Watchmen — Justice, Accountability, and Distopia

Film:Watchmen Poster

Watchmen, 2009

Starring Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Patrick Wilson.

Synopsis (from IMDB):

In a gritty and alternate 1985 the glory days of costumed vigilantes have been brought to a close by a government crackdown, but after one of the masked veterans is brutally murdered an investigation into the killer is initiated. The reunited heroes set out to prevent their own destruction, but in doing so discover a deeper and far more diabolical plot.

My Thoughts:

I am the type of person that enjoys lighthearted films, films that make me laugh and pick me up, films that inspire.  That being said, sometimes gritty, raw, and dark films can also inspire.  Watchmen is definitely a downer, as one can tell from the opening credits as the heroes fall from favor as society turns against them and they must go into hiding.  But there is a lot we can learn from these dark emotions that Watchmen so artfully invokes.

I have talked about justice before, but this film focuses so heavily on it that I feel it is important to discuss again.  In an ideal society government would function in a way to serve and protect its citizens.  Unfortunately in this universe, during World War II society needed assistance.  The Watchmen formed and were initially heralded as heroes, though soon were villianized as vigilantes.

Much of this had to do with the Watchmen wearing masks.  This anonymity gave the appearance of a lack of accountability as the public rallied crying “Who watches the Watchmen”?

O SON OF BEING! Bring thyself to account each day ere thou art summoned to a reckoning; for death, unheralded, shall come upon thee and thou shalt be called to give account for thy deeds. ~ Bahá’u’lláh

Accountability is important.  Afterall the film, as well as the graphic novel it is based on, showed that there were reasons for the people to be weary of the Watchmen.  They were just people too, afterall, and while some had noble intentions, others, like the Comedian, acted on more base instincts.

But the film does not stop on the surface level of accountability.  As we can see in the current economic crisis, people without masks can be just as wreckless as those who remain hidden.  In the movie this comes to light through the one living Watchman who had “gone public”.  He was viewed honorably and as a hero and a successful businessman, but he turned out to be the most deadly of all, whereas others like Night Owl had a strong moral compass that kept them accountable even masked.

I think that is a lesson we can all take to heart in our own lives and meditate on the true meaning of accountability.  For those who believe in God,ultimate accountability rests in His hands.  I think Watchmen really plays with the idea of loss of accountability.  This distopia lacked God, it lacked government, it lacked a social contract.  In that system it is little wonder that Ozymandias could see the sacrifice of several million people for peace as valid.  We can see how tragedy can unite people, and through unity peace can be achieved.  Maybe it was valid argument, but Ozymandias does not have the right to make that choice.

How can we build unity?  In a way that does not resort to destruction like it did in Watchmen.  I see this movie, and graphic novel as warning, a look into a world unchecked.  Some people see our world like that, but it does not have to be.  We can make good choices, and keep ourselves accountable.

I think I will end this post with a beautiful story from Persian culture about another Watchman.  I think it has a lot to do with seeing the end in the beginning, which was a theme of this film as well.  Rorschach could see there was something wrong before the others could, but he could not see the end as quickly as he would have liked.  Ozymandias believed the end was just.  Dr. Manhattan withdrew from humanity.  The difference, or perhaps similarity if you share Ozymandias’ point of view, is that the end in this scenario is good.   Perhaps the people should have listened to the Watchman, which watchman is up to you.  Without further ado, the story as recounted by Bahá’u’llá

There was once a lover who had sighed for long years in separation from his beloved, and wasted in the fire of remoteness. From the rule of love, his heart was empty of patience, and his body weary of his spirit; he reckoned life without her as a mockery, and time consumed him away. How many a day he found no rest in longing for her; how many a night the pain of her kept him from sleep; his body was worn to a sigh, his heart’s wound had turned him to a cry of sorrow. He had given a thousand lives for one taste of the cup of her presence, but it availed him not. The doctors knew no cure for him, and companions avoided his company; yea, physicians have no medicine for one sick of love, unless the favor of the beloved one deliver him.

At last, the tree of his longing yielded the fruit of despair, and the fire of his hope fell to ashes. Then one night he could live no more, and he went out of his house and made for the marketplace. On a sudden, a watchman followed

after him. He broke into a run, with the watchman following; then other watchmen came together, and barred every passage to the weary one. And the wretched one cried from his heart, and ran here and there, and moaned to himself: “Surely this watchman is Izrá’íl, my angel of death, following so fast upon me; or he is a tyrant of men, seeking to harm me.” His feet carried him on, the one bleeding with the arrow of love, and his heart lamented. Then he came to a garden wall, and with untold pain he scaled it, for it proved very high; and forgetting his life, he threw himself down to the garden.

And there he beheld his beloved with a lamp in her hand, searching for a ring she had lost. When the heart-surrendered lover looked on his ravishing love, he drew a great breath and raised up his hands in prayer, crying: “O God! Give Thou glory to the watchman, and riches and long life. For the watchman was Gabriel, guiding this poor one; or he was Isráfíl, bringing life to this wretched one!”

Indeed, his words were true, for he had found many a secret justice in this seeming tyranny of the watchman, and seen how many a mercy lay hid behind the veil. Out of wrath, the guard had led him who was athirst in love’s desert to the sea of his loved one, and lit up the dark night of absence with the light of reunion. He had driven one who was afar, into the garden of nearness, had guided an ailing soul to the heart’s physician.

Now if the lover could have looked ahead, he would have blessed the watchman at the start, and prayed on his behalf, and he would have seen that tyranny as justice; but since the end was veiled to him, he moaned and made his plaint in the beginning. Yet those who journey in the garden land of knowledge, because they see the end in the beginning, see peace in war and friendliness in anger.

Advertisements

Vantage Point — An Exploration of Truth vs. Perception

Film:

Vantage Point, 2008
Starring Sigourney Weaver, Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox, Forest Whitaker, Zoe Saldana, and William Hurt.

Synopsis (From IMDB):

President Ashton (William Hurt) is attending a global war on terror summit in Spain. Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid) and Kent Taylor (Matthew Fox) are two of the Secret Service agents assigned to protect him. This is the first action that Agent Barnes has been in since he took a bullet for President Ashton six-month earlier. We really dont know if Agent Barnes is up to the challenge of protecting the President. Shortly after President Ashton is escorted to the stage in the plaza by the Secret Service, he is shot twice by a rifle from a window and falls to the floor. The crowd is in shock and chaos breaks out all over, especially when bombs begin to explode. Howard Lewis (Forest Whitaker) is an American video-taping the event to show to his children that he was actually there at this historic event. He believes that he has the picture of the man who shot the President. Agent Barnes sees the tape and has a clue to that person. Several different people witness the event, and only through their eyes do we see the truth behind the assassination attempt.

My Thoughts:

This film takes a unique narrative format in that it shows the same event through the perception of 8 different characters and through each new viewing of the incident the spectator comes closer to omniscience.  The first portrayal was from the GNN production truck in which we watched the producer keep track of the several cameras throughout the square.  I bring this up because it is the most distant of the views in that we are seeing the event transpire through a television screen (which it can be argued we are doing already so make it two television screens) and the people watching it have no control over what is happening.  From our limited perspective we can only see chaos.

With each retelling we are forced to re-evaluate what we saw in the previous vision, or what we (and the character) thought we saw.  From one perspective a swaying curtain looks like it could be a gunman, from another it’s just a fan blowing.  One character looks psychotic from the initial perspective but from another they are just trying to sound an alarm and warn of the oncoming violence.

We could walk away from this film thinking it was a good, fast-paced thriller, with a few unanswered plot points, but instead I think that this film is more than that.  It calls us to question what truth truly is.  We cannot believe our own eyes because our perception is limited by our “vantage point”.  We also only have the information of that moment, not always the information of what led to that moment.  It also shows that we are dependent on our perceptions and that when we are called to act fast we have to trust the only faculties we have.  We can’t just sit blindly and depend on others for our sight.

In our own lives how frequently have we seen something “fishy” and judged people because of it?  While people do make mistakes and sometimes have negative motivations (this film was about terrorism after all) I think that our perception isn’t just hindered or limited in those times of crisis, but every day.  God (whether or not you believe) is the only one capable of omniscience, and it is important to realize that if only to remind us to be humble when dealing with our perceptions.

We must investigate truth from more than just our own limited view of reality, and if we confuse what we see, or our own perception for “Truth” then we are bound to compound our mistakes.  We also need to forgive others for actions they take which we do not understand, and remind ourselves that they too our acting on incomplete information from their limited perspectives.

“There have issued, from His mighty Pen, various teachings for the prevention of war, and these have been scattered far and wide.
The first is the independent investigation of truth; for blind imitation of the past will stunt the mind. But once every soul inquireth into truth, society will be freed from the darkness of continually repeating the past.”
~‘Abdu’l-Bahá

If anything this film reminds us to take pause and to realize that truth is greater than our own bubble, our own incomplete slice of reality.  Even these words I am using can only adequately but not exactly describe the concepts I am trying to convey because concepts our so much more complex than we can ever explain.  Instead we have to make do with what we have- our narrow point of view, our incomplete command of language, our lack of precision- and remind ourselves to collect as much information as we can before judging a situation lest our judgments be misinformed and wrong.  And regarding the ideas of judgment and justice I leave you with two quotes from the Hidden Words which address both sides of this issues- the importance of Justice and yet our limitations when trying to pass judgment:

O SON OF SPIRIT! The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes.


O SON OF BEING! How couldst thou forget thine own faults and busy thyself with the faults of others? Whoso doeth this is accursed of Me.

~Bahá’u’lláh

Your thoughts?