It’s only natural, I suppose, that with the Bush administration nearing its end, we’ve been seeing a lot of films lately about the war against terrorism. A lot of politically charged dramas have been hitting theaters, stuff like “In the Valley of Elah” (2007) and “Stop-Loss” (2008), which explore the effects of terrorism and the war both abroad and at home.
But few of those films made an impression. As the procession of middling wannabe-political dramas marched on, I started to lose hope. Was it possible for a film to be released that actually presented these ideas in a unique and powerful way? For a while, I didn’t think so.
Then, out of nowhere, a certain caped crusader swooped down upon the box office and changed my mind.
Simply put, if there is any film that best illustrates the climate of our country in the era of terrorism and the Bush administration, it’s “The Dark Knight.”
The parallels are obvious. The film’s villain, The Joker (played by Heath Ledger), is a terrorist who, in the film’s most disquieting scene, is shown videotaping one of his murders, leering madly into the camera, thoroughly proud of — or oblivious to — the brutality of his actions. He’s a raving mad dog fueled by a desire most of us couldn’t possibly understand.
Batman, meanwhile, is the authority, with the thankless task of catching him. By the end of the film, Gotham City is against him; he has gone from being the city’s savior to Public Enemy Number One. One need only look at the trajectory of Bush and his administration to see the reference there.
And the film as a whole beautifully captures the oppression and fear of a world under terrorism. Only “Se7en” (1995) can match this film’s bleak outlook. But what makes “The Dark Knight” so powerful is that, when we look at The Joker, we see the faces of the many balaclava-clad extremists whose images have become engrained in our national conscience; many critics, upon first seeing “The Dark Knight,” commented on how “real” the film felt. That’s because it is.
I think what’s most startling about this film is how subversive it is. Film, being a mass medium that transcends social and cultural boundaries, is the perfect art form to subtly inject with political or social commentary. Unfortunately, most filmmakers don’t understand that, and they tend to whack us repeatedly over the head with their views — “Stop-Loss” being a perfect example.
But, while the storyline and visuals themselves are not subtle, “The Dark Knight” is imbued with a sense of political righteousness that is unusual in a Hollywood film. I’m sure most people caught on to the obvious jabs at the Patriot Act near the end, in which Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) realizes that Bruce Wayne is monitoring the people of Gotham in order to catch The Joker. But how the film’s message was interpreted by those same people may be a different story.
Because, really, what is the film saying? Are there other layers we’re missing? If Batman is supposed to be the administration, then who is Harvey Dent supposed to be? Is the film saying that in a world overrun by the lawless, a self-righteous do-gooder like Dent (cough, Obama, cough) will be eaten alive? That the authorities, against their better judgment, need to break the rules in order to defeat people who don’t have rules?
Maybe it was just me, but I interpreted an undercurrent of distinctly conservative ideology running through this.
Then again, maybe it was just me.
That said, the film doesn’t hold back on its criticism of the administration, either. One of the most powerful moments in the film comes during a simple exchange between Bruce Wayne and Alfred on the subject of the Joker:
“Alfred: You crossed the line, first. You squeezed them (the mob). You hammered them to the point of desperation. And in their desperation they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.
Bruce Wayne: Criminals aren’t complicated, Alfred. You just have to figure out what he’s after.
Alfred: With all due respect, Sir, perhaps this is a man that you don’t understand.”
The film’s message may be questionable, but that one exchange rings with a thundering authority that no other “political” film in the past decade has been able to achieve. Who would have thought it came from a Batman movie?