Why I'd like to be … Hugo Weaving in The Matrix

My Indiana Jones period is over – these days, I identify more with the ultimate middle-management jobsworth: Agent Smith

• Why I'd like to be … Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday
• Why I'd like to be … Toni Servillo in The Great Beauty
• Why I'd like to be ... Goldie Hawn as Private Benjamin

I fought it for a while, but the machine got me. Ten years ago, life mostly consisted of reading Henry Miller in Berlin Mietskasernen, and sipping Bitburger by the canal. Now I'm a production honcho at the Guardian, trying my best to scotch the newspaper's reputation for flagship spelling mistakes and marshal a mutinous crew of subeditors. If that wasn't enough Sisyphean stuff to get on with, then there's the latest directive: search engine optimisation (SEO). Tailoring headlines, standfirsts and captions to best propitiate the eternally evolving Google algorithm, and propel Guardian articles up the search rankings; ever fearful of the baying mob of journalistic upstarts at our heels, with their listicles and multiple-video embeds and nouveau-web capitalised headlines, waiting to hack us to pieces down in the digital abattoir. The machine's grip is tightening.

So I enjoy it when, in The Matrix, Agent Smith cracks. When the sharp-suited enforcer – torturing Morpheus, the thorn in the side of his dream of a perfect, machine-run world – reveals he is himself tortured. "I must get out of here," says Agent Smith. "I must get free. And in this brain is the key. I have to get inside Zion, and you have to tell me how." It's as much plea as threat. For an AI apparatchik whose purpose is to maintain order in a simulacrum of our reality, he's displaying a surprisingly erratic, human side.

Reading on mobile? Click here to view

I feel Smith's pain. I'm convinced that the perfect article is out there, orthographically exact, syntactically harmonious and garnished with elegant SEO. I will publish it – to acquiescent silence below-the-line – the internet will be completed, and just over one-third of the way into my projected working career, I will be free. Ah, Zion!

But such thoughts are the hubris of the jobsworth. Hugo Weaving, playing Agent Smith, is brilliant at conveying hints of these delusions. I especially like the vain double-wrist flare with which Smith commences his first encounter with "Mr Anderson", and all the ironic vocal inflections in the interview that follows. ("You have a social-security number, you pay your taxes, and you … help your landlady carry out her garbage.") They are not just a machine's synthetic approximations of emotion, or infinite robot bemusement at human trifles; they are him relishing his duties a few megahertz too much. Unlike his blank-faced agent colleagues, he's a bit too personally invested. He's an overclocked CPU, a loose cog. He's given, as we hear later, to pompous holding-forth. It's all, come the advent of a pesky messianic hacker with a copy of Kung Fu for Dummies, about to come tumbling down.

Reading on mobile? Click here to view

Once upon a time, I had more aspirational heroes. I cracked an imaginary bullwhip with their best of them after seeing Indiana Jones. I once coveted River Phoenix's quiff and existential drifter cool in My Own Private Idaho. "Dude" became (and still is) my greeting of choice post-Bill and Ted. But these are fantasies, and reality always wins in the end. I began to identify with Agent Smith and other movie jobsworths; their control-freakery, pettiness and pedantry; their self-congratulatory leanings and barely-hinged despotism.

Chief Inspector Dreyfus, from the Pink Panther series, is perhaps the archetype for this sort of character: one who must combat a formidable nuisance. Herbert Lom, as the series became progressively more ridiculous, became more skilled at portraying Dreyfus's delectable moment of breakdown – the point where he acknowledges the overwhelming, almost metaphysical agent of chaos arraigned against him: Clouseau. (In the original entry featuring Dreyfus, 1964's A Shot in the Dark, the hammy facial tic gets a bit of a hammering from Lom.)

So it's weird that it's Clouseau – actually just as officious about his duties as Dreyfus – who seems to be the starting point for my other favourite movie jobsworth: Principal Rooney in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Rooney works the same moustache-and-beetly-eyes combo, the same crackpot grin, and suffers from the same high pratfall susceptibility. Playing him, Jeffrey Jones teeters expertly on the brink: highballing glee at his imminent outing of Chicago's most famous truant one minute, fathomless frustration the next.

Reading on mobile? Click here to view

I've got my highs and lows in my job, like anyone, so I appreciate seeing the whole work pantomime shoved under a proscenium. And Agent Smith is a big old panto dame, really. Before the sequels liberate him and make him a bore, the first film catches him at his peak, in those anonymous G-Man threads, divulging the great open secret of the workplace: the Matrix, the machine, traps everyone, including the trappers. He's a modern middle-management tragicomedy, a bullet-time David Brent. His quest to suppress individuality was sadly doomed – as seen by the trench-coated Neo wannabes wandering Camden market circa 2003.

But the self-important arcs walked by Dreyfus, Rooney and Smith are so much more satisfying for the salaryman to identify with than the quixotic ones of Clouseau, Bueller and Neo. There's a Žižekian aperçu in there about reality crushing childish magical thinking I would tease out, but to be honest I've got a mountain of paperwork on.

• More from the Role Model series


Phil Hoad

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Hugo Weaving on revisiting The Matrix: 'They would start again with different actors'
On the press circuit for ABC TV’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, Weaving talks blockbusters, passion projects and why he’s ‘a bit of a luddite’

Luke Buckmaster

17, Apr, 2017 @8:22 PM

Jupiter Ascending trailer: move over Matrix?

Ben Child: Can the Wachowskis take the space opera format to the next level? Watch the trailer here and tell us what you think

Ben Child

10, Dec, 2013 @5:56 PM

Article image
Can James Cameron save Avatar sequels from Matrix meltdown?
Stuart Heritage: If he's not careful, the director's back-to-back sci-fi sequels could end up bloated, directionless and painfully self-important like many a film franchise before them

Stuart Heritage

12, Sep, 2012 @11:09 AM

Article image
Why I'd like to be … Chewbacca in Star Wars

He's a giant dog/bear with a blood-curdling howl who oozes cool as he flies spaceships around the Star Wars galaxy and shoots clone fascists with lasers – plus he saved me from the terrors of Watership Down, writes Luke Holland

Luke Holland

25, Jul, 2014 @6:30 AM

Article image
Why I'd like to be … Jennifer Connelly in Labyrinth
Goblins, animatronics and David Bowie’s trouser bulge aside, Jim Henson’s adventure is really a universal coming-of-age tale, and a reminder to persevere when life gets tough, writes Liz Cookman

Liz Cookman

12, Aug, 2014 @6:30 AM

Article image
Why I'd like to be ... Dan Aykroyd in The Blues Brothers
Wearing sunglasses at night is cool, neo-Nazis are rubbish, soul music is brilliant … I learnt some of life’s most important lessons from the loyal and taciturn Elwood Blues in one of the greatest comedies of the 80s, writes James Walsh

James Walsh

04, Aug, 2014 @6:30 AM

Article image
Hearts and Bones review – Hugo Weaving brings characteristic pathos to restrained postwar drama
From the director of Ghosthunter, this slow rumination on the lingering effects of wartime trauma is consistent, if not cinematic

Luke Buckmaster

07, May, 2020 @2:10 AM

Article image
Hugo Weaving: Just because Australian films aren't seen doesn't mean they don't exist
CinéfestOz’s screen legend for 2015 on Tony Abbott, reuniting with director Jocelyn Moorhouse and why you’ve probably never seen his best work

Nancy Groves

29, Aug, 2015 @5:29 AM

Article image
Why I'd like to be … Malcolm McDowell in If …

You don't need to be an Old Etonian to identify with anti-hero schoolboy Mick Travis when he goes to war with the establishment, writes John Keenan

John Keenan

29, Jul, 2014 @6:30 AM

Article image
Why I'd like to be … Keanu Reeves in Speed

He began the 90s with Bill and Ted's silliness and ended them with The Matrix's existential angst, but in between came Keanu Reeves's greatest role as Jack Traven, a taciturn, tough-guy cop who oozed charisma. Just getting the job done never looked so cool, writes Alex Hess

Alex Hess

28, Jul, 2014 @6:30 AM