates. They are family. They are brothers. Bros in the noblest sense of that term. And the Fast and the Furious series is the greatest example we are ever likely to see of the Bro-oap Opera.

No saga this endearingly silly has ever been more serious about eliciting real feelings out of close male relationships. The bromance has been taken next level under the stewardship of the men behind the Fast franchise. It was right there at the beginning, with the way Brian and Dom fell for eachother even though theirs was forbidden love, one a cop, the other a robber. Lin refined that into a magnificent cocktail of bro-nificence, his true masterstroke being the addition of Dwayne Johnson to the fold. When the series needed an infusion of conflict, Johnson was brought in to reenact Brian’s arc, from pursuer to ally to family member, all over again. But next to Walker, Johnson looked like a caricature of masculinity, and spoke and acted like one too. By acting first in defiance of this muscled-up Uncle Sam, and then acting under his orders, the once criminal gang was given a sheen of lawfulness and innate goodness, especially as they’ve stood in opposition of foreign threats.

There are a lot of absurd and wonderful things that happen in Furious 7. Cars reverse out of a plane and parachute to the earth. Brian runs up a vehicle as it falls from a cliff. An expensive supercar jumps from one skyscraper to another, and then does it again. Dom jumps a car towards a helicopter and neatly places a bag of grenades on it… just… so. But nothing trumps what Johnson is asked to do. He is thrown from a building after a scuffle with Statham, and comes out of it alive. He then drives an ambulence off an overpass into a drone, which explodes. At this point I assumed we had to have seen the last of his Hobbes, but no, Johnson kicks out the front window of the ambulence and quips. He is indestrucible. He, like Diesel, is a God.

Brian, amongst these effortlessly cool, multicultural badasses, was our way in. Not because he was white (okay initially that was definitely part of the impetus behind Walker’s casting, let’s not lie) but because, as a cop, he came at situations with what we consider a traditional dichotomy of right and wrong and, as a normally proportioned human being, he looked like he could actually be hurt. Had Brian been in that ambulance, his heroism would have been a deadly sacrifice; for Hobbes it is another trump card in an ever-escalating game of chicken. As incredible as it is to see Johnson engage in fisticuffs with Statham, and then to see Diesel do likewise with Statham (and as fun as it is to remember when Diesel and Johnson duked it out in Rio); and as much these dream battles of today render the creaky dream battles of yesteryear in the Expendables series irrelevant and sad… this series needs the human element that Brian brought out in Dom. The sense that everytime he brought his team out in the field, Dom might be endangering the lives of someone important. Certainly not himself, because Dom is a freak of nature. But someone in his family. Someone like Brian.

This is why, in strict story terms, the film’s coda makes absolutely no sense, but it still, without any doubt, works. By the logic of this world, Dom’s departure from the happy beach hangout is a jerk move – what, is he never going to see his sister again? Will he not be at his new niece/nephew’s birth? Is that supposed to be the takeaway?

But as soon as Roman tells Tej to shut up and take a look at the beautiful moment before them – of Brian’s family happy, at peace – Furious 7, with its story about the team putting the Shaw saga behind them, is officially over, and a short film about finality and moving on takes its place. In this short film, the lines between characters and actors is blurred. For Tyrese, Ludacris, and Michelle Rodriguez, this was a fourth outing with Walker. For Diesel, this was film number five. That’s no small potatoes. The filmmakers were faced with a fork in the road, similar to the one we see in the film’s last scene. They could have serviced the continuing story, as they’ve tended to do since Lin took over. Or they could say goodbye. They chose to say goodbye. It was the right choice.

While the filmmakers truly worked magic keeping Brian in the film, Walker’s death and the rewrites hobbled the narrative momentum of Furious 7. It’s not a black mark upon the series or any of those involved – here’s to hoping that no other film will ever have to go though what those involved in this film did. I fully expect the next few films to be great, especially if Tyrese and Ludacris (especially Ludacris, who is really quite phenomenal) continue to do good work as the team’s new default everymen.

With all that said, with all those missed opportunities in the flabby middle, Furious 7 closes as well as it opens. Actually, it closes better. Statham’s hospital escape is a great opening statement to this movement of the Fast & Furious Symphony, but it could have come from any composition, really. Only the Fast and Furious symphony has earned the earnest emotion that’s on display as Charlie Puth and Wiz Khalifa send Vin Diesel one way and send Paul Walker – surrounded by the sort of uncanny halo you might expect to see around someone who’s been poorly greenscreened onto a background, which would normally seem to indicate poor craftsmanship, but seems downright intentional here, seems legitimately poetic – the other.

But Who Will Vet our Vendetta? Part 3


The rest of us here at Culture Conquistadors have been talking about Jupiter Ascending and the Wachowskis. It’s about time I get there, too, isn’t it?

Any time a novel, graphic or otherwise, is adapted to the Big Screen, the received wisdom is that the movie is going to be shallower and in some way a disappointment to the novel’s die-hard fans. I’m not going to pretend that this received wisdom is entirely false. On the most basic level: the novel took me about seven hours to read cover-to-cover, and the movie runs a bit north of two hours. This sort of time disparity is common for adaptations, and unless there is a lot of bloat on the page or a truly unrealistic density of ideas on the screen, it’s safe to bet that the movie is shallower or is at least missing some of the threads that the original author saw fit to include.

But that doesn’t need to mean that the movie is bad or even that it’s any worse.

Accusations on that level, I believe, are often (usually?) motivated by a particular mix of childish signaling games. “Criticizing this thing shows that it is beneath my tastes and therefore that I am to be respected” is a painfully common conversational trope. In college dorm rooms, over dinner, at the water cooler, at the barber shop, on internet message boards, everywhere… you see empty criticisms offered by people consciously or subconsciously hoping it’ll make them look better. The other element here is this: since books occupy a higher spot on the intelligentsia’s “culture totem pole” than movies, criticizing the movie in favor of the book also offers a convenient way to signal that one is sophisticated, a world apart from the hoi polloi at the cinema.

In case it isn’t yet clear: I find these kinds of empty criticisms detestable. If you want to engage with our twenty-first century culture/art/entertainment/pop-art by making claims about the relative merits of a novel and its movie adaptation, you’d best be able to explain how you came to that opinion or else face the towering menace that is my literary nerd rage.

So, with all that said? Yeah, the movie isn’t quite as good as the book. But! The Wachowskis went into it with their eyes wide open, and I want to argue that the decisions they made in the adaptation reveal a deep love for the original text, great care taken to preserve (some of) its messages, and great intelligence applied to the enterprise of including as much of the novel’s themes as possible.

Some quick notes on things I liked:

  • I was afraid that, despite the movie being rated R, it would soften the corners and round the edges of Norsefire’s nasty authoritarian England. By and large, it did not. It dotingly preserved the pulpy crassness of the novel, even inventing a few of its own brutalities to keep pace (“Percy gives his Beretta a blowjob, Keyes dies in a fire…”). There was only one bit that I can think of that clearly got cut because it was too extreme for movie audiences (the “virginity examination”), and I don’t think it’s hard to see why.
  • Superhero comic movie adaptations feature a lot of action porn. V for Vendetta, as a pulp comic serial, includes a bit of action porn already. I’m pleased to say that the movie absolutely did not go overboard with it. Suspense and audience interest were sustained by much the same methods as were employed in the comic without resorting to overblown and overextended action sequences.
  • On the other hand, the movie did spend a great deal more time on the fireworks that V produced. Where the comic included only a few frames of towering flames for each of V’s demolitions, the movie extended those into longer sequences, notably the destruction of Parliament set to the 1812 Overture. And that, in my opinion, was a wonderful idea, fitting perfectly with V’s character and the story’s texture. It seemed to me like Moore and Lloyd would have done the same thing if comics allowed them to do it.
  • V’s masked face is used often to build tension in the novel: sometimes we can’t tell what he thinks of what he’s seeing until later in the novel when we understand more about him. This mystery is played up by frames drawn tight around his mask, much the same way the frame might show only a character’s eyes. The movie makes great use of this device, too.

And some quick notes on things I didn’t like:

  • The movie dwells on Guy Fawkes much, much longer than the novel does. It does this, presumably, for the benefit of American audiences who aren’t used to the symbol of his mask. The problem is that Guy Fawkes himself isn’t terribly useful to the story. Sure, one of the ideas is that he should be celebrated as an anti-establishment figure, but Guy Fawkes was caught up in the confusing Protestant-Catholic conflicts of his time, pursuing an agenda that’s mostly alien to modern audiences. So the more we focus on him, the more time we spend tempted to try to read into issues that aren’t relevant to the story. Really, this comes down to the fact that the comic co-opted a symbol that had somewhat taken on a life of its own, beyond Guy Fawkes himself, in Britain, and it would be best if American audiences could somehow be helped to appreciate that without having to get a history lesson on Fawkes himself. Not that I have any good ideas.
  • The language of the movie is updated to contain vocabulary more recognizable to the audiences of 2006. Or, put more cynically, the Wachowskis wanted to take potshots at the Bush administration. For example, much of the state propaganda in the movie took on anti-Muslim aspects. Some of the fleeting visuals of the concentration camps showed Abu Ghraib-esque scenes. Evey’s parents were silenced environmental activists rather than closet socialists. It’s a fair thing to do, to update political satire for new times during the process of adapting an old work. The problem is that the movie tries to maintain the symbols and imagery of fascism as well as these modern insertions, and it woefully confuses and dilutes the strength of those themes. The movie could have been stronger by being more faithful to the fascist elements—maybe with some updated visuals, because something tells me riot-police-as-fascists could be done well—but never losing sight that it’s fascism that the story is about. The movie would stay relevant just fine as a story about people and about the nasty things people can do to each other under the thin guise of keeping order.
  • Pursuant to the modernization of the story, the movie’s plot is given a standard-issue revelation where Finch and Dominic discover at the end that all of V’s individual targets profited greatly off of some medical science conspiracy concocted at the Larkhill concentration camp. This supplants the movie’s explanation for V’s targets, who all became Important People in Positions of Power by participating directly in the military arm of Norsefire and carrying out its atrocities during the British holocaust. This falls pretty squarely under the heading above of “it conceptually works, but you’re diluting your story,” but I’m singling it out for special attention. I think the theme of people achieving power through a sort of vile, militaristic old-boys’ network is much stronger (and less trite, to someone living in the year 2015) than this new one that’s about money being powerful.

But, as I said before, the body of the novel is contained in its characters’ relationships. So the surest way to see how seven hours becomes two hours is to follow the characters and see how they change.

Let’s start with Evey. Evey is played by Natalie Portman, who gives, I think, a pretty great performance (and delivers a serviceable English accent in its pursuit, but what do I know; I’m hardly a movie critic or a Brit). But Evey is markedly different from the word go. Evey is no sixteen-year-old would-be prostitute with little worldly experience; instead, she is a capable young woman with a job in the media office, who is “out to visit her uncle” (later, we learn it was to pay a visit to Gordon, who, we also learn, is in need of a beard. But I’m getting ahead of myself!) when she is caught past curfew by the fingermen. She is, same as before, rescued by V, but the dynamic between them is radically altered: she is not content to merely learn from him. She stands up to him more strongly than book!Evey1, abandoning V of her own volition after V murders the bishop rather than returning with him to the Shadow Gallery and being dropped off in London later. Movie!Evey is has a much more solid cultural footing than her comic counterpart, being able to engage and recognize V’s classic quotations rather than having to ask where each one originated.

But why is Evey so different? This kind of thing doesn’t happen on a whim. Millions of dollars and tens of thousands of man-hours went into turning that screenplay into a film; it’s unlikely that such a drastic and consistent change in characterization happened by accident. I can think of two main reasons: first of all, there is less time to make Evey’s transformation happen. In the novel, it takes Evey a full year and lots of “screen time” to transform from a scared teenager to an anarchist symbol and creative force for the world. The movie simply did not have time to do the same thing while making it a convincing transformation. It’s not as simple as sticking in a montage halfway through and calling it a metamorphosis; establishing elapsed time and experience like that requires tens of minutes of screen time to work. That’s a lot of minutes.

There’s a second important reason, I suspect, for Evey’s altered character: Rose and Helen. Rose Almond, unfortunately, is completely missing from the movie, as is Helen Heyer. Their absences do have the effect of changing how Adam Susan must die and how we experience the plight of the oppressed, but they also remove the only other sympathetic, living woman from the story as well as the only powerful woman. Yeah… Without Rose’s voice, the story is being told entirely by men, at least until Evey matures. Without Helen, no women in the story have any control over their own destiny, save possibly Evey. The question is, even if the movie were able to capably convey Evey’s journey as it was present in the novel, would her resolve at the end of the story make up for the first hour and a half of the movie where all of the women are either bit characters, dead, or dying? I suspect the Wachowskis chose to empower Evey early on specifically to ensure that women were not depicted merely as helpless creatures for most of the movie, and in that light, it sure looks like a good idea.

Moving on: I don’t have a ton to say about it, but I want to note that the fake concentration camp scene is lovingly preserved from the moment Evey is thrown into the cell to the moment she embraces the rain on the rooftops. It is terrible and powerful on film, and that is a great victory for the movie.

But if the earliest parts of Evey’s arc are clipped, so too is the end. In the movie, Evey never dons V’s mask. In fact, the entire end of the movie is quite a bit different. Whereas in the novel, V destroys the state’s surveillance apparatus, in the movie, V mails Guy Fawkes masks and cloaks to tens of thousands of Londoners, thereby allowing them to escape the Eye a different way. The primary motivation for that change seems to have been to allow for the visuals in the movie’s climax, where the people march on Parliament as a horde of black-cloaked Fawkeses and, as it explodes, remove their masks to reveal people of all walks of life, including a great diversity of characters who died at the hands of the regime. It’s a striking sequence, but it means that Evey herself doesn’t fully inherit V. Movie!Evey speaks to Finch at the end to convey the idea that V is more than a man, he is a symbol, and he stands for everyone who has felt the weight of oppression and the call of freedom. Book!Evey understands it differently: V stands for anarchy and his work isn’t over. The people still need a V to make something of the chaos. This statement is a bit lost in the movie, where it seems more like V’s ultimate victory is sealed as Parliament comes crashing down and the people of London commemorate his brave fight by honoring the symbol of his mask.

The entire arc of the movie is foreshortened in this respect. The novel actually dabbles in a bit of revolutionary philosophy, including a frame where a woman is shown holding a copy of The Confessions of a Revolutionary, and more on the next page where V discusses the unfolding events with Evey:

Page 195

This subtlety is missing in the movie, and that is its greatest weakness. The movie retains its anti-fascist message, but it loses completely its anarchic message. All that remains is the Guy Fawkes mask, a celebration of a man who dared to blow up the government. And while that’s a fine thing to retain, it’s a damn shame that the rest is lost.

Finch’s role is largely the same in the novel and the movie, so I’ll pass on over him for now, except to note that Stephen Rea portrays a powerfully sour man. It’s a different look than in the novel, where Finch is more reminiscent of the hardboiled pulp detective, but it’s certainly not a bad one.

Gordon, however, got quite the makeover. In the novel he was an underground booze dealer that Evey fell in with, and in love with, with nowhere in particular to go. In the movie, Gordon is a comedian who runs a slapstick act for the state-run broadcasting company, acquainted with Evey through their mutual place of employment. Book!Evey accidentally finds Gordon after V drops her off on the streets of London, whereas Movie!Evey actively seeks him out after abandoning V with the bishop (neatly fitting in with her adjusted character). After a brief stay with Gordon, Evey learns that: 1) he is an art collector and possesses a Quran that would be his death if it were discovered, 2) he is gay, which would be his death if it was discovered, and 3) he has just produced a bitingly sarcastic act portraying Sutler (the Movie!Leader) as being cartoonishly unable to apprehend V. This goes on to get him thrown in prison, and as it turns out, the discovery of his Quran does get him executed. It seems that Gordon’s character was transformed thusly to better highlight the regime’s oppression and to account for Alistair’s absence2. Since this is a movie, after all, characterizing the regime needs to be done expediently and with a minimum of awkward exposition, as compared to the comic, which has the time to weave in flashbacks and recollections that won’t seem contrived. I really dig that Gordon was made into a performer for these purposes; he fits right in with the rest of our cast of performers, it was a perfectly natural role for Stephen Fry, and the Charlie Chaplin-esque satire was spot-on. On the other hand, this means that the movie completely excises the criminal element of the novel, and dadgummit, that criminal element was an important part of the greater whole! Ah, but it was less important than much of the other stuff that was going on, and so it was, sensibly, cut.

Aside from the missing themes of anarchy, V is mostly unchanged (“besides the fact that it’s about a hundredth of the weight of a lion and hunts mice and lizards instead of wildebeest, yeah, a housecat is mostly the same thing”). Hugo Weaving is given the most technically difficult role in the movie: he must depict a flesh-and-blood man whose face cannot be seen for the duration of the story. He’s convincing, for sure, and his body language, stage presence, and dreamy baritone carry the role perfectly. However: the Wachowskis made some further tweaks to the character. In the novel, V is relentless, even mystical, and he hardly seems human. So far as I can remember, he shows no regret nor any signs of stopping. But in the movie, V has some moments of doubt. Evey leaves, and V angrily tosses his mask against a mirror. Evey emerges from her fake prison, and a slight yet emotive tilt of the head shows that V knows that he has done something vile. Why choose to humanize V in this way? This is the one decision in the entire adaptation that just doesn’t make sense to me. It could be as simple as this: he was the male lead and the Wachowskis thought he needed a nudge in the “more likeable” direction for the mass market. Or maybe, with fewer characters and a shorter timeframe to work with, they thought that an easy way to draw attention to the fact that V is “most unlovely and most unforgiveable” is for him to express a little bit of doubt himself. In either case, I don’t think it was necessary. The entire point of V’s character is that he’s hardly a man, he’s an idea. And they already went in full-bore on that concept with the scene where V kills Sutler and Creedy (a beautiful bit of pulp, by the way. “Beneath this mask, there is an idea, Mr. Creedy. And ideas are bulletproof!”) Why back off of it, even a little bit? We have Evey to sympathize with, especially now that she has some verve from the beginning. The audiences themselves can decide what to think of V.

In the end, what the Wachowskis accomplished capably what they set out to give us. Well, better than capably. The movie has flair. It’s arresting and inspiring, and it was executed with great technical skill and a clear reverence for the source material. I do wish they would’ve more fully explored V’s anarchist side, but maybe it wouldn’t have worked in a two hour movie, or even a two-and-a-half hour movie. I don’t really know; I’m just a nerd on the internet.

V for Vendetta, in summary: Pulp genius, translated by people with a gift for it into a new medium in a way that, unfortunately, shows some of its shortcomings.

England Prevails.

  1. My usage of Exclamation Mark Notation may or may not be primarily tongue-in-cheek. I’ll never tell! 
  2. ALISTAIR IS MISSING. UGH. Possible motives for the Wachowskis writing him out include: they didn’t have enough time to address his criminal themes (which is probably more true than I’m willing to admit); they wanted to avoid the only Scottish guy in the whole story being a murderous crook (the kind of thing that gets heavily scrutinized in big-budget movies; I don’t know whether to give the comic a pass on it or not); they didn’t have enough things for him to do in the story since he mostly interacts with other supporting characters that got cut. Ugh. Ugh! It was almost definitely the right decision, but he was such a great character. Ugh.