In the alternate reality on the new HBO series “Watchmen,” a Utahn is president of the United States. And he has been for a very long time.
And, no, it’s not Mitt Romney. They’re playing “Hail to the Chief” for … drumroll … Robert Redford.
There are no term limits in this reality. Richard Nixon was elected to six terms; he died after being reelected in 1988; Vice President Gerald Ford moved into the Oval Office; and Redford defeated Ford in the 1992 election. He’s been president ever since.
No, Redford doesn’t appear in “Watchmen.” He recently told Tribune movie critic Sean P. Means that he hasn’t seen and doesn’t know anything about the nine-part HBO series, which premieres Sunday at 7 p.m. Although it would hardly be a surprise to Redford (or anyone else) that his HBO doppelganger is a crusading liberal.
Not that that’s necessarily a good thing. “One of the things that we’re interested in exploring is what would happen if a very well-intentioned, liberal, white man was president for way too long,” said executive producer Damon Lindelof.
President Redford championed paying reparations to the victims of racism; the white supremacists call those “Redfordations.” His name and image appear multiple times — including in graffiti proclaiming “F--- Redford.”
And let me assure you — Redford being president is not even close to being the weirdest thing about “Watchmen.”
It’s a sequel, sort of, to the 2009 movie, and the 1986-87 comic books written by Alan Moore. (He has disavowed this sort-of sequel, not that that matters.) It’s a mix of actual history and alternate present. It opens with white supremacists shooting a black cop in 2019 Tulsa; then flashes back to the real-life 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, when whites went on a rampage.
In the present, Tulsa police officers wear masks to hide their identities so the white supremacists don’t murder them and their families. White supremacists wear Rorschach inkblot masks … because they’re white supremacists. And the narrative spins several seemingly disjointed stories, past and present.
Police detective Angela Abar (Regina King), aka Sister Night, is at the center of one part of the story — even more than she realizes. But while you’re trying to figure her out, you also have to decipher her colleagues, Looking Glass (Tim Blake Nelson) and Police Chief Crawford (Don Johnson), as well as a cynical FBI agent (Jean Smart), an ambitious U.S. senator (James Wolk), an extremely old man (Louis Gossett Jr.), a mysterious trillionaire (Hong Chau) and an even more mysterious man (Jeremy Irons) who turns out to be someone very familiar to those who know “Watchmen” — just to name a few. No spoilers here.
This is a reality in which vigilantes dressed like masked superheroes rose and fell; we see that in flashbacks. Where a giant squid, believed to be from another dimension, fell on New York and the “psychic blast” killed millions. Where there’s a giant blue guy who won the war in Vietnam (now a U.S. state) and has long lived on Mars. Where nuclear tensions have given way to racial tensions.
Lindelof said he was looking for a 2019 “equivalent of the nuclear standoff between the Russians and the United States, and it just felt like it was undeniably race and policing in America. And so that idea started to graft itself into the ‘Watchmen’ universe and needed to be presented in a responsible way.”
There's a lot of racism and anti-semitism in “Watchmen,” but the racists and anti-semites are clearly villains.
Honestly, the first few episodes of “Watchmen” are confusing. They’re also mesmerizing. “Watchmen” is astonishing to look at and unbelievably engaging.
To put that praise in some perspective — I haven’t trusted Lindelof since he repeatedly lied to critics about having a plan for “Lost” and delivered a lame finale to that show, and I was not a fan of “The Leftovers.” But I’m altogether on board with “Watchmen.”