A review of Watchmen (produced and distributed by Warner Bros. and Paramount Pictures; directed by Zack Snyder; screenplay by David Hayter and Alex Tse) and Duplicity (produced and distributed by Universal Pictures; directed and written by Tony Gilroy)
The title of Alan Moore’s 1986 comic-book series Watchmen alludes to the Roman satirist Juvenal, who asked, “Who watches the watchmen?” He was cynically warning that there was no way to control an inconstant wife since she would easily beguile any guard put in charge of her. Juvenal’s question has often been invoked in purely political discussions ever since. How does a society protect itself against its supposed protectors? In the aftermath of the Bush administration’s expansion of executive powers following September 11, the query’s contemporary relevance is quite patent. But as I watched Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Moore’s comic book, it occurred to me that the question might be leveled with yet a different purpose. Just who is watching this film? And how is it affecting them?
At the theater I attended, the meager audience comprised mostly adolescent boys—the film’s demographic, as the marketers say. They were watching a ponderous curriculum that included a paranoid history lesson, a quasi-medical demonstration of the body’s various breaking points, and a graphic disquisition on sexuality complete with demonstrations of foreplay and intercourse. In short, Watchmen is a $150 million educational film as serious and solemn as such productions come, only with higher production values.
Its history lesson willfully alters known facts but only to get at essential truths. It’s 1985. America won the Vietnam War in 1975 with the assistance of Dr. Manhattan, a blue radioactive superman, along with a league of other more or less normal superheroes. As you might imagine, the Soviet Union has been neutralized in the bargain. The Russian leaders quake at the thought of Dr. Manhattan, who can bend matter to his will. They’re understandably reluctant to get bent. And, did I mention, Richard Nixon is in his fifth term, scornful as ever of the traitorous East Coast Harvard Establishment?
Nixon’s still that paranoid chucklehead. He can’t help himself. With the war over, he’s forbidden his superhero allies their usual fascist fun: no more suiting up to kick scoundrels in the cause of truth, justice, and the American way. Odd. You’d think Nixon of all people would have continued to support the superheroes’ extralegal civic-mindedness. Weren’t such shenanigans his stock-in-trade? Most of the superheroes have submitted to the new dispensation, going quietly to seed until one of their number, the nihilistic Comedian, is tossed to his death from his high-rise apartment. Enter Rorschach in fedora, trench coat, and a white cotton mask on which black-ink shapes are forever shifting in homage to his name. This hero is more paranoid than Nixon. He decides there’s a plot afoot to bump off all his cronies, and it must be stopped. Meanwhile, Ozymandias, a superhero-cum-businessman with a fixation on Alexander the Great, scolds the titans of the automotive and oil industries in his Park Avenue redoubt. “Your oil is a drug, and you are the pushers,” he coolly informs them as he proposes an alternative energy system of his own to be given away. Lee Iacocca protests. “Free is just another word for socialism.” Good old Lee. Too bad he has to take a bullet in the forehead in this alternate history lesson, but, as Ozymandias almost says, saving the world’s not for sissies. Moore’s outlook is decidedly Stalinist. And like Uncle Joe, he’s not at all shy about it. To make the utopian omelette, it’s necessary to break a few eggs. Quite a few, as it turns out in Moore’s story, and as it did in more conventional history.
Moore’s alternate history creates a scenario dear to left-wing sensibilities. How satisfying to have Nixon still around! Fictively speaking, his continuing presence cuts through the ambiguities of the recent past, including Ronald Reagan’s inconvenient triumph over communism, and reveals a terrifying truth. America is a fascist state run by a power-mad elite. This justifies everyone’s suspicions, gives substance to every grievance. It doesn’t get better than this.
Faithfully rendering Moore’s lurid imaginings, Snyder has also retained the comic’s mood of adolescent petulance. The world of Watchmen is being ruined by uncool adults, and the kids shouldn’t stand for it. Adult-in-chief is Nixon, party pooper extraordinaire. His squelching of superhero antics may seem paradoxical, but it’s really just a manifestation of his middle-class obsession with square ordinariness. He’s intent on squeezing every ounce of hipster fun out of life, leaving the world a dank and crummy place, its inhabitants teetering between resignation to dowdy conformity, on one hand, and indulgence in furtive, unseemly pleasures, on the other. Take Dan Dreiberg, a.k.a. Nite Owl, the superhero obviously modeled on Batman. Nite Owl has permanently parked his owl-visaged hovercraft beneath his Manhattan brownstone, hung up his cape, and acquired a gut of spreading proportions. Meanwhile, just a few blocks from his home, porno theaters thrive under garish neon; prostitutes accost pedestrians, offering the promise of easy thrills; and criminals brazenly rob and beat the citizenry. As Rorschach says in his neo-noir growl, New York City “stinks of fornication and bad consciences.” Yikes!
But let’s not overlook Snyder’s lesson in physiology. When Nite Owl and his girlfriend, Silk Spectre, are cornered by murderous street thugs, they take on the bad guys with cool aplomb. They grab the knife-wielders’ arms, breaking them in two. Splintering bones rip through muscle and flesh, their gleaming white tubes oozing purple marrow. Great fun. In another scene, Rorschach, temporarily imprisoned for his vigilante behavior—he peremptorily introduced a child murderer’s skull to a meat cleaver—traps a fellow inmate’s arms in his cell’s bars. Then, to get at Rorschach, another inmate power-saws through the entangled arms in living color. This is not to be missed by kids hankering to perform emergency-room amputations. I also liked the scenes in which dogs tear apart the remains of the aforementioned girl. Not much left for the hospital, but quite illustrative nevertheless.
And then there’s the sex ed. The usually impotent Dreiberg finds superhero activity better than Viagra. After a mission, he’s suddenly in the mood. He and Silk Spectre strip their latex costumes and enjoy languorous sex in their hovercraft floating over Manhattan. Very educational indeed.
Despite a few ironic moments, Watchmen is too self-important to laugh at itself. The tone is high Dostoyevskian with Nietzschean accents. Unfortunately, the material is comic-book kitsch.
So, who’s watching the Watchmen? Our children, I’m afraid. I wonder what they will take from its lessons.
Writer-director Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity offers a nimble adult alternative to Snyder’s flat-footed schoolboy lessons. The film is perhaps the most amusing, intelligent romantic-espionage-thriller-mystery-comedy to be released in more than a decade. It has the additional recommendation of providing potent relief for the headache corporate America has recently visited upon us. And this, despite its principal actors, Clive Owen and Julia Roberts, neither of whom possesses the kind of light touch usually required by such material. Gilroy has fashioned a glib, time-shuffling script with pacing and dialogue so nearly foolproof that even the dour, sneering Owen and the strained, impetuously toothy Roberts are unable to sink the movie. In fact, Gilroy, who directed 2007’s masterful Michael Clayton, plays on their liabilities to add an extra comic dimension to the film. Owen’s natural glower makes him the perfect foil for Roberts’ manic need to one-up him. In the film’s elaborate commercial espionage plot, he’s always a step or two behind her machinations and finally descends into a state of perpetual guardedness in her presence—quite proper for a man who distrusts the woman he loves.
In secondary roles, the always welcome Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti play pharmaceutical CEOs locked in mortal combat, and they make the film positively hum with a heartening malice.
The story begins with Roberts and Owen meeting cutely in Dubai. She’s with the CIA, and he’s formerly of MI6, now freelance. He tries a variation on the don’t-we-know-each-other gambit, and she counters, “Are you drunk?” As it turns out, each has something the other wants. Roberts has her body; Owen, some secret intelligence. Soon, they’re in his room, where the usual happens discreetly off-camera. For Roberts, however, it’s not love at first bedding. She calmly drugs Owen and walks off with his intelligence both literally and figuratively: the two oldest professions in dazzling action. For the next five years, Owen plies his trade round the world but stays ever on the alert, hoping he might one day see this mystery woman again. Then, on a sunny day in Manhattan, he spies her in Grand Central Station, and the chase is on. Or so it seems. This is a movie about appearances that have only a glancing relation to reality. Not until the end do we see just how glancing. The mystery is abetted by the film’s constant time-shuttling. Cleverly unhelpful directions announce “Five years later,” “Two years earlier,” “18 months before,” and, most piquantly, “12 hours later.” This temporal gamesmanship is one of the film’s many delights. Another is the titanic battle between two pharmaceutical CEOs over who will cash in on the next stupendous breakthrough in their industry’s personal-appearance sector. Appearances again. Tighten your focus. Or maybe not. In this film, the closer you look, the less you see.
Wilkinson and Giamatti make their first appearances at an airport, not at all cutely. Their corporate jets sit outside a hangar, their nose cones pointing menacingly at each other. Each stands alongside his respective jet with his entourage of polished yes-men. The CEOs regard each other balefully and then march toward each other at an accelerating pace. The sequence is silent, but we can tell from their twisting mouths and thrusting gestures that they’re spewing vitriolic insults. Once in reach, they begin to grapple old-manfully. The episode is executed with all the panache of an inspired Laurel and Hardy routine. The silliness of the paunchy, lumbering executives, the consternation of their hired help, the gleaming white planes paying mute witness to the human cargo they’ve just disgorged—it’s all a joy to behold. These are the arrogant, pampered beneficiaries of hundred-million-dollar bonuses, and nothing could be more satisfying than to watch them roll around on the tarmac biting each other’s calves.
The battling corporate chieftains unwittingly bring Roberts and Owen together again. They are now scheming corporate spies, and they know an opportunity when they see one, and . . . But that’s as far as I’m going. It would be treasonous to divulge more.