by Anand Venigalla
The Dark Knight, ten years after its release, is a supreme example of how to approach politics in blockbuster mainstream art. Action-packed and full of superheroes and fights and colorful villains, Nolan’s superhero mega-hit also sought to capture something of the American political psyche when it is confronted by the t-word: terrorism. A standard answer is to confront this terrorism that goes beyond boundaries with force and action that goes beyond moral and ethical boundaries. Torture, wiretapping, and deception are all part of the repertoire of responses to terrorism. Batman plays that fine line through the movie, and the movie itself plays a fine line between acknowledging the need of a response to terrorism and condoning unethical means. The ultimate suggestion underlying the film, however, is that such unethical means may ultimately fail in the end and give the terrorist the victory.
Batman has one rule: do not kill. Yet The Dark Knight, in the age of the war on terror, tackles something more interesting to the movie’s context: when can torture be acceptable to find out valuable information? Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) nearly tortures a mentally insane criminal in order to find information, and Batman (Christian Bale) prevents him from doing that in order to preserve the image of the white knight. There’s a clear idea here: torture looks bad. Another instance of torture is when Batman pummels the Joker (Heath Ledger) to find out where Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and Harvey are tied up. The Joker, in response, gives locations to their whereabouts, which Batman and the cops follow up on. Ultimately, the information is useless: Rachel is killed in the rigged explosion while Harvey’s face is half-burned, and his character from this point on begins to unravel. Not only does torture appear as a tarnishing agent, but it also shows up as something ineffective in the end.
The Dark Knight also remains effective as political entertainment for how it deals with wiretapping. Since 9/11, the Bush Administration passed the Patriot Act which authorizes indefinite detention of suspects, searches of homes or businesses without the consent or knowledge of the owners or occupants, and the searching of letters and messages without a warrant or court order. Nolan’s film deals with this by showing Bruce Wayne developing a technology that hacks cellphones and wiretaps them. While the film does not take as strong a critique of wiretapping as it does of torture, there is a sense in which the characters fully acknowledge the problematic nature of what they are doing. Batman’s wiretapping seems to be quite successful in finding information and searching out the Joker near the film’s climax. But we are set up to sympathize with Lucius Fox’s (Morgan Freeman) objections and to feel happy once the system is finally disbanded.
If only the government in the real world would have the gravity of thought that fictional characters in imaginary worlds seem to have.
Perhaps the most complex, troubling, but ultimately probing issue that The Dark Knight deals with is the issue of deception in the service of a good cause. When the Joker attempts to assassinate Gotham’s mayor, James Gordon (Gary Oldman) takes the shot and lets his family think he is dead. Harvey Dent claims to be the Batman at a press conference. The reason is to draw the Joker and catch him. However, though this ruse does succeed in drawing the Joker out, there is ultimately a downside: the Joker was playing them in a way they did not expect, and they all end up suffering for it. A white Knight is forever scarred. Later, when Harvey Dent, now Two-Face, dies after having committed several murders and having attempted to kill Gordon’s family, Batman and Gordon struggle with how to prevent the Joker from succeeding. The Joker wanted to prove that humans were ultimately corrupt: if someone as excellent as Harvey Dent could fall, what would that say about ordinary humans? No, the Batman and Gordon cannot let Gotham fall into despair. Thus Batman lets the city believe a lie: that he was the murderer, and that Harvey is unsullied. Gordon participated in this ruse, saying: “I believe in Harvey Dent.” Ultimately, Batman becomes the “Dark Knight” and he does that by participating in deception.
Nolan’s film has a brooding sense that deception is futile, but it doesn’t fully bear out the implications of this foreboding. Even in The Dark Knight Rises, where the climactic decision to whitewash Harvey Dent proved to be a moral error and a practical miscalculation, there is a sense that Nolan’s film does not completely count out the necessity of deception. That is why many people in the day thought that Nolan’s film was an endorsement of the Bush-Cheney anti-terrorist crusade.
But Nolan’s film functions as a critique of crusades. While it affirms Batman as a hero who fights for the good of Gotham, it also has a very uneasy and ultimately critical perspective on things like torture, wiretapping, and deception. Anyone looking for a facile endorsement of anti-terrorism will be disappointed. And that is why The Dark Knight remains so powerful as one of the best political blockbusters.