Thu 7 Aug 2008
I don’t think I could hold on to my official film critic badge if I didn’t say something about the biggest movie of this and any summer. For crying out loud, it’s the #1 film of ALL TIME on the imdb poll. I refer of course to John McCain’s wet dream. Just kidding. Sort of.
I don’t agree with this misguided writer, but it’s easy to see how McCain might fully embrace the milieu of The Dark Knight, a world where chaos and terror lie around every corner and where people’s only salvation is cowering under the protection of government-sponsored violence. But what I like about Christopher Nolan’s vision is he’s smart enough to interrogate that position. While Batman’s presence is necessary (this is a summer blockbuster after all), the movie and Batman wrestle with whether his style of vigilante justice is more harmful than not.
The film also calls into question certain axioms of contemporary entertainment (and government): 1) that good always triumphs over evil, so just sit back with a cold one and relax, 2) that the good guys are always good and therefore free to break the law whenever they want, and 3) that those bad things good guys do have no lasting repercussions. Batman is equated at times with a burgeoning fascism and, at other times, with how ancient Rome suspended its democracy in the face of violence and never recovered. There’s also an amazing moment when Michael Caine talks about how he captured a bandit in Burma: “We burned the forest down.” Anyone who doesn’t connect that story to Vietnam and Iraq isn’t paying attention.
But the politics are convoluted enough that some conservatives can legitimately claim Batman as their own. The Joker would likely run wild if he were not confronted by the unstoppable force of Batman. And Batman only locates the Joker at the end by spying on every citizen in Gotham. And most troubling for leftists of a certain view is that the film shows how easy it is for good intentions to be overwhelmed by awful realities and how those awful realities must sometimes be fought with violence.
Of course, few of the millions of people who’ve already seen the movie went because of Batman’s politics. They went for the incredible set pieces, and on that score the movie delivers. The centerpiece of the film is a chase through the bowels of Chicago that ends with the most spectacular stunt I’ve seen in years. People literally burst into applause at the screening I was at, and rightly so. But that’s not the only cool moment in the film. In fact, the movie’s first 90 minutes are filled with them. And unlike Batman Begins, which relied too heavily on CGI, The Dark Knight goes back to old-fashioned stuntwork, beautifully using a variety of Chicago locations.
Audiences also went to see Heath Ledger, and again rightly so. His big entrance with a disappearing pencil is startling and awesome. But Ledger is more impressive in how he taps into the horrible madness at the core of the Joker and the awful random amorality behind contemporary terrorism. But Ledger isn’t the only compelling actor. Gary Oldman as Police Commissioner Gordon is fantastic, Maggie Gyllenhaal brings panache to the role of girlfriend in peril, Aaron Eckhart almost steals the film as an upright D.A., and Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine do what they always do–bring flawless style and welcome comic relief.
It won’t surprise readers to learn that I don’t think The Dark Knight is the best film of the year, much less all time. The last hour drags a bit. And with so many great set pieces, it seems perverse to end with the dullest of the bunch. But there aren’t many summer movies that excite both my senses and mind. Yes, I’m already looking forward to the next one.
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