The Watchmen: A Review

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It was 1987.  Ronald Reagan ruled the land with a palsy-ed, yet iron fist.  his domestic team had taken Thatcherism, given it an SUV, cut its income tax, raised its payroll tax, given it private healthcare, deregulated its savings and loan industry and unleashed it on the Ranch of the American homeland.  Abroad, the party that had given us the Shah of Iran and the Contras, brought us the Iran-Contra Affair.  Into those heady times, Alan Moore injected The Watchmen.  It was nothing less than the greatest comic/graphic novel of all time, imho (in my hubristic opinion). 
 
To paraphrase Robert Zimmerman: "The Times they [have] a chang[ed]..."  Wow, that is remarkably less poetic.  Today, with the help of Bush the Elder, yes, the same Bush that planned the coup that brought the Shah to power in the 1950's, sowing the seeds of the modern Islamic fundamentalist movement, and Bush the Younger, yes the same Bush that... er... sold the Texas Rangers, and...  Okay, he more or less did nothing before he became president, but you all know what he did once he got the job, we have seen the endgame of Reaganonics and Republican foreign policy.  That endgame is no taxes for the investment class; no healthcare for the rest of us; bankrupt governments wholly owned by Chinese investors; bloated, pill-popping radio hosts putting ideological dogma before the public good; cronyism; and t-ball games on the White House lawn.  Into these heady times, Zack Snyder has injected The Watchmen: the motion picture.  It is NOT the greatest film of all time.  That said, anyone who liked the source material and lived through the above narrative in the 1980's, will definitely enjoy the film.  Those under thirty, who haven't, will be left scratching their head and saying: "Who the hell is Lee Iaccoca how do I spell that and why are those old heads laughing after he got shot in the head?"
 
It is almost impossible to relate how edgy and innovative the comic seemed when Joe Hubris read it as a teenager.  It captured the sheer angst that lay beneath the Republican abandonment of the social welfare system, the war on drugs and their placement of their corporate cronies' wallets before the basic civil rights of billions of our fellow humans.  Asking the question: "What if the forces of evil that ran America had superhero friends to defeat their enemies?"  Moore replied: "We'd have Nixon in his 4th term, urban decay that made the decline and fall of the Roman Empire look like a Moody's bond rating downgrade, and Vietnam as the 51st state."
 
Twenty years later, the film is a period piece.  It captures that same zeitgeist, only now, events have outpaced history.  Today, we see before us, in the ruins of the twin towers, the product of trading cheap gas for the torture of people with electricity in the basement of Arab thugocratic secret police facilities .  We also see, in the 40 million Americans without healthcare, how well the "market" can ruin the Hippocratic Oath.  In this regard, Moore and his work are visionary.
 
Things are less rosy on the artistic side.  It would appear that HBO and the golden age of television through which we have been living have ruined movies.  Series like Six Feet Under, the Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Rome, etc. have used hours and hours of development time to spin a tapestry so rich and invest you in the characters so deeply, that a film, even a two-hour-and-forty-minute-long film just seems inadequate.  There is shorthand used in visual story telling that allows information to be transmitted without using up precious screen time.  This has always been the case.  If you have 50-100 hours of time in which to tell your story, you simply need not engage in that shorthand to so great a degree.  Now, when Joe Hubris watches a film, he is acutely aware of this shorthand.  It had always been there, only now it seems so contrived. 
 
After spending hours and hours reading and re-reading the original comic, in the theater, there just seems to be no there there.  The characters in particular appear to be less developed.  Moore tells the story of six superheroes: three copied from the annals of comic book history and three completely original.  The NIght Owl (Batman), Silk Spectre (Wonder Woman) and Ozmandias (Superman/Shazam) are the three lifted characters. 
 
Dr. Manhattan, the Comedian and Rorschach are the original ones.  Dr. Manhattan is essentially the God superhero.  He has nearly omnipotent control over time, space and energy.  Over time, this has robbed him of his humanity.  He is no longer capable of love, only "stimulation" of his partner.  The Comedian is the all-American superhero.  His violent individualism and hatred of communism took him into the territory of alcoholic sexual assault, violent misanthropy, and political assassination.  It is his iconic, blood-spattered smiley-face pin that graces the cover, and becomes a metaphor for America--a smiling "hero" soaked in the blood of others.  And then there is Rorschach.  He starts out as a principled hero using his knowledge of the human psyche to fight crime.  After a horrible encounter he crosses the line into psychosis.  The principles that remain are as unyielding as they are ultra-violent.  They are the true heroes of the story and seem ill-formed in the movie.  Again, there is just not enough time to tell their stories even in so long a feature.
 
There are great action scenes.  Action (violence?) has always been a fundamental part of comics.  It was true in the Watchmen as well, but the outstanding story-telling and political metaphor of Mr. Moore simply overwhelmed it.  Here, in live-action, Snyder liberates those scenes and allows them to retake their rightful place at the table.  The other area where Snyder had the most freedom is the soundtrack.  Some of the songs are classic and iconic and it's always nice to hear them, no matter where.  But their placement in the film seems, at times ill-fitted.  In particular, the great hit "99 Luft ballons" intrudes into one of the quietest scenes in the movie, when Silk Spectre's and the Nigh Owl's alter ego's meet in a Manhattan restaurant to engage in "remember when..." I love the song, and it makes me happy to see it getting play, but it just didn't seem to fit the scene.
 
This film is a must see for fans of the book, but it will be a disappointment for others.

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