Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Watchmen / ***½ (R)

Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II: Malin Akerman
Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II: Patrick Wilson
Rorschach: Jackie Earle Haley
Dr. Manhattan/Jon Osterman: Billy Crudup
Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias: Matthew Goode
Edward Blake/The Comedian: Jeffrey Dean Morgan
Sally Jupiter/Silk Spectre: Carla Gugino

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Zack Snyder. Written by David Hayter and Alex Tse. Based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Running time: 163 min. Rated R (for graphic violence, sexuality, nudity and language.)

It seems the superhero genre has been trying to legitimize itself for the past 30 years or so, ever since Richard Donner decided to take Superman seriously in a Hollywood that only saw superheroes in an exploitational context. Despite his efforts Hollywood continued to see comic book-inspired heroes as vehicles for action and spectacle until very recently. Along with “Spider-Man 2” and “The Dark Knight”, “Watchmen” proves the legitimacy of the superhero story as a genre in its own right.

Like the horror, sci-fi and western genres before it, superheroes exist in most people’s eyes for the thrills they provide, but with these three films the superhero genre follows in those others footsteps by transcending its basic structure to offer something beyond the spandex and explosions. Superheroes can also explore ideas. “Spider-Man 2” contemplated the problems of personal responsibility versus moral obligation. “The Dark Knight” pondered the politics of fear and terrorism. “Watchmen” takes on the human predilection towards violence against one another.

The “Watchmen” comic book, upon which this movie is based, also transcended the boundaries of its genre when DC Comics first published it in the mid 80s. The story takes place in a universe where Richard Nixon led the United States to victory in the Vietnam War. It is 1985 and Nixon remains president, working on his fifth term in office. The Cold War has escalated far beyond the nuclear warhead count we achieved before ours came to a peaceful end, and it is looking like it will end in the worst way for this alternative universe.

The Watchmen are a group of superheroes that are a failed enterprise before the events of this film even start to take place. Congress has long since banned the practice of masked heroism, but the world needs something to hinder its inevitable nuclear annihilation. The problem is that this Cold War threat is much bigger than the heroes who are willing to do something about it. But this description makes the events of this story seem much more deliberate than they actually are. The Watchmen aren’t really about saving the world, although at some point in time that became their job, and that is a job from which they have since been laid off.

The movie starts with what seems to be a simple murder mystery, and although the mystery of why The Comedian was murdered drives the story through to its closing moments, the journey to that conclusion and the answers open up a great many questions about the violent nature of man, the fragility of the human condition and the complexity of justice. As humans we will always believe the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, and that may very well be why we can never find peace.

The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, “Grey’s Anatomy”) was the only member of both incarnations of the Watchmen. He was with the original Watchmen when they formed in the 1940s. They were well liked by the public, but soon their personal flaws started to become public knowledge and their stars faded. Then as social unrest began to grip the country after Nixon’s victory in Vietnam, a new group of superheroes formed. They included The Comedian; Nite Owl, the second man to hold the moniker and figurehead of the group, Silk Spectre, daughter of the original group’s Silk Spectre; Dr. Manhattan, a scientist who was altered by a government experiment to have glowing blue skin and the ability to manipulate pretty much anything; Ozymandais, the smartest and richest man in the world; and Rorschach, a savage rouge element whose true identity is not known even to his partners.

It is Rorschach who insists on investigating the murder of The Comedian, while the other heroes languish in retirement. His theory is that someone is knocking of former Watchmen, but he has no idea about the massive implications of the plot his tenacity will uncover. Meanwhile, Dr. Manhattan and Ozymandais seem to have become detached from the very humanity they once protected, while Nite Owl and Silk Spectre are all too aware of their human desires.

With a nearly three-hour running time, the filmmakers don’t allow the dense plot of the movie get in the way of conveying its overall purpose. The tempo is more deliberate than your average action picture. While the fights and action sequences effectively give the costumes and heroics active importance, the film’s true emphasis is on its philosophy. What drives these people to be heroes? How did they get to where they are today? And how has the world gotten to such a desperate place that there is actually a Doomsday clock displayed by the government, like some twisted terror threat level scale, telling people how close they all are to The End?

One scene does a particularly good job of summarizing the beliefs of the story. In flashback we see Nite Owl and The Comedian trying to calm a riotous crowd. As the violence escalates The Comedian starts shooting into the crowd. After the crowd has dissipated an astonished Nite Owl asks, “What happened to the American Dream?” A crazed-faced Comedian says, “This is it.” Even when everything goes the way it should have—i.e. we won the Vietnam War—everything is still messed up.

Zack Snyder’s direction sets the mood of the piece as being both comic book inspired and a lesson in American history. The opening credits of the movie operate as a brief history of the Watchmen and America by providing a series of vignettes showing points in their mutual history, with many famous moments of our reality recreated in this alternate universe with a Watchmen influence. There is a famous photograph taken in Times Square of a sailor kissing a nurse when the end of World War II was announced. Here it’s recreated with the controversy of having a female Watchmen teammate kissing that nurse. There’re many other moments recreated, including the revelation that the man on the grassy knoll at Kennedy’s assassination was none other than The Comedian.

I was surprised to find Snyder’s soundtrack didn’t include a series of songs solicited from modern pop artists depicting the grunge and hip attitude of superheroes in crisis. This is good as it would have been wrong for the film. Instead the soundtrack is like a nostalgic ride through American pop history with original recordings by Nat King Cole, Nina Simone, Simon and Garfunkle, and Bob Dylan. This serves the nostalgic quality of the film very well. Much of the story involves the heroes looking back fondly on their days as heroes and in despair of where they are today.

Snyder also recreates many of the stills from the comic book itself. The initial fight between The Comedian and his murderer comes to mind. It is not depicted in a realistic way as both combatants survive a number of blows that would easily have killed even the strongest of men, but he slows the fight down so the audience can form snapshot images in their minds that stay with them just as a comic book would. Many of those snapshots are exact replicas of the comic book panels. Snyder also recreates the iconic War Room set from Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” as Nixon’s War Room.

The casting, for the most part, is spot on. As a fan of the comic, it was hard for me to imagine any actors in these roles. Snyder and his casting director have eschewed a star-studded cast for ones who embody the characters of the book. Jackie Earle Haley (“Little Children”) is amazingly brutal as Rorschach, making up for his diminished size with an attitude that would make Dirty Harry shake in his boots. Billy Crudup (“The Good Shepard”) has the right amount of detachment as the almost alien Dr. Manhattan. Matthew Goode (“Match Point”) brings the perfect amount of pomposity to Ozymandais. Morgan is perfect in The Comedian’s role. And perhaps the easiest to overlook is Patrick Wilson (“Lakeview Terrace”) as Nite Owl. His ability to revel in his superhero role while otherwise looking pensive and frumpy makes me think he should have been cast as Superman. Only Malin Akerman’s (“27 Dresses”) shoulders seem overly burdened by the heaviness of the material, although Carla Gugino (“Righteous Kill”) is another stroke of perfection as her mother.

I had feared that the graphic novel’s Cold War themes wouldn’t translate into the 21st century. Instead the passage of time since the story’s original publication serves to enhance the nostalgic feel of the piece. The twin towers still stand in the Watchmen’s universe and there is the feeling that they might still stand in that universe today. It is important to remember that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Although this story is now a period piece, its inquiries are still relevant to our world. Even though the Cold War ended peacefully in our reality, war is still all too real; and there’s nothing to say the Cold War won’t find itself a sequel, certainly nothing in history anyway.

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