Thursday, July 31, 2008

Why so ridiculous?

When I got home from seeing The Dark Knight last week, one of the observations I made was that I was pretty surprised by the Batman-as-Bush-administration analogy, and that I was unsure what to make of it.

A week’s passed, and I’m still not entirely sure what director and co-writer Christopher Nolan meant by it, beyond pointing out the obvious fact that facing absolute evil is hard, and forces one to compromise their own ethics and morals.

If he was comparing Batman, Gordon and Harvey Dent’s fight with the Joker over the soul of Gotham City to the U.S. government’s fight against the specter of terrorism over the soul of America, then the point seemed to be that terror wins, even when it loses.

It’s a bleak, bleak outlook and, as I mentioned, The Joker seems triumphant in the film.

Now viewers often see what they want to see in movies, particularly viewers who are also writers looking for material and are canny enough to realize Hot Topic of Conversation This Week + Political Issues of Our Day = Guaranteed Sale of Piece Discussing Them.

Often, we even see things that aren’t there.

An aside: The conventional wisdom among critics, commentators and most fans regarding 2007’s 300 was that it was not-so-thinly-veiled pro-America propaganda, with heroic, western, white, freedom-loving democracy-havers standing up against the Middle Eastern hordes. And sure, there was a lot of that in there, but my own reading was that the political analogies were horribly confused. While in some ways Sparta seemed like an analogue for the U.S., in just as many ways, the Persian Empire (i.e. the bad guys) seemed more like the U.S. After all, they were the largest, most powerful army in the world, with the most advanced weapons technology, and fighting in the name of a decadent country formed by a co-mingling of all the peoples of the known world. But that was last year’s big comic book movie with a debt owed to Frank Miller.

I was keeping an open mind, and was even somewhat skeptical of the Joker = terrorism interpretation I’d heard.

In a lot of ways, Nolan and Ledger’s Joker is something even scarier than a terrorist, as he seems to have no agenda. He’s not fighting for a homeland or against another country or people or for or against a particular religion. We don’t know where he’s come from or where he wants to go; the little he says about his motivations—in the hospital bed speech to Harvey Dent, for example—could be so much bullshit, like the shifting stories of his scars.

On the other hand, he champions asymmetrical warfare (the line about how he likes gunpowder and dynamite), his weapon of choice is the bomb, he’s not afraid to blow himself up, and, of course, there’s the fact that everyone keeps calling him a terrorist.

I was willing to resist the Batman-as-Bush metaphor for awhile, even past the point where it was clear the doing-bad-things-for-the-greater-good emerged as an issue (Batman asking Dent not to torture that Joker henchman, Batman breaking Maroni’s legs, Batman using enhanced interrogation techniques against the Joker, etc.)

But man, when Batman walks Morgan Freeman into the room with the all those monitors in it and tells him he plans on eavesdropping on telephone calls, Nolan might as well have had Batman look into the camera and tell the audience he thinks the Bush administration was right to support warrant-less wire-tapping.

Again, I don’t know what exactly Nolan is trying to say, beyond, “Man, life sure sucks, doesn’t it?” Batman’s not really right, and he doesn’t win; the Joker gets caught at the end and the Gothamites on the boat choose not to murder to save their own lives, believing in the inherent goodness of their fellow Gothamite, but that doesn’t have a whole hell of a lot to do with Batman torturing or spying on anyone.

And that’s the only “victory” we get; he’s resigns himself to an endless war on crime, devoid of the love of the woman he loved, the successor and partner he saw in Harvey Dent, and even the hope that he could be an inspirational force bettering people’s lives, as he becomes a vigilante (Little James Gordon still believes, though!).

Andrew Klavan didn’t have the same problems I did trying to figure out Nolan’s message. Klavan, an author responsible for many works of fiction I never read, got it all right away: It’s about how Bush is awesome, and he wrote an opinion piece in the July 25th Wall Street Journal.

I’m pretty sure he saw an entirely different movie than me. Since the theme for today is apparently long-winded responses to poorly-written opinion pieces, let’s parse Klavan’s words, shall we?

The piece was called “What Bush and Batman Have in Common,” and the answer is not merely that they both inherited a great deal of wealth, work out a lot, have access to cutting edge military technology and occasionally hang out with old men in hidden underground bunkers.

No! Both of them of them also fight the War on Terror in person with their fists. Or something. Let’s see what Klavan has to say…

A cry for help goes out from a city beleaguered by violence and fear: A beam of light flashed into the night sky, the dark symbol of a bat projected onto the surface of the racing clouds . . .

Oh, wait a minute. That's not a bat, actually. In fact, when you trace the outline with your finger, it looks kind of like . . . a "W."

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.

Actually, I have a question about whether it’s a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage of Bush: Are you fucking serious?

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.

Okay, let’s stop there. Batman is vilified and despised by…whom, exactly?

His confidante and close friend Lucius Fox tells him domestic spying is wrong, and only reluctantly helps him with it, but it’s a disagreement in their friendship, not the end of it. His friend and one-time lover Rachel Dawes likes him, but also thinks he’s a crazy, selfish asshole and would rather be with another man. Harvey Dent doesn’t really seem to give a shit about Batman; he supports him enough to take a fall for him in good times, and, when things eventually go wrong for Dent, he seeks revenge on Gordon, not Batman. The Joker loves Batman, because Batman does exactly what he wants and “completes” him.

Batman doesn’t become a popularly despised scapegoat until the end of the film, when he says he’ll take the blame for something he didn’t even do.

So I don’t see the equivalency between the vilification of Batman vs. that of Bush.

Also, while both Batman and Bush (and by “Bush” I mean the Bush administration, because say what you will about the president, he’s only one man, and it’s not like he’s personally doing everything wrong himself) do “occasionally push the boundaries of civil rights” (and by “push the boundaries” I mean exceed the boundaries) Bush and Batman hardly both confront terrorists in the only way they understand.

For one, Batman doesn’t kill, something that has been oft-noted about this Bat-film versus the Tim Burton ones. He fights terrorism as if it were a matter of law enforcement. He’s not above breaking the law, but he is above going to war.

Obviously, Bush’s U.S. has chosen to treat terrorism as something to be solved militarily rather than as an act of law enforcement, and certainly has no compunctions against killing terrorists (and, unfortunately, thousands of innocent folks who happen to live around the people they’ve deemed terrorists).

It’s one place where the Batman/Bush comparison falls apart. Bush is waging a war on terrorism; Batman is trying to arrest terrorism.

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. And like another such film, last year's "300," "The Dark Knight" is making a fortune depicting the values and necessities that the Bush administration cannot seem to articulate for beans.

Conversely, time after time, left-wing films about the war on terror—films like "In The Valley of Elah," "Rendition" and "Redacted"—which preach moral equivalence and advocate surrender, that disrespect the military and their mission, that seem unable to distinguish the difference between America and Islamo-fascism, have bombed more spectacularly than Operation Shock and Awe.

Oh, Jesus. I don’t even know what he’s trying to say in that last paragraph.

In The Valley of Elah is a murder mystery about post-traumatic stress disorder that has few big gong-clashing Important Morales about the Iraq War, but it hardly “disrespects the military.” Rather, it says they bear unfair burdens the rest of the country is exempt from, and that the Iraq war was all fucked up. Do people still disagree with the notion that the Iraq War is pretty fucked up?

I didn’t see the other two; an Oscar-season drama that fizzled (Hey, so did Lions for Lambs) and a documentary. But that’s three movies of the, oh, let’s say ten thousand or so that have been made about the War on Terror in the past seven years, some of which have been pretty damn successful (To stick with ’07 examples like the ones Klavan cited, there’s Oscar-nominated documentaries Operation: Homecoming and No End In Sight, both of which are really great and fairly apolitical; the former consists of filmed stories written and told by Iraq war vets, the latter of which is a politics-free examination about how the post-war phase was mismanaged).

He also said they “bombed as spectacularly as Operation Shock and Awe.” Did he mean that the operation was a failure like Rendition was, or was that simply a tasteless joke?

Let’s move on…

Why is it then that left-wingers feel free to make their films direct and realistic, whereas Hollywood conservatives have to put on a mask in order to speak what they know to be the truth? Why is it, indeed, that the conservative values that power our defense—values like morality, faith, self-sacrifice and the nobility of fighting for the right—only appear in fantasy or comic-inspired films like "300," "Lord of the Rings," "Narnia," "Spiderman 3" and now "The Dark Knight"?

Wait, is he honestly asking why conservative values are only espoused in fantasy films set in completely different worlds then our own? How does that help his argument, to ask why films showing the superiority of conservative values always have to have orcs and supervillains in them?

I get a little lost here, to be honest, because his examples kind of bewilder me. I mentioned 300 up top; I think it’s worth noting that the story was created in 1998, and reflected Frank Miller’s worldview at the time, and, since the director was so faithful, much of what we think it says about the current state of the world is the fact that the context changed. Also, I’m not entirely sure if it’s about “morality” (the good guys killed their own young) or “faith” (the bad guys are the religious ones, even if they worship their own king).

The story of Lord of the Rings was written decades ago, before, during and after World War II so, again, a large part of its worldview is informed by J.R.R. Tolkien’s own worldview, in It’s also pretty cartoonish: the giant flaming eye, the prehistoric monsters, the disembodied black cloaks and the goblins are bad guys. There’s not a lot of gray area in it.

“Narnia” is based on a series of novels written by a contemporary of Tolkien’s, one who also happened to be a Christian theologian. It’s not like Hollywood conservatives had to Jesus the material up any; if anything, the films seem less overtly religious than the books. And again, the villains are fairy tale bad guys: Witches, wolves, and monsters.

“Spiderman 3”—without the hyphen fuck you Wall Street Journal spell-check proper names!—is…Jesus, how is that film conservative, exactly? J. Jonah Jameson and Eddie Brock represent the liberal media, the Sandman is made of sand…there’s and in the Middle East…so he’s a symbol of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict…or…what man, what?

I don’t know; maybe I’d have to re-watch it, but I don’t recall any real political or liberal/conservative values being espoused.
Wait, the villain was Catholic, right? Isn’t it anti-faith then?

The moment filmmakers take on the problem of Islamic terrorism in realistic films, suddenly those values vanish. The good guys become indistinguishable from the bad guys, and we end up denigrating the very heroes who defend us. Why should this be?

The answers to these questions seem to me to be embedded in the story of "The Dark Knight" itself: Doing what's right is hard, and speaking the truth is dangerous. Many have been abhorred for it, some killed, one crucified.

Here’s where I wonder if we saw the same film. Doing what’s right is hard in the world of The Dark Knight, but “speaking the truth is dangerous”?

The hero of the piece wears a mask and keeps his identity secret, refusing to come forward even when lives are the line. Everyone lies almost constantly throughout the film; the Joker lies to his own men about his plans and to everyone about his origins; Alfred withholds Rachel’s last words from Bruce Wayne; Gordon fakes his own death making his wife and kids think he has died; Harvey Dent lies about his coin-flipping trick to his lover, and so on.

And the “heroes” of Dark Knight and the villains are fairly indistinguishable, are they not? The best of the good guys all must compromise themselves to differing degrees, one of the crooked cops goes crooked for a very good reason, Harvey Dent is both the best of the good guys and the worst of the bad guys (by the end he’s both, with a flip of coin deciding which).

One of Joker’s many tricks is to confuse his enemies as to who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy (think of the scene where his men are disguised as hostages and doctors, while the actual hostages are disguised as his henchmen).

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.

This just seems purely jingoistic, and I’m not even sure how to address it. The “all Americans know” paragraph would be fine, if it weren’t immediately followed by one which says the world does not universally embrace such values. It just turns the rest of the world into cartoon villains like the wicked wizards and witches of the fantasy films he cites.

Do people in countries other than America really think “freedom is better than slavery?” (America spent almost 100 years as a nation that permitted slavery, and it took a war to finally abolish it.) Slavers may prefer slavery to freedom, but slaves don’t. Do people in countries other than America really think hate is better than love? They hate their friends, family and lovers there?

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."

And here’s an essential difference. Batman deliberately chooses to work outside the law, even sundering his relationship with his ally and taking the blame for crimes he didn’t even commit—those Dent murdered—and heroically face the consequences.

When has the Bush administration ever stepped up and said, “Look, this is illegal and morally repugnant; but it has to be done, so we’re going to do it and face the consequences”? The exact opposite has happened in every case, with administration lawyers constructing arguments to make what was previously thought to be illegal legal (the post-9/11 dragnet, enemy combatant detentions, torture), and laws being rewritten and passed after the fact to give immunity to those who broke the laws (regarding domestic eavesdropping, for example).

That's real moral complexity. And when our artistic community is ready to show that sometimes men must kill in order to preserve life;

Batman doesn’t kill anyone; not even the Osama bin Laden of the piece. He goes out of his way to save the terrorist so he can face his crimes in the court of law.

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.

Okay, now it sounds like you’re talking about Vice President Cheney rather than President Bush, dude. Since when has Bush avoided the bright light and kept to the shadows?

Perhaps that's when Hollywood conservatives will be able to take off their masks and speak plainly in the light of day.

And you lost me again. There are conservatives in Hollywood then? Huh. Nolan is a disguised conservative because he equates Batman in this film to the Bush administration? Even if he’s criticizing the Bush administration, and showing the ultimate failure of moral compromise to defeat terror, which cannot be defeated?

Batman doesn’t win his fight against terror; he simply ties it, and prepares to spend the rest of his life fighting it. He won’t kill the Joker, the Joker won’t kill him and, as the film’s avatar of terrorism says in his last scene with Batman, he could see this going on indefinitely—and is looking forward to their endless cycle of indecisive fighting.

How does that make Bush seem like a hero, exactly? If anything, it makes him seem like a noble but deeply flawed tragic figure.


Hdefined said...

I didn't read your full post, mostly because the article you're replying to is so off base ("the Batman symbol is a W!"), but I disagree with this:

"his weapon of choice is the bomb"

No, his weapon of choice is a knife. It's how he got his scars, it's what he uses when he tells the story of how he got his scars, it's what the police found on him when they captured him, it's what he used for his "magic trick." He doesn't use bombs against Batman.

Hdefined said...

At the same time, even that knife imagery was confused when Joker gives Harvey the gun. Sure, guns are symbolically anti-Batman, but what meaning is there in Joker handing over one when he never uses one himself against Batman? It was a missed opportunity to draw a clear connection.

Siskoid said...

His weapon is the knife, but his crimes are committed with bombs, Hdefined, so I didn't really stop at that.

My actual comment:
The article you take the stuffing out of seems like a case of taking something successful and using it to piggyback political opinion. And badly at that. A ridiculous diatribe that I nonetheless enjoyed you destroying.

Simon (formerly Johnny Sorrow) said...

What Klavan seems to miss is how much Batman fails in this movie. When he hobbles Maroni, he gains no useful information. The "extraordinary rendition" of the banker just brings him back within the Joker's reach. When he pummels the Joker in the interrogation room, the clown is still in control, the beating is part of his plan, and Nolan makes it clear that Batman's violence is driven more by anger than a desire to gain useful intelligence. Even when Batman uses the sonar-wiretap, the system fails, leaving Bats defenseless. When you add in the first movie, Nolan even blames Batman for the escalation that creates the Joker in the first place!

Even when it's not Batman crossing the line, Nolan consistently portrays that kind of corruption as being equivalent to that of the dirty cops who are actively complicit with the Mob. That's right! Forsaking principle to stop your foes is like being on their payroll.

In a sense, the heroes of the piece are the Gothamites who refuse to kill each other-- who behave with humanity, even when it could mean their death. The oddest thing about TDK is that Nolan has a very ambivalent take on Batman. If he's Bush, and I were Klavan, I don't know if I would be trumpeting the connection.

Gavin said...

I posted about this very topic in my own blog last week, before hearing about or reading the horrible article in the Wall Street Journal. I think the similarities between Batman in The Dark Knight and the Bush Administration do a wonderful job of illuminating the differences between them.

You listed a number of these differences quite well. But the most important difference in my book is that Batman put someone in charge of his spying network who didn't believe in it. By doing this he made sure that it wouldn't continue, he knew that the power he had was more than he should have. This is something the Bush administration never got. And the Bush administration also doesn't have any desire to keep from taking life like Batman does.

Plus, Nolan himself has talked about the whole issue of escalation and how he wanted to explore it in this movie. Escalation is not a good thing, and he makes it clear that it isn't.

Interestingly enough, in this week's Newsweek there was an article about the Bush administration and their approach to torture being heavily reliant upon the TV series, 24 (which I don't watch). The article then explains why this is such a mistake. It's worth the read.

Hdefined said...

"His weapon is the knife, but his crimes are committed with bombs, Hdefined"

No, they're committed with bombs, guns, grenades, knives, rocket launchers, matches, gasoline, and psychological warfare. But knives are symbolically connected to his character, at least in a visual sense, in the film.

Siskoid said...

Hdefined, I just don't know why this is such a sticking point for you. Are you in fact saying that Joker is NOT represented as a terrorist?

Otherwise, you're just splitting hairs about the meaning of the phrase "weapon of choice".

Caleb said...

I didn't read your full post

I don't blame you.

No, his weapon of choice is a knife.

Okay, that was probably poor word choice, given that the character does make a speech about why he loves using knives in the movie. My point was that he uses bombs to blow stuff up/try to blow stuff up, and bombing is a terror tactic.

What Klavan seems to miss is how much Batman fails in this movie.

Yes, very nicely put. I keep saying that the Joker one, but that also means Batman failed pretty miserably (He's actually a pretty sucky superhero in this thing).

There's another, better Batman-related WSJ article I was going to mention at some point in the future. It's about the darkness of Dark Knight, and there's a bit about how badly Batman seems to fail:

"Mr. Ledger snickers, leers and goads Batman into beating him up -- thus violating his civil rights, which is precisely what the Joker wants Batman to do. It's a stunning victory for the villain that makes Batman seem helpless and foolish. This is the first time I've ever seen a superhero humiliated like this in his own movie. "

It's online here:

Interestingly enough, in this week's Newsweek there was an article about the Bush administration and their approach to torture being heavily reliant upon the TV series, 24 (which I don't watch). The article then explains why this is such a mistake. It's worth the read.

Yeah, I read a version of that that article at Slate.

Here are links to the versions, if anyone's interested in the topic of the relationship between real-life government policy and fictional vigilantes fighting terror:

Mina V2 said...

Being a Batman fan but not an American, I completely failed to see the 'Batman as Bush administration themes'. Granted, I am not very good with these kind of similes, despite keeping up with American politics -they tend to affect all of us, after all. But.. how is Batman not winning against the Joker, the never ending fight going on, his failure to save Dent or make a substantial tangible change in Gotham other than saving people and using morally ambiguous -at the very least- methods of information gathering any different from what Batman does usually? Is Batman.. always.. a metaphor for the Bush administration. Is the Joker not a terrorist in the comics? Do they not blow up half of Gotham in regular basis and Batman goes batshit angry and breaks people's legs and get a little crazy? Isn't that kind of what Batman does?

Then again, I might be one of the very few who didn't think the movie was very dark. I thought it was pretty much Batman -a naive, hopeful Batman who's still new to the crazy crime- shenanigans as usual.

That article, though.. that guy definitely watched a different movie from the one they aired here.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the Joker's weapon of choice is neither bomb nor gun: it's people. Because people are even cheaper than barrels of gas, n'est-ce pas? So Batman casually deploys a quarter billion dollars of high-tech ordnance and the very latest kung-fu moves to brush aside resistance, like a one-man government, but the Joker can always pile more human beings on the problem.

My two cents.

Hdefined said...

"Actually, the Joker's weapon of choice is neither bomb nor gun: it's people."

You're referring to psychological warfare, a tactic he uses in the movie, but not one that defines him. He turns Harvey, a man already teetering on the edge, but doesn't turn Rachel, Batman, Gordon . . . anyone else, really, except schizophrenics.


Hdefined said...

"Are you in fact saying that Joker is NOT represented as a terrorist?"

No, I said his weapon of choice is a knife.

Anonymous said...

No, I mean he uses people as weapons.

Hdefined said...

What does that mean?

Derek said...

It.. it means "knives".

Now turn off your monitor and think about knives some more while the rest of us talk about the actual content of the post.

Hdefined said...

Nobody's stopping you, Derek.