28 July 2008

The Dark Knight

Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Christopher & Jonathan Nolan
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: B+

Let’s cut through the hype quickly: The Dark Knight is not without its flaws. Despite a few ante-upping set pieces—such as a courtroom scene that ends with the DA slugging a hostile witness—the action scenes are often overblown and over-edited; a mid-film attempted kidnapping of an armored car passenger, with its copious car flips and other assorted traffic accidents, is nearly unintelligible. The film is also terribly manipulative, with not one, not two, but three “Sophie’s Choices,” while it suffers from a bourgeois moral sense—its reverence for the nobility of the hoi polloi, its shallow Print The Legend ethic.

But while it slips too often into lowest common denominatorism, The Dark Knight otherwise manages to be epic, on a formal level. Novelistic. There are Big Moral Decisions here—like whether to negotiate with terrorists—as well as thematic maturity. Batman, of course, is our hero, but only in the loosest sense of the word. The Bros. Nolan suggest that Batman, in his vigilantism, is not only anti-democratic but that he has made Gotham more dangerous; post-Caped Crusader, the city is rife with gun-toting copycats and thieves without honor (even among one another!)

Heath Ledger’s lip-licking, scar-sucking Joker, with a handful of phony origin stories (a la Funny Games’ adolescent sociopaths), is dependent on Batman for his existence; “You. Complete. Meeee,” he hisses in an already famous speech. The Dark Knight is a psychodrama of symbiotic madmen in dress-up, including even Aaron Eckhardt’s Harvey Dent, though he’s clothed only in the tailored-suit costume of attorneydom. Dent is often referred to in the film as Gotham’s “White Knight”—Batman’s opposite and his equal. (He eventually devolves into a coin-flipping Chigurgh—“you die a hero or live long enough to be the villain,” he says. Add the abundance of thematic declaration in the script to the list of flaws.) The Nolans define their characters by their relation to The Bat—they are his inverses, his flip sides.

The Batman is not a source of order here but the cause of the city’s intensifying madness. His sickness is theirs—and vice versa. “I don’t need help,” Batman says, in reference to the copycats. “That’s not my diagnosis,” The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy, from the previous film, in a hangover cameo) quips. Batman’s psychosis is infectious, its out-of-handness best expressed in a single shot: the Joker, standing before a burning pyramid of cash. This is the ultimate expression of America’s deepest fear: a man—a face-painted monster—so loyal to ideology that he has no price. (Batman can’t be bought either, but that’s because he’s already mega-rich—an American ideal and another example of opposites.) As such, the Joker plays a conspicuously allegorical role as Terrorist, making Batman, Batmobiling down Gotham’s hell roads, paved in his good intentions, Bush 43—Our American Failure. (The Dark Knight is so plugged into the zeitgeist that one of its central villains is—Boo! Hiss!—a Chinese nationalist.)

Bush as proto-terrorist—and the yin to its yang—is heady stuff for a summer blockbuster. “I was meant to inspire good,” Batman laments, “not madness.” The Dark Knight is a War on Terror allegory—our heroes create our villains, madness begets madness and violence begets violence. With its ball-twisting and temperature-raising, it’s our first worthy piece of post-Children of Men filmmaking and, in and of the visceral moment, it’s astounding, a triumph of form—outside of its aforementioned missteps, anyway. (Half an hour overlong, at least, as it struggles to fill the time.)

But as far as content, on the other hand, it advocates indiscriminate, FISA-violating wiretapping (what at first seems a Bondish gadget fetish turns out to be far more sinister) as well as aggressive interrogation techniques. Tsk tsk. The Dark Knight doesn’t fare as well in afterthought’s days-later calm and rationality, the emotionless consideration that the frenzied film prevents in the theater. To mixed success, it plays for the heart, for the guts, in order to distract the head from the questionable politics it promotes—namely, fascism.

Watch the trailer:

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