[WARNING 1: The Dark Knight has been out for long enough now that most of you interested in seeing it should have seen it. To those of you who haven’t, know now: spoilery follows.]
[WARNING 2: As usual, I was late to this particular party, so I just wanted to publish this blasted blog post before everything I wanted to say had been said elsewhere—you will appreciate the irony of that admission when you read my punchline—so I’ve been even less coherent and concise than usual. It takes longer to be brief. If the following thoughts make any sense together then thank V and J who accompanied me to the film and discussed it with me by email.]
Apparently lazy and drunken playboy and son of a wealthy and powerful father uses illegal surveillance techniques, hi-tech weaponry, forced extradition, and torture to fight self-confessed terrorist bomber and his associates. It’s not much of a stretch to take The Dark Knight as a wall-high War On Terror allegory. What’s shocking is that, if you do, you have to accept that a film directed by a young, arty, privately-educated Englishman1 is broadly sympathetic to Bush/Batman. That Cosmo Landesman in The Sunday Times disagrees strongly with this interpretation reinforces my belief, given our previous experience with Landesman. There’s even a scene where hundreds of citizens of Gotham held hostage on a ferry have a vote, the view of their majority is overruled, and it turns out to be for their own good. Director/writer Christopher Nolan himself2 describes what Batman does as a “crusade” and admits that the Bat’s goal at the start of the film is to pass on the job to a legitimate successor, (an “heroic”, “all-American” lawyer). Nolan also describes The Joker as “an enemy who cannot be understood”, the most “frightening form of evil”.
Before looking at this in more detail, I’ll get some surface things out of the way first:
As another (comic-book enthusiast) friend of mine said, “Believe the hype”: Heath Ledger is superb. Even his lip-licking has a sound justification, rather than merely being drama school showing-off. You forget that he is Heath Ledger; Jack Nicholson never let you forget that his Joker was Jack.
Like a lot of recent Hollywood movies, it’s too long and, at times, the dialogue lays out the plot like like a primary school teacher addressing a room full of ADHD sufferers. This might be because reviewers of genre movies in the serious press insist on complaining that a plot is “impenetrable” whenever confronted by anything with more dimensions than a Jon Pilger documentary or geekier than an iPod. Amongst the chatterati, boasting of ignorance of comic books, science fiction, or digital technology serves a similar social signalling function to boasting of ignorance of science.
The special effects set-pieces are stunningly good. I gasped at the audacity of the middle-of-the-day, matter-of-fact destruction of an entire hospital complex, in the same way that I gasped at the scenes of empty, overgrown, sunlit New York in I Am Legend. It had the same kind of “You know this is mostly an illusion, but I’m going to leave the lights on and challenge you to spot the joins, you bastards” defiance about it.
In contrast, even though its makers take care to hide more than they show, the worst of the film’s violence is nasty. Perhaps this is justified by the story and the characters—and the seriousness of the themes tackled. Either way, the censors’ choice of certification was exactly right.
Being the audio geek that I am, having boggled at the soundtrack, I emailed a friend the next day to rave about the extraordinary technical achievements of the sound engineers—if they don’t win an Oscar™ then there’s no justice—and my friend in return sent me a link to this article by someone who knows more about this sort of thing than I do who felt the same way about the same thing. Read his blog post to get a measure of how ambitious the director and the soundtrack’s creators were.
Now to what I hope are less obvious observations:
When presented with a text-book ticking bomb scenario, the “good guys” resort to torture. If the film takes positions on this, they seem to be: “people in power are tempted to torture, especially when they are desperate and frightened”, and “torture doesn’t work because it elicits unreliable information, especially when the torturee is a crazed ideologue”. The practical argument against torture is one of the weakest. It’s like trying to discourage the use of illegal chemicals by claiming that “the drugs don’t work”. The main reason we have to prohibit torture isn’t because people enjoy administering it (though some do); it’s because sometimes it does indeed yield useful information. We should resist its use because, like the use of also-unreliable biological weapons, it’s wrong.
At least twice in the film, The Joker delivers “Gee, Officer Krupke” speeches about his miserable life history right before he does something particularly nasty to the victim-to-be. When he is arrested, however, we discover that he has no past. I’m not sure if that was intentional, but a pointing-and-shouting neocon wouldn’t look any more ridiculous if he claimed that the message here was that the usual apologetics for terrorism are empty.
The Joker repeatedly denies responsibility for the awful consequences of his actions, claiming merely to be “an agent of chaos”. But, from his first appearance, he lies to everybody, especially about not having an agenda or plan. All of his greatest crimes depend upon his own lies and the moral weaknesses of the people of Gotham for their success. He fakes his own death in order to kill his would-be assassins; he dresses hostages as kidnappers in the hope that SWAT team members will execute the captives; in an echo of one of the most infamous scenes from the bloody rule of Saddam Hussein, he invites one group of the condemned to save themselves by killing another. He wants his victims to show themselves to be as bad as he claims they are so that he can say: “It wasn’t me; it was your worst natures to blame. I’m just a crazy boy from a broken home. I didn’t slit the hostage’s throat; you unleashed the darkness when you let the Batman hunt me down.”
Where have we heard that sort of thing before?
I know I am not being original when I say that science fiction movies long ago took over from westerns the job of examining contemporary moral and political questions in a spectacular popular format. 1981’s Outland, by way of famous example, is 1952’s High Noon3 set in space4. I’ve written here before about two other recent science fiction movies that could be interpreted as commentaries on the war in Iraq and the War on Terror: Serenity (itself explicitly modelled on the classic westerns) and The Chronicles of Riddick. To summarize crudely: Serenity attacks the whole idea of well-intentioned intervention in other societies; Riddick says that the only way to defeat a theocratic death cult is through harnessing another kind of evil (and asks, but does not answer, the question: “And what happens when the former followers of that cult find themselves under new leadership?”) As if to complete a set, despite its clearly expressed qualms, the impression The Dark Knight leaves isn’t anti- or ambi-; it seems to be pro-Bush.
In the Wall Street Journal article I linked to above, Andrew Klavan, rants about “Left-wing” films about the War on Terror and points out how unpopular they and their supposed messages of “moral equivalence and … surrender” have been with US movie-goers. I’m going to comment at an angle to Klavan. To state the oft-stated again, all films about the future date the present they were created in, but I suspect that most recent films made directly about Iraq and the War on Terror will date worse and rather more quickly than Serenity, Riddick, and The Dark Knight. None of the latter was subtle at all; each one seemed to take a different position on central moral and political questions; but all of them will turn out to have been more insightful about our current geopolitical dilemmas than their contemporaries that banged on about the ishoos of the day. Why? Because, unlike too many supposedly sophisticated public commentators, these flashy, noisy, and long films were big enough not to look at the second hand to tell us the time.
- It’s interesting that Christopher Nolan’s mother is from the US. [↩]
- Is it just me or does Nolan bear an unfortunate and undeserved resemblance to Tim-Nice-But-Dim? [↩]
- High Noon has been screened more times by US presidents in the White House cinema than any other movie. [↩]
- This kind of sentence is one reason why I disagree with The New York Times about the use of the apostrophe after the digits of decades. Imagine if I had typed “1980’s Outland“. [↩]
For me, it’s Lucius Fox’s utterly feeble stand against the BatTV that epitomises the film’s politics: “This is wrong. No man should have this much power. I won’t work for you while you have this machine. Never, never, never….Well, just this once. But only because the Joker is really bad.” That’s the nearest we get to principled opposition: straight arrow Harvey Dent is a big fan of Batman and Lt Gordon ignores clear orders to arrest the vigilante on sight – all before the Joker begins his crazed reign of terror.
Weren’t the Joker’s sob stories deliberately contradictory? I though both were explanations of how he got his scars: self-inflicted in one version, his drunk dad in the other. So definitely not be relied on.
The Joker’s denial of his responsibility for the carnage takes another beating when we see his reaction to the outbreak of morality on the ferries: he produces a third detonator and prepares to blow them up himself.
So yeah. Great film, dodgy message. Oh, and until now, I didn’t even question the hospital scene. It just completely convinced me they blew up an enormous building.
Thanks for this. Reading the critics had put me off, even when – in fact, sometimes epecially when – they were praising its message. Not that I mind messages, but some of them had made it sound like, at best, an episode of Battlestar Galactica (at worse, like a recent episode of Robin Hood or Doctor Who).
I think it’s a convincing argument – to a point. But isn’t it integral to the whole message of Batman that a vigilante can do things the governing body can’t, precisely because he’s a vigilante? (This point is frequently raised and questioned throughout Batman’s comics history). I think the argument would carry a lot more weight if it was Commissioner Gordon doing the torturing etc and such actions were sanctioned by the authorities (and doesn’t Joker escape police custody at the end cos that fat dumb cop can’t keep his fists to himself? That seems like a fairly clear message to me…)
One of the most interesting things about the film is that the people of Gotham identify with Batman the vigilante, indeed, a running joke is that so many of them choose to dress up as him. Batman wants to inspire the people, but finds himself embarrassed by imitators. The Joker wants to expose the people’s flaws, but is frustrated by good citizens.
The torture parallel is one of the strongest resemblances between the behaviour of the US government and the Gotham city administration. You’re right: Commissioner Gordon doesn’t do the torturing; instead he invites Batman into the interview room to spend quality time with The Joker. (Then, later, one of Gordon’s men tries to have a go himself.)
In fact, Batman locks the door against Gordon at one point, when the Joker reveals that Rachel Dawes is a potential victim. Batman knows he’s about to cross a line. (Although, in fact, the Joker is only too keen to spill his false info)
The other strong parallel is the extraordinary rendition. I think someone actually says “of course, we can’t kidnap him from China…” Hint. Hint. Again, it’s OK to break the rules if you do it deniably.
I’m trying to think of counter-arguments to the pro-Bush thesis. The only one that springs to mind comes from the finale: hostages dressed as clowns, villains as hostages. Batman ends up fighting cops because they (ordered by Gordon) are charging in, guns blazing. You could argue the moral here is anti-profiling: you can’t ID the bad guys by appearance.
Yeah, I’m not convinced either…
I think you’re wrong about Serenity, though. It wasn’t well-intentioned meddling in _other_ people’s societies, it was about well intentioned meddling in our own. The evil of the Alliance is that they think they can “make people better.” That’s what our own governments do: don’t drink, don’t smoke, eat less. Bush wasn’t, so far as I can tell, trying to make Iraqis better, he was trying to make their government better. Or at least different.