Sunday, March 08, 2009

Watchmen

Warning -- Spoiler Alert for The Watchmen movie!

A. O. Scott of the New York Times gave Watchmen the lowest review of the 15 critics cited on the movie's Yahoo page -- a lowly D rating.

Scott complains:
But brutality is not merely part of Mr. Snyder’s repertory of effects; it is more like a cause, a principle, an ideology. And his commitment to violence brings into relief the shallow nihilism that has always lurked beneath the intellectual pretensions of “Watchmen.” The only action that makes sense in this world — the only sure basis for ethics or politics, the only expression of love or loyalty or conviction — is killing. And the dramatic conflict revealed, at long last, in the film’s climactic arguments is between a wholesale, idealistic approach to mass death and one that is more cynical and individualistic.

This idea is sickening but also, finally, unpersuasive, because it is rooted in a view of human behavior that is fundamentally immature, self-pitying and sentimental. Perhaps there is some pleasure to be found in regressing into this belligerent, adolescent state of mind. But maybe it’s better to grow up.
Scott seems turned off by the moral issues raised by the movie -- if we all just "grow up" all this fighting and killing will go away, apparently. Scott also hated even more the movie 300, about the Spartans defending Western civilization in manly-man style.

Sacrifice, honor, killing...how immature.

I find it ironic that the reviewer's comments actually parallel a speech by the villain Adrian Veidt from the Watchmen graphic novel! Here, Veidt believes he has tricked the world into a utopia of international cooperation, saving it from the brink of nuclear war -- the only price was a few million innocent lives (as is typical of left-wing utopian programs):
NITE OWL: Veidt, you Bastard. If you've hurt her, I'll...

VEIDT: Oh Daniel. Daniel, Daniel, Daniel...Please...Do Grow up. My new world demands less obvious heroism, making your schoolboy heroics redundant.
I'm sure Scott would agree with Veidt!
Veidt goes on to babble about humanity being about to "reject the darkness in its heart."

As if!

Rorschach of course will have none of it. He demands to expose the Truth -- that Veidt murdered millions to manufacture a fake external threat against which to unite humanity.

No compromise, even in the face of Armageddon. Evil must be punished. People must be told.

This review, and the movie's moral dichotomy, illustrate well the different mindset between utopian Leftist and individualistic Rightist thought. I struggle to articulate the point, but Brian Doherty of Reason Online nails it:
Rorschach Doesn't Shrug
The Watchmen's hero as Objectivist saint

The moral center of Watchmen, both the original graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons and the new, much-discussed movie based on it premiering today, is a curious and prickly masked vigilante who goes by the name Rorschach.
...
Both Rorschach and Watchmen’s villain (who I’ll avoid naming, for slight spoiler protection purposes) are willing to kill in the name of what they think is a higher good. Indeed, given Rorschach’s contempt for what he sees as the moral stink of the Watchmen world, it's easy to imagine that he might have been willing to accept that each and every person killed in the movie’s central scheme might have actually deserved it (as Rand did in a smaller-scale disaster; Atlas Shrugged’s train wreck scene).

But Rorschach would deliver that as a personal, individual judgment—breaking what bones needed to be broken with his own hands—not from a world away with indiscriminate techno-gimmicks and no sense of actual individual guilt. The opposition between Rorschach and the villain is easy to read as that of individual, true justice versus the state’s collectivist version.
This illustrates another subtle mischaracterization in Scott's review -- Rorschach's violence isn't about "mass death" like Veidt's, he is responding to it.

Doherty continues:
Rorschach’s sense of justice may make him hate most of humanity—he brags to himself at the beginning that if mankind begged him to save them, he’d justly say “no.” But by the end he sacrifices himself in the name of avenging the deaths of millions who he doesn’t know. He does it for another reason as well, one of particular holiness to the Objectivist: the truth, the facts of reality. Whether or not the villain’s scheme might result in some “higher good,” it did so at the cost of Faking Reality—a cost no Objectivist will bear. We don’t know if Rorschach’s attempts to set the record straight will do any good—but he’s willing to bear any burden, let the very heavens fall, to stay square with reality.
...
Yet he’s also the only man around who stands up for everyone’s right to be judged individually on the basis of their character and actions, their right not to be a means to someone else’s higher end—no matter what one might think of that end. He knows what it means to be human—that’s why he has to condemn those he kills as having betrayed the essence of man qua man, relegating them to the status of dogs to be put down.

But always, Rorschach judges as an individual mind, and judges individual minds. Rorschach is no handsome Rand hero as she imagined them; but he’s still probably the most vivid and well-thought-out Objectivist hero that Rand didn’t create.
And Veidt's planned utopia is doomed, as Rorschach gets the last laugh...

Other reviewers, however, "get it". At E! Online:
But most likely everyone will get a kick out of Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a sort of Dirty Harry gone rogue, whose Clint Eastwood rasp could have been really silly but stays just this side of camp. Investigating the murder that kicks off the story—and ultimately uncovering a much larger conspiracy that will determine the fate of the world—he serves as the film's moral compass, in a weird way, even when he's splitting open a guy's head with a meat cleaver.
Especially when splitting open a guy's head with a meat cleaver!

2 Comments:

Anonymous coffee said...

Rorschach was an especially well developed as a character; i hope the actor that played his role is nominated for some kind of an award (when that season comes around again)

2:32 PM, March 15, 2009  
Anonymous Mike said...

Just for the record, I do not know a single liberal (and I know a lot of them) who would condone Veidt's actions, despite the outcome, or who would not commend Rorschach's commitment to the truth.

Also, I loved the movie, but Scott is right in one respect- the violent conflict metaphor is a juvenile thematic device. I belies the fact that the vast majority of grown-up challenges facing this world are between good people - like you and me - to settle our disagreements and make progress. But that justs sounds so boring.

6:05 PM, August 02, 2009  

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