Watchmen's Robert Redford Character Was A Risky Decision For Damon Lindelof

In the 12th and final chapter of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' "Watchmen," there's a blink and you miss it newspaper. Its headline reveals that a cowboy actor with the initials RR might be running for president. Who is this specifically? Why, Robert Redford of course! Who else could it be?

Damon Lindelof's "Watchmen" HBO miniseries, a sequel to the graphic novel, ran with this. In the world of HBO's "Watchmen," Redford was elected president in 1993. During the alternate 2019 of the series, he's still in office serving his seventh and final term. Though Redford himself never shows up in person, his presidency is a fundamental detail to the series' setting and its social commentary.

Since the 1980s, the decade "Watchmen" first saw print, the American politics of the real world have been devastatingly conservative, even under Democratic presidents. Redford's America is comparatively more liberal, having instituted a reparations program for African-Americans descended from slaves ("Redfordations" as racists call them). Still, America still hasn't undone its original sin of white supremacy, which is where the series' antagonists fit in.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Lindelof admitted that using Redford's likeness wasn't an easy decision.

Watchmen's alternate history

"Watchmen" has used alternate presidents since the beginning; in the 1985 graphic novel, Richard Nixon was president, thanks to Dr. Manhattan allowing him to win the Vietnam War and his Watergate wrongdoings never being exposed. Thanks to the repeal of the 22nd amendment, he's still in office and on his fifth term. Per Lindelof's series, he died in office during his sixth in 1989, which left an opening for Redford to defeat ascendant Vice President Gerald Ford in the 1992 election.

In 2005, Moore told Entertainment Weekly about why he used Nixon as the president in "Watchmen."

"I also wanted to write about power politics. Ronald Reagan was president. But I worried readers might switch off if they thought I was attacking someone they admired. So we set 'Watchmen' in a world where Nixon was in his [fifth] term — because you're not going to get much argument that Nixon was scum! For me, the '80s were worrying. 'Mutually assured destruction.' 'Voodoo economics.' A culture of complacency... I was writing about times I lived in."

Moore's fears may have been off-base. In 1986, when "Watchmen" began publication, Frank Miller used a biting caricature of Reagan as a villain in "The Dark Knight Returns." That book became a classic in the same league as "Watchmen," so Reagan's characterization didn't turn off that many readers. I won't say Moore and Gibbons made the wrong choice, though, since Nixon as president adds to the commentary of "Watchmen," both on the real world and comics.

Politics and superheroes

The conceit of "Watchmen" is that superheroes exist in a realistic world. One part of realism is lasting consequences, so it makes sense that the history of the "Watchmen" world is different from our own; superheroes are the proverbial Butterfly Effect. The Marvel and DC universes have to keep their realities mirroring the current "present" of their sliding time scales. This is just one of the many things that keep their superheroes from permanently solving problems.

Now for the joke about Redford as president. The explanation for that likely lies in Alan Moore's anarchism. The reason Reagan was such a successful president (to be clear, "successful" does not equal "good") is that the job's primary function is to be a frontman who can sell austerity and imperialism with a million-dollar smile. In other words, the perfect job for an actor. By using Redford (who, with Nixon as the incumbent, would likely be running as a Democrat), Moore is making the point that the problem is the U.S. political system as a whole, not just one of the parties.

In a subtle but telling case of missing this point, Zack Snyder's movie adaptation of "Watchmen" name-drops Reagan instead of Redford when the upcoming election is mentioned.

Why Lindelof included Redford

In the aforementioned EW interview, Lindelof discussed what made him decide to include Redford as a presence, if not a character, in "Watchmen":

"The world of Watchmen is so heightened and so clearly it's an alternate history that it will be clear to everyone we're not talking about the real Robert Redford. More importantly, the way we handle this story, you can't blame Robert Redford for everything that's happened in the world. The show says Redford has a liberal ideology, much like the actual Robert Redford, and he was incredibly well-intentioned in terms of the legislation he passed and the America that he wanted to create. But that doesn't mean it worked out the way he wanted it to. And that's not on him, that's on us."

This answer underlines the difference between Lindelof using Redford as president and what Moore using Reagan would have been. Since Redford isn't the president in our world, making him so gives "Watchmen" a level of absurdity that makes Redford's depiction palatable. In contrast, Reagan as president of an America on the brink of mutually-assured destruction would have been a bald-faced attack on the man and his policies.

Just as the original "Watchmen" was about the Cold War, the HBO series is about racial hierarchies in America, how policing reinforces them, and how liberal reforms have failed to uproot them. Using a well-intentioned White Liberal, and Hollywood royalty to boot, as president is the cherry on top of the commentary in "Watchmen."