Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
March 2009

Big Blue vs. the Reds

Finally hitting theatres after all these years, 'Watchmen' is both more and less than it could have been

Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenplay: David Hayter and Alex Tse, based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Starring: Billy Crudup, Jackie Earle Haley, Malin Akerman, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Goode, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Carla Gugino
Rated R / 2 hours, 43 minutes
Opened March 6, 2009
(out of four)

It's miracle enough that Watchmen even got made in the first place, having been stuck in development hell for the last two decades. Perhaps it would take an even greater miracle for it to put its many disparate pieces together to form something as epic as the scope of its ambitions.

The cluster of influences, histories, stylistic devices and the worldviews of its numerous heroic and/or anti-heroic characters within Watchmen never coalesce into a fully convincing whole. Now, now, I understand - disorder is precisely the point. But that doesn't mean there's not a bigger picture here; it just so happens that director Zack Snyder loses it from time to time. (Whether or not previous would-be helmers Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky or Paul Greengrass could have accomplished it is another matter, but I sure would like to see them try.)

Chaos is the only prevailing certainty in this dystopian alternate history; impending nuclear doom is the punchline. And still, Snyder doesn't always seem aware that Watchmen is, ultimately, a black comedy. In the moments he does realize this, the film soars; when he doesn't, it digresses into a shapeless vacuum of characters whose lives appear to serve no purpose but to reminisce about the old days or solve mysteries that have merely a vague connection to a world we can only hear in the background.

Many of the triumphs in Watchmen are evidence of Snyder's improvement as a filmmaker. This is vastly more sophisticated than the monotonous drone of 300, his last feature. He has scaled back the furious slo-mo he used so gratuitously in that film and employed a far more versatile cinematic vocabulary.

He finds the wit in the interplay between the action in a television commercial and the action just behind that door that's about to be kicked down. The subtle menace of a swinging bathroom door, offering us a tantalizing build-up of an inevitable act of violence. Or cutting away from the action to reveal the result, or the reaction.

The way the film communicates action and anticipation, juxtaposes pop imagery and comic melodrama, is done to great effect in scene after scene. At the same time, however, Snyder still shows he has a long way to go as a dramatist.

He opens with one of the film's best scenes, as the aging vigilante known as The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is attacked and thrown out the window to his death by an unknown assailant. Humor and stark matter-of-factness play beautifully in this scene, seemingly establishing the film's tone. We transition into a superb title sequence that gets back story out of the way through a series of detailed tableaus.

Then, we meet Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), the most fascinating character in the film, a sociopath with a stringently black-and-white view of good and evil, appropriate enough given the mask - or his "face," as he insists - with its ink-blot shapes constantly shifting as he breaths, speaks, feels, seethes. He is our eyes and ears, a sociopathic outlaw intent on bringing to light whatever conspiracy has suddenly found "costumed heroes" - once a fad, now illegal - being killed one by one.

Once we get these exceptional opening scenes out of the way, however, things get a bit murky. Snyder seems to lose grasp of exactly what we're supposed to be experiencing. The elements that come alive so feverishly early on suddenly dissipate in favor of a succession of plot points, flashbacks, fights and romantic overtures that are either given far too little screen time or far too much. There's so much padding piled on top of itself that the film loses sight of the world outside; we forget what's at stake; we don't feel the paranoia, the fearful collective unconscious, that has become so congenital to this society.

This is a 1985 America in which Richard Nixon is in his fifth term as president, with the Cold War building toward a climax. Years ago, a depraved American ideal had paved the way for the inexplicable emergence of "masked adventurers" - everyday people who play dress-up and fight crime for the greater good. Or if not the greater good, then at least for money. To each his own.

Those adventurers have been outlawed by now, and as they begrudgingly accept forced retirement, even they can't explain exactly why they did it. The only true "superhero" among them is the deliberately ominously named Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), who was disintegrated in a nuclear reactor and re-constructed as a glowing, bright blue super being. Dr. Manhattan - and his big blue penis - can sees his past, present and future at once, change and rearrange matter and teleport from place to place.

Seen as a god by most of mankind ("God exists, and he is American!"), he is used by the government as a weapon (ending Vietnam by himself) and presumably as a deterrent against any nuclear strike by the government . . . only to instead provoke extreme fear - the kind of fear that might cause one to irrationally strike first. He was once a watchman, a short-lived organized group of superheroes that included - among those not already mentioned - Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), following in her mother's footsteps; Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson); and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), the so-called smartest man on earth.

The most sensible character of all, of course, is The Comedian, for he sees the state of the world as humanity's grand joke on itself. He is both the epitome of this world and its ironic counterpoint. The problem is, Snyder doesn't always seem to get the joke.

He also runs into obstacles of tone that the film isn't able to overcome. Some of it stems from the dialogue, directly translated from the comic page but delivered with only intermittent success. Akerman, as much as she looks the part (and boy does she look it), is embarrassingly bad, and Wilson and Carla Gugino aren't especially good, either. Haley gives the film's standout performance.

There are so many flashes of excellence that it makes the film's shortcomings all the more disappointing. Alex McDowell's production design create a fittingly moody, noirish look and feel to the settings. Direct compositions and visual ideas are lifted from the war room in Kubrick's timeless "Dr. Strangelove" - and there's even a reference to that film's dramatic doppelganger, "Fail-Safe." And Snyder winks through the soundtrack with the likes of "All Along the Watchtower," "The Sound of Silence," "The Times They Are a-Changin'" and Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."

Based on Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' seminal and stunning graphic novel, Watchmen comes after two decades' worth of false starts. No doubt the ambition in translating the book to a full-blooded cinematic experience was a tall order. That said, the final results are mixed.

Watchmen is an easy nut to track, but a difficult one to judge or review. This is one of those cases when the star-rating system seems superfluous. Ultimately, the film suffers from flawed construction that robs it of its very essence, particularly during the middle acts. Snyder loses track of the bigger picture, and as a result, so do we. That being said, Watchmen is so much more effective than I dreaded given Snyder's previous works, that it remains a triumph of sorts - but only in pieces.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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