Day By Day

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Bush as Batman

Last week "She Who Must Not Be Named" and I went to see the latest Batman flick. Before going I had browsed through the major reviews and was prepared for a dark, disjointed, extremely violent experience that explored the depths of human depravity. And, of course, I was told we would be seeing a bravura performance by Heath Ledger -- a hunky teen idol who was trying to establish himself as a serious actor before his unfortunate demise. Based on these reviews I was not very keen on seeing the films -- I had been decidedly unimpressed with director Jonathan Nolan's previous foray into Batman legend (which was also positively reviewed) and was sick and tired of superhero flicks (with one exception -- Hancock, a film that cheerfully subverted the conventions of the genre).

The early portions of the film did nothing to rouse my interest. The appearance of Cillian Murphy, reprising his "Scarecrow" role, seemed to confirm the critics' warning that the film's narrative was a mess. But as the story progressed I became more involved. I remember thinking at some point that I was watching a John Ford flick. The developing themes -- a righteous man willing to suffer and sacrifice himself, his reputation, and even those he loves for the good of the community, the need for inspirational fictions to mask the tawdriness of reality, the alienation of the hero and his mad willingness to stare unflinchingly into the abyss -- all these were hallmarks of Ford's canon. I began to enjoy the film.

Critics had emphasized the darkness of the film, but I found it to be anything but. Ledger's Joker is the face of ultimate evil -- a mad destructive force that tempts those about him to descend to his level of depravity. Ultimately the situation he develops is not unlike that presented by Ford's "Liberty Valance" and raises the question of how to confront evil. In Ford's epic, John Wayne's "Tom Doniphan" does the dirty job of ridding the town of evil and is willing to allow credit to pass to a crusading lawyer, played by Jimmy Stewart. Doniphan ultimately goes to his grave unloved and unappreciated, his heroism remembered only by a few, while Stewart's politician/lawyer rises to become governor and gets the girl to boot. This time, however, things turn out differently. While Christian Bale's "Batman" is quite willing to assume the thankless task of ridding the world of evil, Aaron Eckhart's crusading lawyer/politician, "Harvey Dent", fails. Under pressure he collapses and turns to the dark side -- and of course nobody gets the girl. It is with the emergence of "Two Face" that we leave Ford country and enter a more morally ambiguous realm.

But moral ambiguity does not mean a lack of moral compass. Nolan's heroes are all to some extent morally compromised -- you can't fight evil without getting a little dirty yourself, he seems to be saying. But (and here we really are getting really far from Ford country and the mid-twentieth century values it represents) moral righteousness ultimately resides in the common citizenry. Ford and other film-makers of his generation had been convinced by the experience of World War II that the common man was corrupt and dangerous, at best passive in the face of evil -- definitely not to be trusted. Only the righteous leader could redeem him. Hope for the future lay with the extraordinary, not the ordinary man. But in Nolan's world it is the leaders who are compromised, and the evil that they do can only be redeemed by the collective action of the common man.

It was at the ferry scene, where this point is driven home, that I realized that I was watching a very conservative, Bushian film. Whereas mid-twentieth century elite opinion saw the common man as a dangerous force that must be constrained by the institutions of government, the new conservatism, as epitomized by President Bush in both word and deed, emphasizes freeing the common man from the onerous burden of a corrupt and morally compromised government and relying upon him to ultimately make the right choice. This was emphasized at a recent press conference in which reporters asked Bush why he was not mandating guidelines for energy consumption, and the President replied that the American people were quite qualified to make decisions like that themselves.

In today's terroristic environment effective leadership requires doing things that some might find morally repugnant. Batman resorts to torture to save lives. Gary Oldman's future Commissioner Gordon resorts to deception, even visiting emotional distress on his own family. Both men are willing to compromise their integrity for the common good. In Gotham the myth of the righteous leader is shattered. In his place we find good, but fallible men doing whatever is necessary to defeat an implacable nihilistic evil. Some, like Batman [and by implication Bush] have the inner strength to handle this situation. Others, brittle moralists like Harvey Dent, are destroyed by it.

Mainstream critics missed all of this, probably because they are uniformly positioned on the left side of the political spectrum but a few conservative writers noted the parallels between Batman and Bush. Most notably, John Nolte, writing as "Dirty Harry", immediately recognized the parallels. He wrote:

The Dark Knight may well be the most conservative movie since 300. There’s just no arguing that the Joker is al-Qaeda and Batman George W. Bush. In between are the citizens of Gotham who have a choice: They can cave to terror, turn on their protector and blame his aggressive crime fighting for the rise of the Joker, or they can understand that appeasing a criminal status quo in their city doesn’t convince the Joker’s of the world to see the light and enroll at community college.

Dark Knight is neither an action or comic book film. What it is, is a stunningly realized psychological thriller brilliantly using familiar genres to comment on the battle between good and evil currently being played out in faraway deserts, but more importantly, right here at home. It’s a film that fundamentally understands that the war will either be won or lost in the souls of those who inhabit our own Gothams.

The film asks one question: Will Gothamites appease the terrorist? All they need do to satisfy the Joker is to turn on Batman, and until they do, the Joker promises wanton murder and destruction. If the people blame the Joker’s reign of terror on Batman’s refusal to appease him, the Joker wins. If the people turn on each other like animals out of fear and panic, the Joker wins. If Batman becomes the Joker to beat the Joker… Well, you get the point.

Read it here. Also his response to critics here.

This identification of Bush with Batman was confined to the nether reaches of the blogosphere until yesterday when Andrew Klaven wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

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. 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.

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.

Read it here.

As Klaven points out conservative-themed movies have been drawing huge crowds while relatively few are willing to spend money to view liberal diatribes against the Bush administration. In "The Dark Knight" the common man, when pressed to the wall, made the right choice. He seems to be making the right choice in the theaters. Let us hope that he will make the right choice this fall.