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Loving the Dark Knight… But why?

I’ve seen the new Batman film, The Dark Knight, in an amazing IMAX theatre in north Atlanta.  The film still has me thinking, although the more I consider the larger themes it suggests, the more deeply disturbing their implications are for me.  But I still think the film brilliant, for right at the moment when I sensed it was about to give way to a final fifty minutes-or-so orgy of gratuitous action!, action!!!, ACTION!!!!!, what appeared instead was a deeply compelling series of awful thought experiments that set my mind reeling and that had me leaving convinced I have seen the best action hero adaptation film ever made.

For those who will understandably stop reading with the spoiler alert coming with the start of the next paragraph, let me simply urge you to see the movie if you haven’t already.  Ignore the ignorance revealed by the critics who didn’t like it because the “fun” is gone from the Batman franchise.  Yes, the picture is dark in every way, from the visual iconography of a Gotham mainly observed in silhouette (or at setting sun), to Heath Ledger’s creepy but finally stupendous and unforgettable last performance, to the existential pessimism that situates every moral choice in a larger fabric of lies where even conscientiously motivated decisions are always denied just outcomes.  But this is all the more reason to go and soak it up, and then to think on it more fully as the Dark Knight’s plot twists and turns provoke your thinking further.  And even if cinematic darkness is not your normal preference, give it this one shot, if only by asking how much fun there really was in that awful Batman/Clooney-and-Robin/O’Donnell-inhale-the-green-vegetable-smoke-from-PoisonIvy/Uma-and-see-the-testosterone-boiling version made ten years ago.

[OK, now:  Spoiler alerts ahead…]

At least two elements of the movie pose important questions about contemporary culture.  The first connects to the plot’s central reliance on a mainly unquestioned but finally indefensible and overweening paternalism.  I think it is true that every major character in the film lies or prevents the wider distribution of essential information in the name of a self-effacing (or, contrarily, sinister) noblesse oblige.  The final twist relies on Batman’s decision to acquiesce in one last agonizing lie, undertaken because he decides on everyone’s behalf that the wider society cannot handle the truth (to evoke an earlier classic, but one where Jack Nicholson was compelling and not a cartoon, er, I mean, joker).  Commissioner Gordon’s last lines in the film enact this lie for public consumption (and this lie follows on a series of other evasions and deeply personal lies Gordon tells, again all defended as a necessary guardianship).  Bruce Wayne speaks at a fundraiser he throws for District Attorney Harvey Dent (paraphrasing Wayne:  once you win over my friends, you’ll never have to raise election funds – again, so much for democracy), and the effusiveness of his endorsement is so fulsome that the person who (apart from Alfred) has known him the longest concludes he has been engaged in ridicule and not praise.

Engaged in an explicit iron triangle of do-goodism, a captain of industry (Wayne), the city’s commander of military might (Gordon), and its key political leader (Dent) conspire to impose their own individual though shared visions of the good onto the rest of Gotham, democracy be damned.  Even as, in the films climactic Batman/Joker encounter (where the relationship is physically enacted in a setting where Joker speaks upside down and Batman right side up and where, suspended from a wire, the Joker is literally Batman’s counterweight), Batman evokes the capacity of the People to Do the Right Thing even as he speeds off to betray the sentiment at the film’s close.

And this implies for me a second large question with resonance for our post-911 national mentality, namely, a consideration of the final far limits of state power when enabled by a climate of fear.  In an period where President Bush’s too-energetic manipulation of the levers of executive power have produced an electorate deeply skeptical of and hostile to his leadership (lowest ever approval numbers again released just today), the world of Dark Knight (a double entendre, of course, explicitly evoked by Dent’s evocation of the cliche about light coming after the darkest night) is here to evoke something more sinister, namely, how extravagantly resourced state power can too easily operate without limit.  The key moment illustrating this in the film is actually not high tech or specially effected, but the simple and brutal moment when the über-clean Commissioner Gordon clears out the interrogation area so that Batman can physically brutalize the Joker.  It’s the classic Jack Bauer torture-the-suspect-who-knows-where-the-time-bomb-is-ticking moment, except in this case the Batman is making it personal:  the motivation for his savagery is not that he wants to save the city, but more modestly to save his girlfriend.

Obviously in the film all this is enacted in hyper-exaggerated form.  George Bush has his subordinates use computers to listen in on a few selected voice transcribed conversations, while thanks to Wayne Enterprises’ technowizardry (explicitly reminiscent of Q’s manipulation of technology for James Bond in the service of British Empire, a comparison explicitly evoked by Alfred’s recollection of British imperialists and the challenges they faced in taming the African continent), Batman is able to rely on the accumulated information from every single conversation in the city (and more, he can see everything imaginable).  Batman is able to get past fortress-like security on the ground floor by (somehow) getting onto the 200th story rooftop and then flying into any window he has identified as shielding evildoers.  Crime in Gotham is not random vandalism, but even the most modest markers of apparent street crime are coordinated centrally by a unified if not agreeable syndicate that rivals Sherlock Holmes’ paranoid (but all the more startling when we discover it is true) realization that all Victorian-era crime was orchestrated by Moriarty’s evil genius.

But the make believe world of Dark Knight bespeaks a wider social context where, in the name of making everyone secure, governments and corporate security firms and their complicit corporate partners take too many licenses with liberty.  Such a statement sounds extreme, or perhaps paranoid, but as I read an essay by Dahlia Lithwick this week I am led to wonder how far off the mark it is.  As she wrote in the August 4 Newsweek just out:

The most influential legal thinker in the development of modern American interrogation policy is not a behavioral psychologist, international lawyer or counterinsurgency expert.  Reading both Jane Mayer’s stunning The Dark Side and Philippe Sands’ Torture Team, it quickly becomes plain that the prime mover of American interrogation doctrine is none other than the start of Fox television’s “24,” Jack Bauer.  This fictional counterterrorism agent – a man never at a loss for something to do with an electrode – has his fingerprints all over U.S. interrogation policy.  As Sands and Mayer tell it, the lawyers designing interrogation techniques cited Bauer more frequently than the Constitution.

The Dark Knight finally articulates an ethos of guardianship over one of heroism, but this of course disturbingly upends the central commitments of democratic government.  This is so because guardians do their work in private, whereas heroes are judged in public.  The apparently alternative reality of Gotham renders all acts of public service suspect or false, valorizing a secret billionaire world of lies done to protect a citizenry too easily manipulated by jokers and common psychopaths, a world where even people sworn to protect the public good are too easily turned toward avarice (blackmailed for their commitment to sick relatives, or made finally cynical by worldly caprice).

But of course the brilliance of the film is that even as one offers such totalizing claims, one is reminded of other elements of the world we see that problematize grand theories.  Or do they?  Consider again the Joker’s arguably cruelest and most savagely constructed impossible choice, enacted on two harbor ferries.  We are surprised that the boat’s occupants rise above their desperation and native instincts at self-survival, an outcome that one might say is a triumphant vindication of the will of the people and the basic decency of even deeply corrupted polities.  [I admit I loved the twist that the right decisions are made by a criminal and a self-doubting narcissist.]  But, and this is I think significant, the lesson Batman takes from this outcome is not a deeper commitment to democratic truth telling, but the opposite.  The moral of the incident for Batman is that his own lying (all for the good, of course) has been justified – the people have not let him down, and so their goodness vindicates his paternalism – rather than a perhaps more obvious conclusion that he need not pull the wool over their eyes forever more.


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