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The Dark Knight: An Allegory of America in the Age of Bush?

As the news media prepares for its coverage of the political conventions and the selection of Vice-Presidential running mates, the conventional wisdom is that it is now time to replace such trivial concerns as the summer blockbuster at the local multiplex with a serious examination of Presidential and Congressional politics.  A closer scrutiny of this summer’s film viewing, however, may reveal some troubling undercurrents within the culture which are worthy of more intellectual contemplation.

Both critics and film audiences have embraced director Christopher Nolan’s latest incarnation of the lucrative Batman franchise, The Dark Knight.  The film’s opening weekend gross established box office records, and the film exhibits the potential to surpass Titanic as the most commercially successful film in cinema history.  Critics have also lauded the film, suggesting that The Dark Knight is an action film worthy of Oscar consideration for its production values and performances, most notably the late Heath Ledger as the Joker.  The Dark Knight also attracts younger, repeat viewers who are likely more drawn to the film’s special effects rather than character analysis and the pop psychology of good versus evil.  Nevertheless, The Dark Knight’s popularity may also reflect a collective discomfort and ambiguity regarding the Bush administration’s response to 9/11 by declaring a war on terror and turning to the dark side of torture and rendition. 

The film’s politics seem to suggest that Americans want to maintain the myth of national innocence but secretly acknowledge that the extralegal excesses of the Bush administration may be necessary to fight evil.  Such a reading of the film raises disturbing questions regarding the future of civil liberties and freedoms long cherished by the American people and suggests that the failure of political campaigns to more directly raise issues of surveillance and torture may place our rights and liberties at peril.

In The Dark Knight, Gotham City is threatened by an organized crime syndicate seeking to gain control over the city’s financial institutions and money supply.  These are ordinary criminals whose motivation is greed, and the authorities are seemingly able to formulate a response to this threat.  The Joker is another matter altogether.  His penchant for evil poses dire consequences for his partners in crime, the innocent citizens of Gotham City, the local authorities, and the caped crusader vigilante.  There is no room to negotiate or reason with the Joker.  The film portrays the Joker as an evil character whose motivation has no material basis; he simply takes delight in terrorizing others.  He fits the Bush definition of Osama Bin Laden and Islamic terrorism.  There is no justifiable critique of American foreign policy for imperialistic designs or expropriating scarce global resources while much of the world’s population lives in abject poverty.  The only possible explanation for terrorism, in the eyes of Bush, is an irrational hatred and jealousy for American freedom.  The terrorist is also blood thirsty.  For example, the Joker captures one of the amateur vigilantes attempting to emulate Batman, and he proceeds to make a gory video of the man’s execution.  Any correlation with the video beheading of reporter Daniel Pearle seems rather obvious.

The Joker as terrorist also assumes that everyone, when put to the test, shares his perverted values.  For example, the Joker places explosives aboard two ships—one holds policemen and convicts being dispatched to a new source of confinement, while the other contains city residents seeking to flee the violence of the Joker.  Threatening to destroy both vessels, the Joker asserts that if the occupants of either ship use a remote control device to detonate the other vessel, those passengers will be spared.  This diabolical plan, however, is thwarted by the convicts who toss the remote into the murky water and a businessman who is unable to bring himself to destroy the convict ship.  The Joker fails to understand such nobility, sacrifice, and innocence.

The film’s overall take on American innocence, nevertheless, is more complex and focuses upon the relationship among District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), and Police Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman)—and to create an appropriate love triangle, Dent and Batman/Wayne are both in love with prosecutor Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal).  Batman is a vigilante who works outside the law in order to combat crime; operating in the dark policy corridors to which Vice-President Dick Cheney alluded in speeches following 9/11.  Gordon also believes that in order to fight evil it is sometimes necessary to make compromises such as maintaining some detectives with questionable backgrounds on his staff.  Here, one might consider some of the authoritarian regimes in places like Azerbaijan which have joined the Bush coalition of the willing in Iraq. 

Dent, on the other hand, is a firm believer that working within the system and adhering to strict moral standards is the best way to confront organized crime or the terrorism of the Joker.  The courageous Dent appeals to the best instincts of Gotham City residents.  These are the egalitarian principles espoused in the Declaration of Independence and for which Americans supposedly fought in World Wars I and II as well as the Cold War.  To desert such principles would undermine our higher moral purpose and reduce us to the level of our enemies—a slippery slope of moral relativism.  Yet, this is certainly the approach chosen by the Bush administration in Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition, and the culture of terror—although officially the practice of torture must be denied.

What is so troubling in The Dark Knight is that Dent eventually becomes convinced that terror cannot be fought by conventional means, and he goes over to the dark side.  Dent’s moral descent begins when he is unable to save the life of Rachel.  The Joker has an explosive timing device attached to both Rachel and Dent, whom he holds captive.  Meanwhile, the authorities have incarcerated the Joker, but he refuses to reveal the location of his doomed kidnap victims.  With time expiring, Batman attempts to beat the information out of the Joker who takes delight in the breakdown of the legal order.  This defense of saving lives is, of course, presented by the Bush administration to rationalize the practice of torture.  Nevertheless, many professional interrogators question whether such tactics really provide good information and save lives.  And in The Dark Knight, the beating of the Joker is unable to prevent Rachel’s death and serious injury to Dent.

His face horribly burned, Dent, disconsolate over the death of Rachel, gives himself over to revenge.  He learns that Gordon’s compromised detectives cooperated with the Joker, and Dent goes on a killing spree to eliminate these law enforcement officers.  Only another vigilante can stop Dent, and Batman intervenes to prevent the deranged former prosecutor from killing Commissioner Gordon and his family.  When Dent is killed, Batman and Gordon conspire to hide the crimes he committed.  Batman explains that the illusion of innocence and good represented by Dent must be preserved as the people of Gotham City need to believe in the moral principles he espoused.  Yet, in reality extraordinary means, such as Batman locating the Joker by gaining access to all telephone communications in the city, are often required to fight evil, but they should not be publicly acknowledged so that illusions of innocence may be maintained.  Accordingly, Dent is buried as a hero, while Batman takes the blame for Dent’s illegal activities.  The Dark Knight concludes with Batman pursued as an outlaw vigilante.

Reading the film as a political allegory may lead to the disturbing conclusion that the policies of torture pursued by the Bush administration represent the only means to combat the evil of terrorism.  George Bush becomes the Dark Knight who is repudiated by the public but whose actions have saved us, and at some future date, his decisions, like those of Harry Truman in the Cold War, will be celebrated by historians and the public.  The logic of this popular culture blockbuster film encourages American to embrace the post 9/11 journey to the dark side.  But George W. Bush is no caped crusader, and the policies of torture employed by the United States lack the nobility of comic book heroes.  More realistic investigations into how the American principles of justice and civil liberties have been compromised in recent years are presented in such documentary films as Taxi to the Dark Side and Standard Operating Procedure.  Read as political allegory, The Dark Knight raises some troubling questions regarding America’s role in the post 9/11 world which we would all do well to contemplate during a Presidential election.