‘Vendetta’ a powerhouse 

Examining the thin line between terrorist and hero.

click to enlarge Portman as Evey.
  • Portman as Evey.

Though it’s not very popular to say so in America these days, it’s as true as it ever was: One man’s “terrorist” is another man’s “freedom fighter” — it all depends on who is wearing the jackboots.

A superb new film that explores the hair-thin line between hero and villain — especially when it comes to blowing things up for political aims — is “V for Vendetta.” A stunningly original and even profound movie from the Wachowski brothers (creators of “The Matrix” series), it’s both a modern-day swashbuckling tale and a none-too-subtle commentary on Bush-era governance by fear, one sure to spur debate among both comic book freaks and political science professors.

Though I’ve heard more than one critic say that “V for Vendetta” is set in a parallel universe Britain in which the Nazis won World War II, the careful viewer will soon see there’s nothing so fantastic as that going on. Instead, what we are presented is a very real world of possibly 20 years from now — one that crash-landed at the bottom of the slippery slope of trading safety for freedom in the era of terrorism. With the United States long since consumed by a mysterious virus and civil war, Britain has devolved into a totalitarian state of zealots, book burners and TV zombies, all ruled by Chancellor-for-life Adam Sutler (the suitably slimy John Hurt). With Sutler keeping power by way of black-booted thug squads and cronies at the television station, it’s a terrifying place, one where homosexuals, critics, malcontents and the otherwise different disappear in the middle of the night and are never seen again.

Then, as often happens, one man stands up. In this case, it’s the mysterious V (Hugo Weaving), a happy-go-lucky killing machine in a black cape and a porcelain mask, meant to bring to mind 17th-century British terrorist Guy Fawkes, who tried to blow up Parliament and kill the king. V arrives on the scene by blowing up the Old Bailey landmark in London and then, hacking into the government television station, threatens that on Nov. 5 of the following year (the anniversary of Fawkes’ capture) he will attempt to finish his predecessor’s work, hoping it will spawn a revolution.

Between dodging the police and doing in evildoers, V manages to save the life of Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman), spiriting her back to his hidden lair, which is stuffed to the rafters with censored art he has stolen from government vaults. In time, she becomes his sort-of sidekick, discovering his secrets, the hidden truth behind the terrorist attack that started the country on the road to totalitarianism, and the extent of V’s madness in short order.

Even more important than the political bent of “V for Vendetta” is its emphasis on characters and their development. For that reason, this is the rare action movie with a heart, albeit a dark one. No one, not even the hero, is all good or all bad. Just as often as we see V sticking up for the little guy, cracking jokes and expressing his admiration for Errol Flynn, we also see him in the stereotypical role of the terrorist — including a scene in which he opens his coat to reveal the classic suicide bomber’s dynamite-covered vest (other all-too current post-9/11 symbols make their appearance as well: warnings of an imminent bird flu epidemic, orange jumpsuits and naked prisoners in piles and hooded with black bags, as seen in the Abu Ghraib photos). Still, given that V is anybody’s definition of the word “terrorist,” it’s hard to know who to root for, something that’s rare in a Hollywood movie.

In time, the question becomes: How bad does your government have to be before life as a terrorist — a killer of both the innocent and guilty in the pursuit of political change — is OK? While not many would rank America as being that bad yet, “V for Vendetta” seems to say that the answer is just a short trip down the slippery slope away. 

‘Magnificent’ moon
Looking up at the moon in the night sky, it’s sometimes hard to grasp the idea that 12 flesh-and-blood men have walked there.

The record of those missions to the moon, full of bravery and sacrifice and near-miraculous amounts of luck, is on display now at the Aerospace Education Center’s IMAX theater, in the form of the film “Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon.” A stunning little documentary, equal parts wonder, humor, history and the old-fashioned joy of gadgetry, it’s enough to make any kid want to be an astronaut, and to make any adult look up at the moon and see it anew.

In addition to some of the actual astronauts who made it to the moon, a slew of Hollywood talent lends voices to narrating the one-hour film: John Travolta, Matthew McConaughey, Morgan Freeman, Gary Sinise, Barry Pepper and Bill Paxton, to name a few. Principal narration is handled by the always-superb Tom Hanks. Mixed in with original footage, there is also quite a bit of cutting-edge CGI and green-screen work, which puts you everywhere from inside the capsule to behind the wheel of the four-wheeled rover. On the massive IMAX screen, it makes for a real thrill ride.

While history — even the history of an endeavor so exciting — can be as dull as dishwater, “Magnificent Desolation” does a good job of rendering both the facts of the matter and the human angle. A good bit of humor in the film lightens the mood considerably — including a very funny visual riff on persistent conspiracy theories that the moon missions were a hoax. Still, it is at all times the story of human dreams fulfilled, something the filmmakers never let you forget, even in the quietest moments.

“Magnificent Desolation” is a marvelous little monument to human ambition and thought, one sure to get you looking up with a little bit of wonder the next time the moon is a-shining.


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