06 March 2009

Movielog, Watchmen

Watchmen, 2009
Written by David Hayter and Alex Tse
Based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Directed by Zack Snyder
163 minutes

Soon after the teaser for this film was revealed to the world with The Dark Knight, I saw a post over at io9 clucking about the fact that Captain Metropolis was not a listed cast member on Watchmen's IMDB page -- how could this film have the heft it needed without the Crimebusters meeting called by Captain Metropolis? Well, easily, since it just gives all the necessary dialogue to Veidt and therefore doesn't have to spend ten minutes introducing a character who's really only in that one scene. The screenwriters of Watchmen deserve high praise for their work here -- they've managed to take a graphic novel that has been considered basically unfilmable for the last two decades and have found a narrative throughline in the material that allows them to keep the structure intact, even while discarding beloved but time-consuming elements of the original material. As an adaptation this film rivals The Lord of the Rings in terms of scope and difficulty, and also in terms of the overall success of the finished product. And just as with LOTR, you'll have hardcore fans of the material missing the forest for the trees and whining about random missing details when what is in front of them is a magnificent re-telling of the original tale. And I believe that like LOTR, Watchmen will be largely embraced by fans of the original work.

Holy fucking shit, what a film this is! The nitpickers and nay-sayers focus on their petty favorite details, but seem to neglect just how much of the original has been kept, more than I think any of us had a right to expect. Virtually every word of Rorschach's notebooks is here, done in creepy and psychotic voiceover. The Comedian is every bit the vile bastard he was in the book, and two key scenes, one in Vietnam and one in an old foe's crummy apartment, are every bit as moving as they could ever have been. The fire rescue? Here. The apocalyptic dreams? Right here. Dr. Manhattan's lonely sojourn on Mars? It's all here, haunting, moving, and quite simply astonishing.

And the ending? It'll probably be the most debated aspect of the movie, but it's still here in essence even if the details have changed. The details have changed because it takes precious screentime to establish the details of the original ending, screentime that is better devoted to other things. (I'm being vague here to avoid spoilers.) In some ways the movie's ending is better than the graphic novel -- it's more directly related to the themes of the story, and it doesn't require the kind of meandering that draws out the end of the graphic novel a bit more than necessary.

Yes, I loved Watchmen. Snyder and his crew found a way to film the unfilmable by focusing on the details of the investigation into the murder of Edward Blake, the Comedian. Psychopathic Hero Rorschach believes that there's a "mask-killer" on the loose, and his investigation takes him through a cross-section of this funhouse alternate history America and exposes some painful secrets along the way, and a conspiracy that affects the life of every single person on Earth. Anything that was in the graphic novel that isn't on this spine is generally not in the movie -- most particularly, the history of costumed adventurers in general is only hinted at in a short scene involving Hollis Mason at the beginning of the film, and the childhood motivations of the main cast is not shown here. Threads from the novel that involve ancillary characters also don't make it on-screen; my favorite of these involves the home life of a psychiatrist, and while I was sorry to see it go, I understand that including it would have bogged down the narrative just when it needed to pick up some steam. Do we really need ten minutes of Watchmen dealing with such a minor character? Of course not, even though it was one of my favorite portions of the novel.

The performances are good all around. Whether the decision to use mainly up-and-coming actors or otherwise unfamiliar faces came from an artistic or budgetary source is probably meaningless, for the lack of big-name stars helps the film to succeed on its own merits. It's not that Tom Cruise would have made a bad Ozymandias or that Hillary Swank wouldn't have been able to pull off Laurie, but known faces would have distracted from the overall story and kept us at a bit of a distance. Everyone brings their A game here, respecting the material first and foremost, and disappear into their roles like they were written especially for them.

Let's go in IMDB order. I'm not familiar with Malin Ackerman's other work, but her Laurie is feminine but tough in all the right ways. She has a thankless role in a lot of ways, never really getting a show-off moment the way some of the other characters do, but she is at the heart of the film, and carries off her big emotional moments with the aplomb of much more experienced actors. There's a scene ending with her in tears towards the finale of the movie, and if her performance didn't work, the movie probably would just grind to a halt, but she succeeds in portraying a woman driven almost to madness by her own past, and it's one of the most touching moments in the film. (And yes, she looks amazing in that costume.)

Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan. He seemed like a bit of an odd choice for the role, and I had some doubts when watching the trailers about his voice in particular, but my fears were for naught. Manhattan is a god walking among men, immortal, able to see the future and the past, and Crudup gives this impossible character a solid grounding in humanity even while he becomes more and more distanced from ordinary human concerns. His voice is that of a college professor, the quiet physicist he once was, and even in his most powerful moments he gives off a gentleness and a decency that was perhaps missing in the comic. It's a tough line to walk, but Crudup does it masterfully, and it's a shame that this film is unlikely to get the kind of major awards buzz that would give him the recognition he deserves.

Matthew Goode is another actor with whom I'm unfamiliar, but boy is his work as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias creepy. Veidt is "the smartest man on Earth" who has built his image as a superhero into a worldwide financial empire, and Goode manages to find the right balance between Donald Trump and David Bowie that is somehow deeply affecting rather than being ridiculous. He is a cypher through most of the film, and even when all his motives are revealed at the end he maintains the right air of mystery.

Jackie Earle Haley. Holy. Fuck. He spends most of the movie under a completely face-covering mask but gives such an amazing performance with just the timbre of his voice and remarkable body language that he officially becomes an Actor to Watch in the future. Rorschach is another of those impossible roles, a fan favorite (with good reason!), and Haley captures all the right notes perfectly. He's a character who would be a psychopathic murderer except that he has turned his sociopathy towards the doers of evil in the world, and his mind has been warped by all these years in the gutter. He does the same kind of rough gravel with his voice that Bale did when playing Batman, but Haley's lack of star power allows him to disappear into the role much more than Bale ever could, and I totally bought that this character could be the terror of the underworld even when only armed with a cafeteria tray. His may be the single best performance in a film filled with great performances.

If there's a better example of amoral glee in literature than the Comedian, I'm not aware of it, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan is up to the task. While Rorschach is a sociopath who enforces a strict code of right and wrong, the Comedian is just a bastard who does pretty much whatever he wants and has fun doing it. It's his death that instigates the film, and in flashbacks we see him torching fleeing Vietnamese, raping a woman, and gunning down protesters in the street. But we also get his humanity -- Morgan gives us a portrait of a man whose response to the evils of the world was to hit back just as hard and turn off his feelings, but who has not forgotten his humanity. It's a brief role but an important one, and Morgan gives a performance here that reminds me of Mickey Rourke's in Sin City, a bastard who just might want to be a gentle giant underneath.

Dan Dreiberg is probably my least favorite of the characters in the comic, but Patrick Wilson helps me see the humanity in this chubby ex-adventurer. Dreiberg is in many ways the moral center of the story, the character who has been least damaged by the world around him and who is least beset by emotional trauma, which makes him I suppose less interesting than those surrounding him. But in many ways he (like Ackerman) grounds the film, providing a human counterpoint to the Earth-shattering events surrounding him. His role in the finale is stepped up a bit from that in the novel, which helps to give an audience surrogate to this rogue's gallery of emotionally twisted people. I know Wilson best from Hard Candy, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how funny he could be here; Dreiberg gets to be a bit of comic relief at certain moments in the film, and Wilson manages to find the humor in the character without ever losing the more mordant tone of the rest of the film.

I know it's fashionable to think The Dark Knight is one of the Greatest Films Ever Made, but while I liked that film a whole lot I didn't think it was quite as heady as people made it out to be. No matter what kinds of themes you find buried in Batman, TDK was ultimately about a guy who put on a funny costume to fight the Pure Evil (tm) of another guy who really just robbed banks for a living. Ledger's Joker is menacing because he is completely unhinged, an utterly vile man who wants to make the world into chaos. Watchmen is a vastly superior film because it knows that the real world rarely gives us the kinds of Evil-with-a-capital-E opponents, and that when you're playing for the grandest of stakes, sometimes all you have is moral ambiguity. The meaning of the last chapter of Watchmen has been debated for two decades and more, and the film version is sure to create a whole new generation of people arguing about it. What a magnificent experience.

Rating: A

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