Summer Film Reviews
Karen Hall

Turning the Tides on Vengeance
On November 5, 1605, Guy Fawkes was caught in the cellar of the British Houses of Parliament with 36 barrels of gunpowder. He was tortured and executed. Some wonder if the annual commemoration (fireworks and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes) celebrates Fawkes’ execution or honors his attempt to do away with the government. Graphic:

"A building is a symbol, as is the act of destroying it. Symbols are given power by people. A symbol, in and of itself is powerless, but with enough people behind it, blowing up a building can change the world."

These are the words of V, a man in a Guy Fawkes mask. Whether V is a vigilante, a superhero, a terrorist, or political philosopher who favors anarchy over totalitarianism is to be decided by the viewer. Those who may write this movie off as yet another shallow comic book hero action film will miss the opportunity to struggle with some of the culturally popular metaphors for today's political climate.

Comic books house some of the most pertinent mythology of the modern world, and superheroes are for today's culture what Homer's epic heroes were to his ancient Greek society. It should come as no surprise, then, that the world of comic book superheroes has produced a character like Batman who struggles internally with the question of whether he is a hero instilling a justice that the system can't accomplish, or a vigilante undermining the system and justice simultaneously. What better myth for audiences to contemplate in an age of US empire when American troops bring democracy at gunpoint.

V for Vendetta features a hero who wishes to bring down the fascist government strangling the futuristic, Orwellean England. V also has a personal vendetta, however. While he crusades to break the power of a government who rules by fear and torture, he is also at work assassinating every individual who was responsible for his earlier imprisonment in a concentration camp where medical tests were performed on him and other inmates. This personal vengeance morally complicates his character and his project.

Whether you agree with the film's use of metaphor or not, taking a position for or against the characters, symbols and actions portrayed certainly invites interesting discussion. Those who may argue against using a Guy Fawkes mask and equating the Gun Powder Plot with an anti-totalitarian movement may be interested to learn that cynical critics of British Parliament have for over a century quipped that Fawkes was, "the only man to ever enter parliament with honorable intentions." The Scottish Socialist Party resurrected a poster bearing the saying with humorous intent in 2003. The use of Fawkes as a symbol is an invitation to viewers to study history, oppression, and political thought.

Few viewers will miss the parallel between Chancellor Sutler's affiliations with pharmaceutical corporations and the Bush administration's ties to the oil industry. Both rulers profit personally from the instability they foment politically. Again, debating the veracity of these claims can and should take viewers on a research quest that will wind through conspiracy theories, the history of the Middle East, the history of OPEC, the Bush family ties to oil, George Bush Sr.'s use of government information to serve as a consultant to Saudi oil merchants, and Cheney's involvement with energy concerns. When popular culture encourages debate such as this, those of us trying to educate and agitate on these very topics should cheer.

Admittedly, the political philosophy backing this movie is problematic. It's a hodge podge of passions and reason. It celebrates a society's rebirth through violence and it participates in murder for revenge. None of us will find this acceptable, let alone admirable. But if you can, look past the exploding Parliament building to the legions of citizens in the street. Celebrate the catalyst that propels cowed and frightened citizens to march against their government unarmed.

And if you feel the same tingle of excitement that I do, join me in a Million V March on Washington November 5th. In the words of the film's hero, "This may be the most important moment of your life... commit to it."

United 93
"I thought it was very well-made."

How many people have you heard say this about the film United 93? Just what could the criteria for a well-made movie be in this context?

We've heard the story of United Flight 93 many times, so this movie can't be well-made based on its ability to create suspense or produce revelation. We are all too wizened to expect history from Hollywood. There are plenty of internet sites out there, both conspiracy-theory-based and just-the-facts-based, that will detail factual inconsistencies in the film. The events of 9/11 are too fresh for the film to act as metaphor. So just what does well-made mean?

I think for most viewers well-made means that writer and director Paul Greengrass stayed just within the acceptable boundaries of exploitation and emotional manipulation. He delivered a jolt that enabled audiences to once again feel the threat and fear of terrorism but gave it a civic veneer so folks could feel patriotic watching the film, as if they were doing some kind of cultural work witnessing the tragedy of these lost lives.

The other reason we hear so often that the movie was well-made, I believe, is that so many viewers feel they are unable to criticize the film. Because watching the film can be equated with doing one's civic duty, criticizing the film, then, becomes unpatriotic, insulting to the lost lives of those on the plane. In a silent and subtle manner, this film adds to the coercive political climate in the US against free speech and the right to disagree with the government.

If the film supported acts of witness, active recognition and remembrance that would facilitate a practice of healing and reconciliation, I might call it well-made and understand why time, money and labor went into the making of this film. That's a mighty big "if" and I don't expect Hollywood to ever deliver such goods. If you hear someone say United 93 was well-made, ask them just what they mean and tell them what you wish it had done for the citizens of the US. At least this exploitation flick will have inspired a helpful conversation. And if you miss out on having a meaningful conversation about this film, don't worry. Oliver Stone plans to release his World Trade Center on August 9.


Karen writes frequently for the PNL on culture and the media.