T for Terrorist

T for Terrorist

Mini Teaser: Hollywood romanticizes terror - Nir Rosen exposes it.

by Author(s): Nicholas J. Xenakis

Alan Moore and David Lloyd, V for Vendetta (New York: Vertigo, 1995), 286 pp., $19.99.

V for Vendetta, 130 min., Warner Brothers, 2006.

Nir Rosen, In the Belly of the Green Bird (New York: Free Press, 2006), 288 pp., $26.

LIKE OTHER clichéd Hollywood marriages, unions between major motion pictures and politics tend to be superficial and overexposed. And they typically end in divorce--most often from reality. This past year's engagements were no different. There were a slew of films focusing on terrorism ranging from the historical Munich to the more contemporary Syriana; the most audacious, however, was widely expected to be the futuristic V for Vendetta.

While Munich was based on George Jonas's true-story thriller Vengeance (1984) and Syriana was adapted from Robert Baer's memoir See No Evil (2002)--books that are at least ostensibly about real events--V for Vendetta finds its roots in a graphic novel written during the 1980s about the Cold War. The film, produced by the Wachowski brothers (of Matrix fame), fits within the perennially lacking genre of pseudo-cerebral actions movies meant to make audiences ask "profound" questions--in this case, what it means to be a terrorist. But it also comes pre-packaged with its own agenda. (Hint: It has to do with the Bushies being evil and the film's protagonist, "V", being cast in a distinctly heroic light.) And in the process of spewing its jeremiad, the movie becomes tangled in a mess of fantasy and reality.

The shortcomings of Vendetta the film put into focus one of its literary contemporaries, which succeeds precisely where the film falls flat. Nir Rosen's recent book, In the Belly of the Green Bird, stands out as the non-fictional antidote to Vendetta's monochrome cinematic message. Interestingly, there is no discernible ideological gap between the film Vendetta and Rosen's book--the two works illustrate similar contemporary political conditions: Each one tells the story of a dictator who is overthrown by those who see themselves on the side of freedom. But the depth, lucidity and reserve of Rosen's work highlights the missteps made in trying to project Vendetta onto the big screen. The Wachowskis' V literally wears a mask, depersonifying terrorism. Rosen, meanwhile, successfully removes the mask and mystification of terrorism, to reveal the human side of the insurgency.

ALAN MOORE began writing V for Vendetta in 1981. He wrote the graphic novel (basically a long comic book) out of concern that Margaret Thatcher's government was fostering a "culture of fear" and that the country was headed for disaster, especially given her alliance with Ronald Reagan. The specific apocalypse that Moore had in mind was a limited nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union.

Moore's story takes place after England has suffered a small-scale nuclear holocaust. In the fallout, a fascist regime called Norsefire has seized control of the country. Against the government stands a lone man named V--a masked avenger who takes on the identity of Britain's 17th-century would-be terrorist Guy Fawkes and restores freedom through a series of anarchic and arguably terrorist acts.

And though not dealing with nuclear fallout, Nir Rosen is also concerned with a devastated landscape. A journalist and a current fellow at the New America Foundation, Rosen traveled to Iraq when he was only 26 years old with the intent of gaining insight into the insurgency. In the Belly of the Green Bird is a record of his experience and reveals a movement that is far from being "monolithic." As such, Rosen doesn't provide a work of policy analysis, but instead writes a series of vignettes depicting the insurgency's development from April 2003 to January 2005. Most importantly, however, the book chronicles the evolution of Iraqi sentiment towards Americans: first, welcomed as liberators and later, as a consequence of their long stay, resented as occupiers.

WHEN V for Vendetta debuted in the theaters, Moore had his name removed from the credits. He said his work had been

"turned into a Bush-era parable by people too timid to set a political satire in their own country. . . . [The film] is a thwarted and frustrated and largely impotent American liberal fantasy of someone with American liberal values standing up against a state run by neoconservatives--which is not what 'V for Vendetta' [the comic] was about."

What makes the movie so clearly a "liberal fantasy" is its failure to effectively skate on the thin ice of political satire. The scenes with black hoods, torture and the Quran appear to be more from the front page than a speculative tale of "what ifs." Thus the judicious tone of Moore's comic is lost, and the film is reduced to a piece of agitprop. In doing so, the movie loses everything that made Moore's work so effective. Specifically, the strength of the graphic novel is found in Moore's ambiguous depiction of V, leaving readers to wonder whether the title character is a psychopathic killer, an idealistic liberator or something in between. The movie adaptation tragically disregards this vital question.

The sort of pathological violence that characterized V in the graphic novel is completely absent in the movie. The film presents V murdering his victims in essentially the same manner every time, while in the comic he concocts a demise specifically designed for each victim, accentuating both V's cold calculation and his vindictiveness. The best example is the murder of the government's media proxy, Lewis Prothero. In the movie, V assassinates Prothero while he is taking a shower, literally and figuratively sterilizing the murder. In the comic, however, V drives Prothero insane by incinerating his prized doll collection; in many ways a much less merciful fate than if he had just stabbed him.

In the Belly of the Green Bird doesn't balk at the harsher side of life and tells both sides of the Iraqi story. It provides more than just accounts of the fallout from suicide bombings; it also tells of stories of American troops capturing the wrong people, and worse. Furthermore, as an illustration of the sort of chaos that ensues when a country has no government, Rosen describes the mob violence and the wanton destruction that can occur at any moment in Iraq. In one instance he describes a scene where a German journalist and his entourage attempt to pass a checkpoint:

"The six accused them of being undercover American soldiers. Soon a mob of hundreds surrounded them, including some of the laborers who had killed the four contractors. They were beaten with shovels, sticks and rocks. A plastic bag was placed over Uwe's head. Manya was slapped around and severely handled. Their translator, a Christian from Baghdad, was called a traitor and collaborator. He wore a cross. His nose was broken and he was hit in the back of the head with a machete."

Understanding terrorism requires understanding violence, because ultimately it is violence that gives terrorism its strength. Rosen goes well beyond just describing the method and providing a body count. Instead, he fleshes out the gory details that are too often glossed over. By excluding the sort of violence and pathology that Rosen saw in the streets, the Wachowskis might have made viewers more sympathetic to V, but they also divorced their eponymous hero from reality.

THE WACHOWSKIS also indulge in some wilder speculation. As Moore noted in his protest against the movie, his comic was turned into yet another attack on the infamous neoconservative cabal. Originally, Moore's Vendetta had a subplot that revolved around a supercomputer named Fate, which monitored the populace and facilitated Norsefire's police state. As the story progressed, Prime Minister Adam Susan (an androgynous reference to Margaret Thatcher) literally falls in love with the machine, symbolizing his perverted love of power. The Wachowskis eschew this storyline and instead substitute the gimmick of a government plot to infect the population with a virus hatched so that Prime Minister Adam Sutler (a name change that sounds more like Hitler and at least signals a more masculine cue to President Bush) could seize control of the nation. It's a silly reference to those who believe that elements in the government orchestrated the September 11 attacks to implement the Patriot Act and send America down the road to fascism. The change is indicative of the degree to which Wachowskis were preoccupied with criticizing the Bush Administration, so much so they side-stepped a major issue about terrorism in hopes of scoring a point against the White House.

In V for Vendetta, both the comic and the movie, V is presented as a secular hero fighting against organized religion. Although that backdrop may have worked in Moore's Cold War setting, it doesn't fit well into the context of the War on Terror. The film comes off as a vain attempt to romanticize terrorism by making it secular, and thereby more appealing to Westerners. The initial hope may have been to introduce some ambiguity by depicting the authoritarian regime as poisoned by religious charlatans, striking a similarity with the current terrorist threat, but this attempt is lost in the movie's clear political agenda. Blind partisanship is the only conceivable motivation for ignoring religion's part in terrorism.

Essay Types: Book Review