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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

BatBush, Harvey Obama & Osama Bin Joker: The Politics Of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight

"There Will Be Spoilers..."

If Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” were to only exist in a vacuum, it would be merely the greatest comic book movie ever made. To me, this is not up for debate. “The Dark Knight” is the rare film to transcend it’s humble origins as a mere superhero movie and enter the pantheon of truly Great films. “The Dark Knight” is simply amazing. It inexplicably surpasses it’s great predecessor, “Batman Begins”, in almost every concievable way possible as the performances in the film are richer, the story is more engrossing and expansive, the action is tighter and better shot and it features one of the most iconic, villainous performances in the history of cinema. As noted by virtually any critic and fanboy alike who actually have functioning eyeballs, Heath Ledger manages to completely re-define and revolutionize the role of one of pop culture’s most notorious bad guys, the Joker and does it with a sense of style and utter menace. As almost $300 million dollars worth of Box Office in a mere two weeks can attest, this is the truth and if you want another mere glowing review of the film, you can always read Rolling Stone. I want to the discuss the politics presented in the film.

The film does not exist in a vacuum. It exists and has been released into a very real, post-9/11 world where the threat and fear of terrorism has become painfully clear to the American people. “The Dark Knight” to it’s credits does not ignore this. In fact, it’s one of the first mainstream American film’s to truly deal with a post-9/11 America that is truly mature and without hyperbolic jingoism or vitriolic cynicism. It’s truly a remarkable feat considering the nature of the Hollywood system and it’s shyness towards dealing with difficult political topics that might harm a film’s potential blockbuster. “The Dark Knight” is about society’s use of power against unspeakable evil and the political and personal cost that the exercise of that power costs. It’s also quite unexpectedly about the dangers of placing too much faith in any one political figure in saving the figure.

As many writers and cultural commentators have noted in “The Dark Knight” that there is a striking resemblance to the mass murderous actions of the Joker as analogous to modern day terrorism of groups like Al Qaeda or Hezbollah and that Batman’s less than legal actions in stopping the Joker’s reign of destruction as similar to the actions of Bush Administration in their “zeal” to stop (*cough* steal oil *cough*) terrorism. Some cultural commentators on the right and left see the film as tacit approval of the Bush Administration and that the film is painting Our Glorious Leader as a misunderstood hero doing what needs to be done in order to protect ourselves against true evil. It’s true, at least, on a superficial level that Batman’s actions bear a resemblance to the policies of the Bush Administration over the last eight years in combating terrorism. In the film, Batman breaks numerous laws fighting organized crime and the Joker and in his desperation and zeal resorts to borderline torturing criminals for information and employing a highly-illegal sonar wiretapping system that allows him to easily track the Joker’s movements. All of this bears more than a little similarity to the Bush Administrations by any means necessary methods to protecting our country from terrorism. In the end Batman gets his man and Gotham is saved so I suppose if you want to read it as an approval of these methods than I suppose it is there. However, I find this to be an incredibly superficial and self-serving reading of the film because it ignores the consequences of these actions and the toll it takes on the character’s psyche and lives.

In the film, Batman grapples with the weight of his actions and quickly learns that his methods have only made things dramatically far worse than he had hoped. In “Batman Begins”, Bruce Wayne had hoped that by using the Batman as a symbol, he could inspire good in the people of Gotham City and they would rise up against the wave of corruption and organized crime in the city and save their city. In “Dark Knight”, Bruce learns that while his violent vigilantism has inspired some good in the city that the actions he has also caused the conditions of the city to get exponentially worse. He hoped that his activities would inspire the citizens of Gotham towards political activism and philanthropy but finds that instead he has inspired it’s citizens to become more violent copycats of his nightly escapades and after nearly destroying the cities organized crime families, the crime lords of the city turn to the ultra-nihilistic psychosis of the Joker who only wishes “to watch the world burn” and shares little of their interest in money and power in desperation of returning the city to it’s previous corruption. Instead of the threat of being mugged by a desperate criminal as Bruce’s parents were, Batman creates an environment where there is a threat they could be blown up in a hospital. Nolan is hardly tacitly approving of Bush Administration policies. The film argues almost completely against that. If taken at literal value, Batman’s violent activity has only served to increase the criminal level in the city instead of alleviating it. This mirrors the real-life situation in Iraq and Afghanistan where U.S. invasions under the pretense of liberating the people of these countries from tyrannical rule has only served to radicalize and create more terrorists in the native populations of the country which only creates further danger to the U.S.

The film also questions the effectiveness of Batman/Bush’s illegal methods like torture and wire-tapping in preventing terrorism. In the film’s best and most memorable scene, Batman confronts the Joker about the location of Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes in a police station holding cell and in a rage beats the Joker to an inch of his life hoping to gain the information. The Joker whose twisted sado-masochism actually enjoys the beating he receives cruelly mocks Batman for the presumption that this will actually elicit the information that he wants and that he has “nothing to do with all of his strength.” Eventually, Batman gains the information that he wants only to discover that the locations of the hostages have been switched and the Joker was lying to him. Nolan is questioning the effectiveness of torture against a prisoner as Batman’s “strength” is negated against a strong-willed opponent. Information gained from torture is notoriously unreliable as the prisoner will often say anything to stop the attacker from continuing the punishment. In Batman’s case, the information received caused the death of somebody he deeply cares about and the mental breakdown of another. The film also takes care to debate whether or not, some of the illegal activities are truly as ineffective as others. Lucius Fox upon discovering that Batman has created an illegal wire-tapping system of the entire city’s cell phones threatens to resign immediately from Wayne’s employ but still goes along with a scheme he finds deeply troubling. The wire-tapping in the end helps Batman defeat the Joker but his sins do not go unpunished. Batman finds himself the pariah at the end of the film, having his reputation permanently damaged, and he loses people that are close to him because of it. This is hardly an approval of Bush who faces no retribution for the crimes that he’s committed over the last eight years (Thank You, Nancy Pelosi!).

The other political idea of the film that Nolan takes care to critique is the idea that society should place too much faith in one political figure into saving their people. Harvey Dent is portrayed in the film as a Barack Obama-like “white knight” and the cities true hope to save Gotham from its despair. Bruce Wayne wishes to end his charade as Batman and give the mantle of the cities’ hero over to Harvey Dent who he sees as a transformative political figure capable of inspiring the citizens of Gotham. He places great faith in the man. However, over the course of the film, we learn that Harvey Dent isn’t quite the golden boy as he seems. Even before he goes through his radical transformation, we see Harvey threaten one of Joker’s men with a gun and even Commissioner Gordon is hesitant to his place his faith into the man due to Harvey’s days as a “two-faced” careerist hack opportunistically prosecuting dirty cops to advance his political career. In the end of the film, Harvey Dent is corrupted and destroyed by the Joker and becomes Two-Face, a murderous vigilante hell-bent on revenge. Nolan seems to be arguing that we shouldn’t place too much faith in “white knight” political figures because in a moment’s notice all that they work for and represent can be taken away at a moment’s notice by either a moment of weakness by a candidate or the media’s zealous “gotcha” news coverage. Gordon and Batman have to conspire at the end of the film to prevent Harvey’s crimes from reaching the light of day in order to protect the message but it costs both of them unimaginably. In an election year, where one of the candidates is seen as an almost messiah-like figure by parts of the country, this message is as salient as ever. I believe in Barack Obama but it’s nice to be reminded that it could be crushed in a moments notice. Nolan argues that if we want to save our world, we shouldn’t place faith in one man. We should save ourselves.

I’m going to go out on a limb and argue that “The Dark Knight” will go down as the ultimately the best film of the entire decade. It’s transcendent. Taken on it’s own, it’s a stunning piece of crime noir wrapped in the pulp traditions of a superhero film. I mean Heath Ledger’s incredibly scary turn as the Joker alone is worth the price of admission. It’s superb entertainment on it’s own right but the political message of the film is equally as salient as anything done in any snooty art house pic or big-budget Hollywood message movie. Nolan has crafted a truly important film and the fact that he managed to do this re-inventing one of America’s most beloved characters is simply awe-inspiring. I can’t wait for part three.

Film Of The Decade... with all due respect to Peter Jackson.

34 comments:

Jordan said...

Good to see people aren't done being ridiculously hyperbolic about this movie. Although I agree that the film is largely ambivalent about Bush, ultimately I think it does come out in favor. You know, Batman and Bush have low approval ratings, but that's the sacrifice they made by doing the job that needed to be done. Yeah they both wiretapped us all, but it was the only way to stop terrorism. At the very least, it attempts to justify shit that probably shouldn't be justified. Also felt a lot of the 9/11 imagery was a bit on the exploitative/intentionally shocking side, since the movie has a lot to say about the post 9/11 world but nothing really on 9/11 itself. And there's a fine line between cynicism and skepticism when it comes to Obama, and this was more on the first side. (Also what movies have you been watching that have been more cynical than this? Even 'Children of Men,' the actual likely "film of the decade" wasn't this bleak)

That said, I really enjoyed this movie, and it's definitely a huge step up from Batman Begins, and among the best films of the year. Weirdly enough, this is movie that makes me wish Heath Ledger made more westerns. Also on the "with all due respect to Peter Jackson" thing, you're talking about King Kong, right?

Zilla Rocca said...

I think Dark Knight is the comic book version of THere Will Be Blood as most terrifying, well-acted, and thought provoking American film of this decade. The only difference between Dainel Plainview and the Joker is the war paint.

Great read, Doc.

Madman said...

Nice write-up. I wish I could find little connections between entertainment and real-life, but I guess I'm just not that smart.

Am I the only person that noticed the despite Joker saying he doesn't have a plan he was kind of a genius when it came to planning all-out mayhem??

We agree that The Dark Knight was an excellent movie, but best of the decade is kinda stretching. It does give There Will Be Blood and Gladiator runs for their money.

What was your favorite scene?? Mine was when Jim Gordon goes back to his house after his wife thought he was dead.

DocZeus said...

Here's an interesting quandry:
The Joker, Daniel Plainview and Anton Chigurh get into a fight. Who wins?

I'm saying Chigurh, hands down.

Madman said...

Chigurh really isnt that imposing without a weapon.

The Joker weighs like 80 pounds.

Plainview wins

DocZeus said...

"Chigurh really isnt that imposing without a weapon.

The Joker weighs like 80 pounds.

Plainview wins"

I dunno. Chigurh seems trained and seasoned as years as a hired assassin so one assumes that he could easily deal with a couple of psychopaths. I don't think he needs a weapon to kill you.

Madman said...

Plainview's mustache >>> Chigurh's "training"

DocZeus said...

"Plainview's mustache >>> Chigurh's "training""

That mustache is pretty bad ass. But Chigurgh's haircut>>> Plainview's moustache.

This easily the most juvenile debate that I've had since fifth grade. I love it.

Madman said...

"That mustache is pretty bad ass. But Chigurgh's haircut>>> Plainview's moustache."

You win

"This easily the most juvenile debate that I've had since fifth grade. I love it."

Nothing wrong with good ol' fashioned dumb shit.

I listened to Pledge Allegiance 2 last night. Pretty great. It was like Thug Motivation 101 except coke was replaced with other hood shit. I still prefer The Nigger Tape

Zilla Rocca said...

Plainview wins in a long-term battle stretched out over 20 years after he bankrupts your family, friends of your family, your mailman, etc and has them working a push broom in barbershop in Sandusky, Ohio.

The Joker wins during a three day span where he creates 4 obstacles centered around timed explosions, filthy razors, dunebuggies packed with explosives, and a church painted with napalm.

Anton Chigurh wins in a 20 minute manhunt highlighted by a footrace, a savage shootout inside an auto parts warehouse, a hand to hand throwdown involving duct tape and a Master lock, and finally slow, painful suffocation.

DocZeus said...

Zilla-

Bravo, sir. Bravo.

Madman said...

"Plainview wins in a long-term battle stretched out over 20 years after he bankrupts your family, friends of your family, your mailman, etc and has them working a push broom in barbershop in Sandusky, Ohio."

The Ultimate Ownage. Financial ownage.

DocZeus said...

On second thought, maybe it's a rock paper scissors sort of thing.

The Joker beats Plainview because not only is he out and out more sadisitic. The Joker doesn't care about money so Plainview bankrupting him isn't going to do anything to him.

Chigurh beats Joker because he's bit more of hardened bad ass and the Joker's mind games aren't gone work on a dude like Chigurh.

And Plainview beats Chigurgh beause Chigurh is a greedy son of a bitch and Plainview would just ruin him financially.

Trey Stone said...

great analysis man, and i agree that the movie is a classic. i wasn't even aware of the hype (i know, living under a rock) and am not a superhero fan at all, and was blown away by how good this was, and how it managed to be so thought-provoking without compromising the action or every getting pedantic.

that said, i think your argument about Dent is stronger than the one about Batman. first of all, i think the fact that Batman has the opportunity to kill The Joker twice and doesn't shows that he's basically incorruptible like The Joker calls him at the end, despite all the drastic measures he uses over the course of the movie. i also think you might be reading too much into the cell scene. it seemed to me like it was just showing how Batman (really the Bruce Wayne side since it's his ex-girlfriend) let his emotions get the best of him, which is relevant to your point about torture, but the location switch i just took as The Joker's usual mind games. whereas bad information from torture is when a terrorist just says whatever to get out of it. i didn't get that impression from The Joker giving him reverse directions, it seemed planned out.

also, i'm not a Bush supporter by any means but i really think the oil thing isn't that relevant...i mean that and Israel are the reasons we have a strategic interest in the region, but if you listen to all his advisors' rationale for the war it seems ideological to me. a misguided, hopelessly idealistic ideology (is that redundant?,) but i don't get the sense it was a random war for oil.

in any case we were going to have to do something about Saddam eventually anyway considering how fucked up the country was from our sanctions. not completely sure what other options would've been good, i mean we could've just lifted the sanctions i guess, but he never admitted to getting rid of WMD, even though obviously he did. and i'm pretty sure we tried and failed at instigating coups before. the war's been a disaster but i dunno what would've been the best alternative actions to take that would've worked.

forgot to add, as for Batman making Gotham worse, i just took that as a "things have to get worse before they get better" thing, like Dent talks about at the dinner

Trey Stone said...

i should've probably said, it's obvious to me that this'd be a movie that gets massive hype, but i meant that i didn't pay attention to the marketing/promotional run-up.

Renato Pagnani said...

There are problems with The Dark Knight. Not problems that make it a bad movie, but problems nonetheless. The scene where Batman is using the sonar vision in the abandoned skyscraper is nigh unwatchable (and a pretty stupid concept to begin with).

But film of the decade? Children of Men says hi (and is a fuck load better than The Dark Knight).

Joey said...

Great movie. Huge fun. Best of the decade? I'd disagree. I'll take Fellowship, There Will Be Blood, and some others. But nonetheless, awesome.

Nice write up, Zeus.

Jesus Shuttlesworth said...

"forgot to add, as for Batman making Gotham worse, i just took that as a "things have to get worse before they get better" thing, like Dent talks about at the dinner"

in all fairness to bruce wayne, scarecrow and the league of shadows planned their little attack on gotham just as batman's getting started, so det. ramirez's idea that batman's brought the joker upon gotham is contingent upon the way the police/media report what happened. i'm probably reading too into it, but there are a lot of people comparing batman to bush.

Jesus Shuttlesworth said...

like someone on poplicks.com said, what makes the movie work is that it engages a lot of issues that we're struggling with right now. i think to some on the left and right, the mere inclusion of scenes of torture, wiretapping and covering up the truth for "the greater good" serve as evidence that the Nolan brother and David Goyer support how the Bush administration has been operating. but, thankfully, the movie deals with the consequences of these tactics, making the notion of "approve/disapprove" difficult.

i also think the best scenes are where bruce and alfred interact. the old movies made bruce out to be someone who was fairly certain of what he did, and alfred would offer little quips but no real insight. the script of the past two movies has given the character a lot more depth and wisdom to help guide our young, heroic borderline psychopath (a trait i hope to see more of if/when they do another movie). the cartoon did a good job of that, too.

Zilla Rocca said...

Jesus:

"i also think the best scenes are where bruce and alfred interact. the script of the past two movies has given the character a lot more depth and wisdom to help guide our young, heroic borderline psychopath (a trait i hope to see more of if/when they do another movie). "

EXACTLY. Michael Caine is without question the greatest incarnation of Alfred and I found myself getting giddy everytime he popped up on screen. His advice and foresight shape Bruce and give him honest criticism but steadfest direction, something most comic book characters lack (Spiderman, Ironman, Hulk, Hellboy, etc).

And the manner in which Michael Caine/Alfred delivered some of this dialgoue--it was almost as if he'd been ready his whole life for this Batman adventure but would've been perfectly fine getting old, doing laundry, and eating TV dinners by himself. Unbelieveable writing, great performance.

It's sad to say but it's a good thing Bruce Wayne's pop get merked--Alfred would only be around to clean silverwear and fetch mixed drinks.

DocZeus said...

There is one other aspect of the film that I failed to mention in my post. You can take the character of Batman and his one man war on crime as almost a metaphor for the futility of fighting the so-called "war on drugs", "war on terrorism", or "war on crime" or whatever. Batman has been in existence for almost 70 years and in that time span, he's failed to stop the same problems that have been plaguing Gotham City since the character's inception. He's still fighting the same Rogue's Gallery, he's still fighting the mob, he's still attempting to stamp out corruption, nothing's really changed.

Granted, I don't think the writers of Batman have really meant to make a grand statement on the futility of attempting to stamp out a social problem with violence but it's inherent subtext to the whole Batman mythology that no matter what he does, he'll be perpetually stuck in a never-ending war against crime. He exists in vortex. Now you could look at it as if Batman is not doing enough to stop crime by refusing to kill or you could look at it like if he wants to put crime out of commission for good, there has to be a more effective way than jumping from rooftop to rooftop dressed like a Bat.

Jesus Shuttlesworth said...

"or you could look at it like if he wants to put crime out of commission for good, there has to be a more effective way than jumping from rooftop to rooftop dressed like a Bat."

at least he doesn't advocate ridiculous prison sentences for drug users, or go after them for that matter. while i agree with you're point, batman's war on crime is directed at the big time controllers, he has no real interest in middlemen. some would say bruce wayne should join/help lead an effort to change how resources are distributed, but it seems like the criminals that arrive as batman does (or because of his arrival) have a stated purpose beyond simple greed. think of bane trying to push batman to his limits, or the riddler basically trying to prove how smart he is.

in gotham, he has to exist so that the spirit of regular citizens remains intact (as was mentioned in batman begins). batman isn't fighting simply in the name of the law (how can he? he's an ordinary citizen who consistently operates outside of it). he's waging a ideological war against vastly different world views, or in the case of someone like Anarky, tactics.

Berto said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Berto said...

Doc, responding to your last point:

The way I see it, Batman exists to treat the symptoms of humanity's vices, while Harvey was meant to cure the disease. Of course, neither can fully get the job done because they're ultimately both human.

And I agree in you in that this movie shouldn't be seen as an endorsement of Bush's policies. Lookng past the obvious parallel between Batman's sonar device and wiretapping, Batman takes care to demonstrate incredible restraint in apprehending the villains of the movie, as others before me have mentioned.

Trey:

After the first Gulf War, Bush Sr. called for the Shiites to attempt a coup against Saddam's Sunni-dominated government. They actually listened, but lo and behold, they were provided no American support. The result is that tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Iraqis were killed by the Republican Guard.

Berto said...

Brad (Jesus):
I wonder how the whole "Batman keeps Gotham's spirits intact" thing is going to play out in the third movie. I would like to see some sort of affirmation that people don't have to rely on larger-than-life figures such as Batman to take their destinies into their own hands, but we'll see what happens.

Also, boo for not taking the time to boost my self-esteem and make token comments on my blog.

Trey Stone said...

berto -- i'm not too familiar with the specifics on that plan, but i got the impression that they may've seen promoting an uprising as a poor decision after the fact because we didn't want to get more entangled in the country or show our hand and make it look like we were fucking around after we already won. i know Cheney has that quote about not wanting to march into Baghdad during the Gulf War, even though obviously he was talking about American troops, not Shiite rebels

if you know about any records that show the reason we didn't support them though let me know, i actually was aware of what you're talking about, but like i said i'm vague on the specifics.

Berto said...

trey - here's a pretty good, quick run through of what happened: http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/iraq501/events_uprising.html

tray said...

Honestly, I wouldn't even call There Will Be Blood a good movie, the second half is just that bad, but Dark Knight, best film of the decade, no. Just looking at last year, The Host and Zodiac are better.

Natan said...

i won't get into the whole debate you guys are having over here.
i just want to mention the movie's strongest quote - what we realized a long time ago here in Israel and you guys in the US are just starting to figure out - "some people just want to watch the whole world burn".
Batman got his hands dirty cause that's what HE HAD TO DO. it's not like anything would've changed if he sat down with mr. Joker on a nice cup of warm tea and had a chat with him, right?
things got worse, true, but it would have been a living hell if Batman wasn't there...

oh, great read Doc!

DocZeus said...

Natan-

Oh, of course. That's ultimately where the allegory about the Joker and terrorism stops. The Joker is motivated by nothing other than a desire to cause as much human suffering as possible. Terrorist groups have motivations which maybe very, very different than our own worldview but are clear and easily understood by them. That means there can possibly be reconciliation. You can't negotiate with the Joker because he doesn't want anything. In the context of the movie, Batman does the right thing but he pays dearly for it.

The Joker is comic book fantasy and therefore, his motives don't have constitute anything that's real.

Badmon3333 said...

Awesome analysis of the movie. I'm not sure about film on the decade, but I would definitely put it in the top 10. Best comic book/graphic-novel-inspired flick to date, hands down.

I do have to disagree with the praise for the movie's action. I thought, with the exception of the bank robbery, the larger-scale action scenes (particularly the tunnel chase) were a little clunky. Nolan has a better eye for close-quarters, hand-to-hand combat shots, showing with his camera the shock of a surprise attack and the quick-cut brutality of a street fight.

Then again, by and large, it is not an action movie. There is much more drama and dialogue-driven scenework here than in 'Batman Begins.'

I'd really like to know if the writers had the specific political figures in your analysis in mind when they were crafting the story.

Anonymous said...

Super Hero.

Anonymous said...

f*ck politics!

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