THE DARK KNIGHT
by Greg Barnhisel
I don't really talk about movies in my own blog because, well, I don't really see movies much anymore, what with two small children. My wife and I do have a Netflix subscription and use it frequently, but because of the multitasking way we watch our DVDs--both of us working/surfing on our laptops, going to the kitchen, going upstairs to help a restive child fall asleep--I don't feel like I've immersed myself in a film when I watch it at home. I really tried a few months ago, when I took out David Lynch's Inland Empire, but I just don't think I'm able to focus on a film unless I'm in a theater (and even then I have to be reminded not to use the Blackberry). So I don't want to write about these films the way I write about books because in a sense it's not fair; unlike books, films don't receive my full attention when I see them on TV.
(Interestingly, this isn't the case with TV shows that I take out and watch--I give full attention to The Wire, The Sopranos, The Weeds, whatever it is; or, rather, I find it much easier to give them full attention. There must be a series of cinematographic and screenwriting tricks that a TV director uses to focus a home audience's attention that a movie director doesn't need to use. I'll have to check out Mad Men and see if it's similarly engaging.)
But after seeing The Dark Knight this week I just can't resist talking about the movie: not because the film itself was great, or horrible, or anything--it's a summer blockbuster about a superhero, enough said--but because Wall Street Journal writer Andrew Klavan argued that this film is a 150-minute panegyric to George W., down to the similarity between the Batsymbol and the Current Occupant's middle initial. Predictably, liberal blogs have screamed about this silly reaching of the Bush dead-enders for cultural relevance. Isaac Chotiner in the NEW REPUBLIC almost choked with disbelief, and the generally shriller and more Hollywood-centric Huffington Post attempted to rebut the argument that Bush = Batman by arguing that because Batman willingly accepts that he MUST become an outlaw to save Gotham, this proves that Christopher Nolan and the film are arguing that Batman's "enhanced" tactics of crimefighting and civil-rights violations were wrong all along.
The problem is that the Wall Street Journal is right.
There seems to me no question that the Batman film The Dark Knight, currently breaking every box office record in history, is at some level a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war. Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past.In the film, Batman is confronted by the Joker, who is explicitly contrasted with the cartel of mafia gangs (ethnically stereotyped as sharp-dressed Italians, threatening African Americans, and swarthy lowbrowed Southeastern Europeans) that used to be the city's nemeses. The Joker represents an entirely new paradigm of villian: he is nihilistic, an "agent of chaos," pleased to bring evil for evil's sake and with no larger "goal" besides death. It's hard for me to see this as anything but an allegory for the post-Cold War period, when the "old" villains of Communism, dangerous but predictable and organized, have been supplanted by the "evildoers" of terrorism, whom conservatives consistently describe as being motivated simply by hate: "they hate our freedoms," "they love death." The Joker = Al Qaeda, and the Joker's ability to inspire the crazies of the city to join him and die in the process mirrors the Al Qaeda copycat phenomenon.
And like W, Batman understands that there is no moral equivalence between a free society -- in which people sometimes make the wrong choices -- and a criminal sect bent on destruction. The former must be cherished even in its moments of folly; the latter must be hounded to the gates of Hell.
The Dark Knight, then, is a conservative movie about the war on terror.
As with Al Qaeda, there is no negotiating with the Joker, for he doesn't want anything except the aftermath of the chaos he brings. (This notion, that Islamic terrorism is fundamentally autochthonous and self-perpetuating rather than a response to material conditions and a drive for particular goals, is most frequently advanced by those who use the term "Islamo-Fascism.") And because he is so unpredictable, so alien to the ordinary laws of human motivation, Batman and his allies (Gordon, the head of Major Crimes, and Harvey Dent, the paladin-like district attorney) must fight the war in new ways, using deception and the violation of people's civil liberties. As Dick Cheney said on September 16, 2001,
"We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will."
The people, naturally, clamor for this. Terrified and stupid, the populace of Gotham needs to be directed and protected by a Strong Leader--or, rather, a leader-cadre divided up between the admirable figurehead of Harvey Dent (in whom the People Put Their Hopes) and Batman, the man who is willing to get his hands dirty, making the sausage, doing the things that have to be done but which can't be exposed. These leaders know that they will ultimately return to the citizens their pre-Joker freedoms, but during the state of the emergency (Terror Alert Red?) they need to do things that they can't disclose. At one point, Batman figures out how to make every citizen's cellphone a kind of microphone and sonar imagery device all plugged into his central console, so that he--or his faithful lieutenant, Lucius Fox--can engage in simultaneous surveillance of every phone conversation and text message and have images of every point in the entire city. Fox is at first reluctant to wield this power, but Batman assures him that there is a safeguard against its irresponsible use: Fox's own conscience, and his trust in Fox to disable this useful but potentially dangerous technology as soon as the emergency ends.
I can't see how anyone, liberal or conservative, can see this as anything but a justification for the "Terrorist Surveillance Program" (warrantless wiretapping) and the "Total Information Awareness" initiative. The safeguards that had been in place (FISA courts) are no longer operational; we need this information NOW because there is a ticking bomb; you can trust us not to violate your liberties because we are good Americans.
The movie even sanctions torture. It's horribly violent, and although it doesn't engage in the stylization of violence typical of the Wachowski Brothers movies (V is for Vendetta) it makes it clear that even though the Joker desires violence and death (like "terrorists"), that can't stop us from using it for the greater good.
The final tentpole of this argument is the portrayal of Batman as a combination of Bush and Cheney. Like Batman in his muscled suit and "Wayne Enterprises," Bruce Wayne's military-contractor corporation, macho, martial, Bush on the aircraft carrier in his flight suit becomes an emblem of the irresistibility and sexiness of American military power and the military-industrial complex. Meanwhile Cheney, hidden in his undisclosed location, devises the strategies behind the scenes that will keep us safe. And while the population initially embraces, and even dresses as, Batman, as things get tougher the fickle public turns on their hero,
Or, as Klavan puts it,
Doing what's right is hard, and speaking the truth is dangerous. Many have been abhorred for it, some killed, one crucified.I think Nolan's been unmasked.
Leftists frequently complain that right-wing morality is simplistic. Morality is relative, they say; nuanced, complex. They're wrong, of course, even on their own terms.
Left and right, all Americans know that freedom is better than slavery, that love is better than hate, kindness better than cruelty, tolerance better than bigotry. We don't always know how we know these things, and yet mysteriously we know them nonetheless.
The true complexity arises when we must defend these values in a world that does not universally embrace them -- when we reach the place where we must be intolerant in order to defend tolerance, or unkind in order to defend kindness, or hateful in order to defend what we love.
When heroes arise who take those difficult duties on themselves, it is tempting for the rest of us to turn our backs on them, to vilify them in order to protect our own appearance of righteousness. We prosecute and execrate the violent soldier or the cruel interrogator in order to parade ourselves as paragons of the peaceful values they preserve. As Gary Oldman's Commissioner Gordon says of the hated and hunted Batman, "He has to run away -- because we have to chase him."
That's real moral complexity. And when our artistic community is ready to show that sometimes men must kill in order to preserve life; that sometimes they must violate their values in order to maintain those values; and that while movie stars may strut in the bright light of our adulation for pretending to be heroes, true heroes often must slink in the shadows, slump-shouldered and despised -- then and only then will we be able to pay President Bush his due and make good and true films about the war on terror.
Perhaps that's when Hollywood conservatives will be able to take off their masks and speak plainly in the light of day.