Mar 6 2009
'Watchmen': Behind The Masks, By Kurt Loder
Hollywood finally does right by Alan Moore.
So did they leave stuff out? How could they not? "Watchmen" adepts will note a significant amount of narrative surgery in the long-awaited movie version of this revered comic-book classic. The lengthy "Black Freighter" pirate segments and the "Under the Hood" back story? Gone. (Both have understandably been shooed off onto a DVD that's due out on March 24.) Likewise elided are a mysterious island, a press-clip mosaic and a rambling "Nova Express" interview. And the grumbly homicide detectives and the two Bernies at the corner newsstand are only glancingly represented. In addition, as more fanatical fans have feared all along, the ending has been tinkered with — but only in its central, pulpy detail (which was always the weakest part of the story); its enigmatic impact remains undefiled.
None of this much matters. In fact, Zack Snyder's film translation of "Watchmen" (directed from a script by Alex Tse that incorporates elements of an earlier screenplay by David Hayter) irresistibly calls to mind one of the more heavily frayed critical clichés: It's a monumental accomplishment. The comic books on which the picture is based — a 12-issue run written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons and published in 1986 and '87 (and then quickly collected into a celebrated "graphic novel") — are of course a monument themselves in the comics field. The story — essentially a murder mystery set among a group of colorfully flawed costumed crimebusters — is a narrative collage so intricately constructed that it has defeated repeated attempts to bring it to the screen. That Snyder has managed to streamline this sprawling material into a terrific action movie without trivializing its psychological penetration, philosophical resonance and powerful emotional charge is something of a miracle.
The director has a flair for narrative shorthand. He has compressed the "Under the Hood" history of the Minutemen — an early fraternity of masked adventurers inspired by the comic-book debut of Superman in 1938 — into a splendid montage that runs through the opening credits, accompanied by Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin' " (an inspired touch). And he has a witty way of signaling absent elements of the book to knowing fans: For instance, rather than tarry over the speculation in the novel (as I think we can call it) about the true identity of Hooded Justice, the first freelance vigilante, Snyder simply uses the hulking brute's brief appearance in a key scene to demonstrate that he speaks with a German accent. What non-scholars will make of such oblique flourishes is hard to guess. They may be baffled, bored, whatever. Still, the movie stands on its own. (Well, with an occasional twitch: The elimination of that mysterious island throws another scene — a drunken confrontation with an arch-villain named Moloch — slightly out of whack.)
The year is 1985, heavily reimagined. We're in an America that won the Vietnam War, and in which Richard Nixon — in reality forced out of office by the Watergate scandal in 1974 — is still president, having overridden constitutional term limits. The successors to the Minutemen are a group (not actually called the Watchmen) who have been driven into exile by congressional edict. The serenely blond and hyper-intelligent Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode) discarded his alter-identity of Ozymandias before the ban went into effect, and has since become an enormously wealthy industrial entrepreneur. But Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), the former Nite Owl, has settled into mild-mannered, flabby idleness; and Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman), although happily rid of the skimpy outfit she wore as the Silk Spectre, is restless and unfulfilled in her current role of girlfriend to the blue-skinned, usually nude and deeply inscrutable Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), the only one of the disbanded group with actual superpowers. Manhattan is still employed by the government as an ultimate weapon in enforcing America's will throughout the world — although even he may not be powerful enough to stop a Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union that's building toward nuclear doomsday.
Two other group members also remain active. The savage Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who operates as the Comedian (life is a big ugly joke to him), also works for the government, in its dirty-tricks department. (It was he, we're shown, who shot JFK from the grassy knoll in Dallas.) And the borderline-psychotic Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), whose true identity is still unknown, conducts an ongoing one-man war, outside the law, against the criminal scum of an extra-grubby New York City.
As the movie opens, the Comedian has been murdered (in a pulverizing fight scene) and the paranoid Rorschach is instantly suspicious — could this be the beginning of a vendetta against members of the mask-wearing community? Turns out that it is, and as further attacks and suspicious coincidences continue to occur — and Rorschach himself takes a serious fall — Dan and Laurie begin to share his apprehension.
The movie is packed with wild violence (all of it present in the novel), and Snyder stages it with unflagging intensity. The many set-piece sequences — Rorschach's furious battle against an encircling army of cops, a prison chow-line assault involving a pan full of hot frying fat, an alley brawl in which Dan and Laurie rediscover their butt-kicking skills in beating down a herd of malevolent street thugs — are memorably rousing (and bloody — the shattered bones and chainsawed limbs are startlingly graphic). Two scenes — one depicting a brutal attempted rape, another the barroom shooting of a pregnant woman — are naturally more shocking in a kinetic medium than they were in Gibbons' original illustrations (on which they're closely modeled). They're intended to shine an unsparing light on one character's shriveled soul, and they do; but it's difficult to imagine who wouldn't find them hard to watch.
What elevated Moore's story above the traditional run of comic-book cartoonery was its concern with damaged humanity, with the characters' fears of a darkening future and longings for a brighter past, and their feelings of obsolescence and irrelevance. The movie retains a surprising amount of this soul-plumbing spirit, although inevitably, even in a picture that runs more than two hours and 40 minutes, it's unable to attain the full emotional richness of Moore's great waves of brilliant writing. Still, we feel the perplexity of aging adventurers wondering whatever possessed them to dress up in preposterous costumes and sally forth to fight crime with little more than fists and gadgets. And we understand the bleakness of their marginalization by Dr. Manhattan, a physicist transformed by a laboratory accident into a genuine super-being capable of viewing time as an ever-present continuum and of teleporting himself to Mars — an empty planet he finds more congenial than their own. (The sequence on Mars in which Manhattan brings Laurie to view the spectacular glass structure he has raised up out of the pink sand, and to debate the value of human life in the face of the mute indifference of the universe, has a resonant beauty beyond the customary reach of computer-generation. So does the dream scene in which Laurie and Dan, both naked, embrace on a vast twilit plain as a nuclear cloud flares up enormously in the distance — another of the many images taken directly from Gibbons' original artwork.)
It's hard to imagine a better cast for this movie. Even obscured throughout most of the film by a head-hugging spotted mask, Haley brings just the right combination of seething hostility and emotional torment to the tricky role of Rorschach, the story's most mesmerizing character. And Crudup gives a virtuoso performance as Dr. Manhattan, imbuing this remote, post-emotional character with a sweet, pensive warmth. Goode exudes precisely the sort of sinister elegance that makes Adrian Veidt such an ambiguous character in the novel; Wilson deploys Dreiberg's mildness as an anchoring presence amid all the action; and Morgan, with his burly swagger and cigar-chewing leer, is a Comedian that even the famously cantankerous Moore might applaud. Akerman seems somewhat bland amid all this vibrance; but then the character of Laurie is less complexly conceived than the others. (The actress seemed more appealing the second time I watched the film. Farther down in the cast, though, the actor playing Nixon has been equipped with a prosthetic nose of Pinocchio proportions — a bizarre miscalculation that ruins the scenes he's in, which are fortunately few.)
"Watchmen" is unlike other comic-book movies because its source material, even to this day, is unlike other comic books. Behind the picture's many masks are recognizably human personalities — twisted exaggerations, of course, but not cartoons. And behind the camera is a director whose love of the original comics shines through in every scene, every detail; his determination to do them justice has finally brought this story to the screen in a rich, stirring form for which even the pickiest fan should be thankful.
("Watchmen" is a co-production of Paramount Pictures. Paramount and MTV are both subsidiaries of Viacom.)