At the Movies

Michael Wood

‘When there’s blood on the streets, buy property.’ This sturdy piece of advice becomes a refrain in Spike Lee’s new movie, Inside Man, where it is ludicrously literalised by the attempt of a bin Laden nephew to purchase an apartment in Manhattan, and grimly moralised in the story of an American banker who made a fortune by trading with the Nazis, and indeed by trading on the suffering of the Jews. That’s why he has so many diamonds in his safe deposit box, along with documentation of his ugly past. The diamonds are the basis of his empire, but why has he kept the documentation? This simple flaw in a clever plot (the movie is written by Russell Gewirtz) has bothered many viewers of this film, but there are two good reasons for not worrying about it. First, this is only a movie, as Hitchcock told Ingrid Bergman when she was trying too hard to act like a real person; and second, some people know about the banker’s misdeeds even before they’ve seen the documentation. If we needed a third reason, we could find one in Christopher Plummer, who plays the evil banker and is so securely installed in the stereotype of the suave rich fellow that the only Nazis he could possibly have met would have come from central casting.

But what kind of movie is this, and why is Spike Lee making it? It appears to be a heist movie, but it’s too slow for the genre, and the tension keeps slackening into comedy. A small band of criminals led by Clive Owen has held up a bank in lower Manhattan and taken some forty hostages. Are they after the diamonds? Money? The banker’s Nazi papers? Something else? There are plenty of plot twists, but the comedy is much better than the tension was ever going to be. A boy is playing a handheld video game, all shoot-outs and heads splattered against the wall. The masked and threatening bankrobber is shocked. ‘I’m going to talk to your father,’ he says. Later, asked if he was afraid of the robber, the boy says not at all, and adds, as a person in a Spike Lee film should: ‘I’m from Brooklyn.’ When the hostages are released they yell at the cops as if they were having a bad day at Macy’s, and the cops themselves conduct interrogations as if they were a cross between Playschool and a talk show. Denzel Washington is a police negotiator who is supposed to get the hostages out alive, and Jodie Foster is a high-powered go-between who has the mayor in her pocket and is supposed to make sure no one gets to Christopher Plummer’s secret. It won’t be giving away too much of the story if I say that Denzel turns out to be smarter than Jodie, and Clive turns out to be smarter than both; and you will see at once that this ranking is in direct inverse proportion to screen plausibility. How could anyone be smarter than Jodie Foster? But then this impossibility is at the heart of the film, and gives it an edgy interest, a touch of suspense after all, and links it to other Lee works like Do the Right Thing and She’s Gotta Have It. This movie is about negotiating, about making deals and reading minds, the second and third-guessing of opponents who are each other’s alter egos. And above all, it’s about negotiating when you have nothing to negotiate with except your manner, your impersonation of success. Neither Denzel Washington nor Jodie Foster has anything to offer the criminals, or each other, except style: sly, fake-lazy, apparently frivolous in the case of Washington, a clever black guy playing other people’s idea of a not so bright black guy; and brisk, smooth and bitchy in the case of Foster, everyone’s idea of what power would look like if women had it. There is some kind of metaphor in the making here: brilliant bluffing at poker not with poor cards but with no cards at all.

‘When there’s blood on the streets, blow up another building.’ Or try again where Guy Fawkes failed. This was the scheme of Alan Moore’s ‘V for Vendetta’ series, which ran in Warrior magazine in the 1980s, although Moore, best known for the Watchmen comics, explained that the idea belonged to his co-author and illustrator David Lloyd. ‘We shouldn’t burn the chap every November 5th,’ Lloyd wrote to Moore, ‘but celebrate his attempt to blow up Parliament!’ Moore says two thoughts occurred to him when he read this. ‘Dave was obviously a lot less sane than I hitherto believed him to be, and . . . this was the best idea I’d ever heard in my entire life.’ Andy and Larry Wachowski, directors of the Matrix trilogy and writers of the film V for Vendetta, do what they can to be faithful to this double vision, and what they can do is quite a bit. The movie is directed by James McTeigue, who was assistant director on the Matrix films. Strange how the Nazis (in these movies and elsewhere) continue to be the readymade reference for evil, as if there were no other candidates, or we couldn’t get our heads round political and moral danger except with their help. The film has plenty of allusions to contemporary life: prison, torture, terror, degradation of human beings, surveillance, destruction of civil rights. But when the villain is a version of Orwell’s Big Brother represented by a large-screen image of John Hurt impersonating Ian McKellen impersonating Hitler, and when the good guy sees himself as a reincarnation of a Catholic conspirator from four hundred years back, you have to think there is some distance between actuality and whatever is going on in this story. There are plenty of allusions to other films too, from Dreyer’s Joan of Arc through Breathless to the Matrix movies themselves. And although V for Vendetta doesn’t have the sneaky pop sophistication of at least the first Matrix film, it does often deliver its hokum with quite a bit of flair.

The time is some time in the future – in the comic it was 1997 – and the United Kingdom is a fascist state. V is a man who was badly burned in a fire at a facility where chemical research was being conducted on live human beings, so his initial stands for victim as well as for vengeance, and we have other reasons for believing he is a good guy. Apart from provoking the police state with firework displays – a neat allusion to what became of Guy Fawkes’s memory – and constantly eluding capture, he has a wonderful collection of books and paintings, objects otherwise unavailable in the country. He is played by Hugo Weaving, behind a mask that is both jovial and saturnine, and a tribute to David Lloyd’s initial vision of the figure. Weaving has a smooth English accent of the sort that usually belongs to villains, so that is part of the fun too. He rescues an unusually lively Natalie Portman because she instinctively helped him out when he was in danger, and at the end, after wiping out a small army of security forces as if he were in The Matrix after all, dies and leaves her his legacy: his unavailing love for her and the chance to blow up the Houses of Parliament. There is a lot of moral hesitation about the deed, as if it were a real act of terrorism, but it’s clear there are no people in the buildings, so the choice is whether you should symbolise liberty by exploding a monument, or retreat into submission for the sake of the old architecture. Pretty easy choice. By this time Natalie Portman has been joined by Stephen Rea, as a melancholy good cop who has insisted on finding out the dark secrets of the people in power; here the plot meets that of Inside Man, where Denzel Washington also goes beyond his instructions in order to discover the murky truth of the banker’s past.

V for Vendetta offers the not entirely welcome pleasure that so many intelligent, expensive movies give us: we can see precisely where it loses its grip. Natalie Portman is captured by the secret police (except that we know at once that these folks are not the secret police), beaten and interrogated, her head shaven so she can look like Falconetti and Jean Seberg. A fellow prisoner called Valerie starts passing her messages, a whole long story about the difficulties of being a life-loving lesbian in modern England: Brokeback Mountain meets The Great Dictator. Portman is moved to tears, but that’s because her character hasn’t read the script, and can’t recognise padding when she sees it. Needless to say, Valerie is V, recounting the story of a woman he knew, and the whole brutal process was a simulacrum (except for the pain and the haircut), meant to toughen Portman up and make her a freedom fighter. With friends like these, who needs oppressors?

The movie never really recaptures its momentum after this excursion, but it’s always good to look at, and the idea of placing a stiff, smiling, pink-cheeked, never-dropped mask at the heart of a moving picture is mildly inspired, converts the graphic image of the novel into something quite different. Because of all the movement around it, it’s as if the mask were a frozen or maimed face rather than a disguise, and you keep expecting it to flicker into action, like an activated puppet or doll. It never does, of course, and its very stillness becomes more and more eerie. At the end of the movie, and affording a much better visual climax than V’s knife-throwing skills or the destroyed buildings, the crowds of London begin to gather to see the final show, the Gunpowder Plot come true at last. They are all wearing V-masks, hundreds, maybe thousands of them, whole streets and squares full of Vs. The effect is both exhilarating and threatening. The people have risen, signed on for the vendetta, but they all look alike, and it’s a relief when they take their masks off. The film would be quite different without this gesture, which releases a whole crowd of actors back into their variegated, unstylised features, a shuffling picture of feeble democracy rather than a sleek portrait of alternative fascism.