July 17, 2008

The Dark Knight

"The Dark Knight" has money to burn...

Grade: B +

Director: Christopher Nolan

Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 2 hours, 32 minutes

In a film full of fascinating sequences and thick with symbolism, the most revealing scene in The Dark Knight takes place during an interrogation of psychotic mastermind The Joker (Heath Ledger) that Batman (Christian Bale) carries out with blind brutality. It is notable that the information Batman seeks to elicit from his enemy combatant turns out to literally be ticking time bombs, and, later, that those who afford The Joker with a right to make his one phone call meet their demise as direct result of indulging this legal luxury. However, the most sobering truism comes when the homicidal Joker confesses that the one person he least wants to kill is his caped nemesis because Batman, by crushing and cornering the city’s desperate criminal elements, has forced them to turn to the lone, albeit crazed voice promising them salvation. Batman thereby elevates the status of a self-proclaimed “agent of chaos” from petty thief to crime boss.

In this parallax universe, it is the equivalent of George W. Bush chatting with Osama bin Laden, and that allegory is clearly writer-director Christopher Nolan’s intent throughout Dark Knight. Admittedly, nowadays you can throw a dart at a newspaper movie listing and hit a film with some post-9/11, Bush-world pastiche. But, whereas 2005’s Batman Begins was Nolan’s indictment of society’s post-9/11 fear neurosis, its sequel is a nuanced, occasionally convoluted examination of the consequences of the Bush Doctrine. More than once, Joker is referred to as a “terrorist,” with much hand-wringing over whether to appease his demands or drop the gloves and fight back. Man-servant Alfred (Michael Caine) relays a story from his youth about an allusive, woodland-dwelling jewel thief who stole not for monetary gain but rather just for the heck of it. Their ultimate method of capturing him – “We burned down the forest.”

As Dark Knight opens, we witness a Batman both regaled as a savior and reviled as a vigilante. Moreover, he has embraced the mantle of preeminent superpower. His excursion into Hong Kong to retrieve a mob accountant from the protection of Chinese anti-extradition policy and deliver him to police custody comes off as a form of rendition. Later, Batman’s expansion of a sonar detection device into a massive means for tapping every cell phone in Gotham City, over the ethical objections of its inventor, gadget-wiz Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), is analogous to Bush-era domestic surveillance techniques.

The ends justify the means for the Dark Knight, which is why the ascendance of District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) represents hope for not only Gotham but Batman as well. Dent is an aggressive prosecutor whose heroism falls within the bounds of the law. That Joker targets him more than Batman is no accident, for Dent embodies an (American) ideal that Joker strips of his innocence and deforms into a conflicted, savage husk who jettisons his principles for the sake of vengeance against foes both real and collateral - a scene in which a slowly-disintegrating Dent badgers a paranoid-schizophrenic henchman for information at gunpoint mirrors the true-life beating death of a mentally ill prisoner at Abu-Ghraib.

While terrific, Dark Knight is not the masterpiece many would proclaim. With a running time of over 2 ½ hours, the storyline is bloated and meandering at times, desperately needing some careful editing to excise the copious extraneous scenes that interrupt the narrative flow. Nolan tries to squeeze too much into a finite frame, occasionally bogging the film into a state of unintended ennui. To compensate, the director punctuates his canny, yet gelatinous theme-building with several exquisite, speaker-rattling action sequences and a superb cast that includes Maggie Gyllenhaal, an upgrade over Katie Holmes in the role of Bruce Wayne’s inamorata, Rachel Dawes. Bale again ably fills the Bat boots, although his synthetically-enhanced growl is sometimes difficult to understand and distractingly absurd.

And, while many will cite Ledger’s tragic death as the impetus behind any critical praise he posthumously receives, the backdrop of real-life circumstances dissipates the moment The Joker arrives onscreen. Emoting equal parts menace, humor, eeriness, melancholy, and even charisma, Ledger’s performance is so mesmerizing and hypnotic that it nearly transcends the rest of the film. By his own admission, Joker feeds off disrupting the societal order – again quoting Alfred, “Some people just want to watch the world burn.” Joker astutely observes that if the police shoot some gang-banger or a dozen troops die in a foreign war, few people take notice. However, if you threaten the life of one public official, society hurls into a state of turmoil.

Accordingly, for all the Bush-basing by proxy, The Dark Knight’s most complex, compelling portion comes during an extended epilogue in which Batman engineers a bit a message-control in order to bear the cross of villain rather than allow the real evildoers to bask in the glory of their mayhem. Is Nolan suggesting that Bush and his ideology ilk, for all their misguided delusions, endure the brickbats of naysayers as the price for fighting the good fight and beating back the barbarians at the gate? Whether you agree or not, the inescapable answer is yes.

However, Batman also comes to realize that the way to win the war is not just brute force, but also robbing your opponents of the grandeur they crave. By way of analogy, the doctrine of “preemption” and the Damocletian sword of American military might have lent a soapbox to megalomaniacs such as Hugo Ch├ívez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Kim Jong-il. The way to combat real-life villains is to marginalize not only their resources but also their aura, thereby strangling perceived power and influence. Without a pulpit and stripped of their masks of evil, they all just look like a bunch of crazy jokers.

Neil Morris


Anonymous said...

To say that Batman taking the heat so the villians can't have their glory is similar to the Bush campaign is ignorant. Stop trying to fuse politics with this movie. You can apply that line of thinking to any other movie ever made. Doesn't mean they're correct. Nolan DIDN'T make this movie with the thought of George W. anywhere near his mind. The movie is shadowed in symbolism but nothing like what you say. I feel truly sorry for the writer of this column, can't even see the real symbolism of the movie. His loss.

Anonymous said...

I agree with that comment. It's basically a movie about good vs evil and how sometimes you have to have a champion who's willing to be a martyr to get things done. To say that the director had intentional overtones to parallel today's politics is just purely a subjective analysis unless the Nolan came out explicitly to say so. The movie is more philosophical in nature and if this critic wishes to draw comparison's, it's his/her own opinion, but to say that it was intentional is naive. They are over analyzing the situation and drawing conclusions where none exist. Given the some of the comparisons that other critics have made about The Dark Knight and Heat, should this critic say that the director of Heat was also making a direct comparison to the whatever political situation was relevant at the time? Of course not. That would be absurd. The movie is philosophy and not politics unless the director has explicitly stated their political agenda. End of story.

Unknown said...

Addressing the previous comment - first, I disagree with your assertion that a critic can only espouse opinions that are explicitly sanctioned by a film's director; such would be a treacherous precedent to establish. That said, to answer your specific challenge, I would point to the following interview Nolan gave to Newsweek: http://www.newsweek.com/id/145508

Anonymous said...

i still wish Katie Holmes had stayed on board as Rachel Dawes for the Dark Knight; it was like the time spent getting familiar with her character in Batman Begins was wasted...

Anonymous said...

Obviously, I'm reading this a few years after it was written but from the first time I saw this in the theater, this symbolism jumped out at me. The most obvious was the wire-tapping of the cell phones. The more I thought about it, the more I noticed symbols which couldn't be coincidental. The mentally deranged villain, who plans his attacks so meticulously and recruits weak-minded people to help carry out. Am I talking about The Joker or Osama bin Laden? The man who's willing to resort to anything, even "Enhanced interrogation techniques," to find out the information he needs to protect the public (whether they appreciate it or not). Bush or Batman? The other villains who were bad but thought the main villain was too extreme could easily be compared to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Saddam Hussein. They're the ones who enabled him. To me, this symbolism jumps off the screen and couldn't really be denied by someone who looks at it objectively.