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Film in American Popular CultureVisit Press Americana
ACHIEVING GRACE: ALLEGORY AND THE DARK KNIGHT

Grace Is Gone, which is enjoying a rebirth in the video store, is but another example of an Iraqi war film failing the box office test. Like The Valley of Elah, Stop Loss, Redacted, and Lions for Lambs, Grace Is Gone never came close to recouping its initial production costs upon its release. Grossing less than $51,000 in American theatres and a mere $107,000 worldwide, the film was admittedly a bust in spite of its wins at Sundance, its better than average critical reviews, and an almost tangential reference to Iraq in its subplot. Studying what happens to a family when the matriarch-soldier is killed in action, this film is about finding some meaning in a soldier’s death. It is about adding grace to the survivors’ lives. John Cusak as the staid, dependable, and heartbreakingly real Minnesota home store manager is a true symbol of Spiro Agnew’s Middle America. As a would-be soldier, he is hard-pressed to find amid his personal loss, the mercy, charity, and hope that makes such a sacrifice understandable. Grace Is Gone is admittedly a dark film, almost as dark as The Dark Knight, which is conversely about restoring grace to a city drowning in chaos. Establishing a moral gray scale that the overtly political war films of the past two years have vigorously deconstructed, the Nolans provide their viewers with an allegorical account of the war in the Middle East. The Joker, who with his rocket-propelled grenades, his gasoline bombs, and his cell-phone detonators is a well-adorned terrorist who becomes the screenwriter’s paradigm for the evil that prompted our military maneuvers, while Batman, playing the counterpoint, provides the viewer with enough moral ballast to sustain our troubled post-9/11 state of mind. Curiously, it has been the fantasy film, The Dark Knight, that has offered its fans a perspective on the war effort that the anti-war films of the past two years have failed to provide. Warning us “you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain," this production indirectly demands that Americans do what Batman must do: examine our limits. In short, it provides us with a viewing point, an objective perspective upon our actions. Inspiring people to talk about or blog about its symbolic message, The Dark Knight is not only a commercially successful film, but as well an intellectually fulfilling one.

Why is a graphic novel’s main character the perfect conduit to reflection? The answer can be found in the hero’s historical origins. Batman is but one of the comic book characters who surged to popularity in the late thirties and forties because readers found in these superheroes a satisfactory refuge from the depression and Hitler’s threat. He and Superman offered a nation that had been hammered by Pearl Harbor hope because the purity of their values was bolstered by their super-human qualities. These virtues established them as relentless freedom fighters who were endowed, like America, with an unblemished moral code. In his rehoned entry into the contemporary American scene, Bruce Wayne/Batman once again fulfills that subconscious rite of passage for our nation. If right is meant to conquer might, Batman, an uber-capitalist, represents America’s mission at full throttle. How can democracy or order fail when Batman, a product of this system, is such an unstoppable force? In the film, Batman uses his boundless cash reserves and his amazing technology to sustain his social and ethical mission, that being the ending of the corruption in Gotham and the re-establishment of moral norms. Yet, this modern interpretation of him is unique; at no point in the film does he make it seem as if being a superhero is easier than being an American at war. His cause, we soon see, is fraught with challenges similar to those of an average soldier and each of his triumphs is as short-lived as the gains of a troop stationed in Fallujah. It is not surprising then that he is less than certain about his dedication to his cause. Looking forward to passing the baton to Dent, by the end of the film, he is not certain if he can win the war against corruption or if he should even try. In some sense, he has failed to succeed at his mission. He has become because of his zealousness his crusade’s worst enemy, suffering from the same image problems that we find have plagued America since the Iraqi invasion. Newspaper headlines that read “Menace” or “Crusader” pose the all-consuming question. Has Batman crossed the line and become a vigilante? The query itself is hauntingly reminiscent of questions raised by the aforementioned anti-war filmmakers who have questioned American intervention. Discussing the difficult position that is awaiting Wayne as a social reformer, Alfred strikes a pose, not unlike a military recruiter, when he chides Batman into accepting the thankless challenge: “Endure. You can be the outcast…You can make the choice that no one else can face…The right choice. Gotham needs you.”

Ensconced in this mythical world, we viewers hope to escape from the war we are now waging. The film provides us some escape, but it also forces upon us a reckoning with the facts. We had come to the theatre to turn away from the nightly news and to forget those movies that have almost oppressively enumerated our flaws as they ridicule us for staying the course. And yet here in this make-believe land, the real world is still with us; it is just made a little bit more palatable by the setting and the characters. Using the mysteries of celluloid, the Nolans show us the reasons why we ended up with troops in the Middle East. We live again through those turbulent days, through the doublespeak, pumped full of the paranoia and anger that motivated our mobilization. The reasons why we went to war are portrayed on the widescreen in the taking of innocent hostages, the blowing up of buildings, and the opening scenes’ allusions to Greek democracy, the fall of Rome, and Caesar. We even see where our leaders crossed the moral divide in their war against terror, becoming in some sense betrayers of the democracy that they were sworn to uphold. Batman’s desperate use of sonar to tap cell phones, so hauntingly reminiscent of Bush’s use of legalized wiretapping, is an over-the-top response that is stimulated by Batman’s desperation, his guilt, and his anger. Witnessing it, we cannot help but think that he should know better, that someone with a strict a moral code should exercise some self-restraint. Instead, it is an outsider, Lucius Fox, who restrains him, reordering his moral focus by proclaiming, “This is too much power for one man.” Thanks to the Nolans, we come to a startling conclusion: if a superhero needs that type of reminder, what should we expect from mortal men? Objectifying our past position, the film allows us the chance to review our involvement and to judge our behaviors. In that sense, the film offers us moral and ethical reassurances; it is, most assuredly, our hindsight.

As it accomplishes these goals, The Dark Knight builds upon a series of symbolic allusions that strengthen its allegorical format. Police corruption in the film is an emblematic factor in the city’s decline, for a city without honest authority figures is like a nation without honorable soldiers. Unlike last season’s anti-war films, which were red-hot with anger, this film focuses upon betrayal by authority figures in a more palatable fashion. Zeroing in on images of men who choose to forsake the traditional values of honor, justice, and morality, The Dark Knight studies the decay in a society when those who are charged with protecting democracy are morally bankrupt. Corrupt policemen, ensconced in the ranks of Gotham’s finest, are revealed to be responsible for betraying their police commissioner, their mayor, the district attorney’s staff, and their fellow officers. Although Dent bemoans this lack of honor, noting that “decent men cannot survive in indecent times,” his perception of the hopelessness of this task is second only to our awareness of the breach in morality that has occurred. It takes but a bit of insight to see that these moral lapses, enacted on mythic American soil, are rather similar to the crimes our troops have committed overseas in locations like Abu Ghraib or Al-Mahmudiyah. Grim films like The Valley of Elah and Redacted have chronicled those instances in which our troops have turned feral, killing their own, or deciding irrationally to kill the others they were supposed to defend. The murder of Richard Davis at the hands of his best friends raises troubling questions about our military’s moral condition while Redacted, which focuses upon the Al Mahmudiyah murders, can only make us wonder about the morality of our military recruits. It is only with a sinking heart that we have come to understand that the “you watch my back and I’ll watch yours” state of mind can be as easily responsible for prompting behavior that is vicious and immoral as well as glorious and enduring. When what has been inculcated into our psyches is retrieved from our brain, we draw our breath in amazement. For we have been raised to believe that the ethics of a military dedicated to bringing democracy to foreign lands should be representative of the highest ethical standards of the society it represents. Finding out that our standard is too often disgrace is a reality that is most difficult to confront. Movies that graphically disclose this to us thus are psychologically wounding. For this reason, they are often ignored. However, movies that introduce that proof to us through analogy and figurative situations can make us think. We may laugh at the mobster’s assertion that there is no honor anymore among thieves, but we cringe when we draw out the bigger analogy, that there might not be as much honor as we’d like to believe among our troops.

Because it is only in part realistic, The Dark Knight is, above all, an accessible movie. Chases and gadgetry lighten the mood and a straightforward narrative, wedded to startling visuals, encourages our continued viewing. There is no attempt at the elaborate complexity that DePalma engaged in when he wove together a pastiche of found video from camcorders, surveillance cameras, cell phones, and websites. In truth, visceral films that leave viewers reeling do not prompt discussion. Nor do films that are too preachy. In Lions For Lambs, for example, characterization is sacrificed to message. The Dark Knight succeeds because characters and plot are easy segueways to understanding. Although the Nolans have erased from their narrative much of the story’s comic book origins, the film still employs the graphic novel’s passion for extremes of dark and light. The Batman and the Joker are painted into the landscape in high contrast, with Dent providing most of the movie’s gray tones. It’s the showdown at the corral, and the mostly good guys are fighting the awfully bad one. A flawed Batman is still a hero, although his weaknesses are easily discernible. Humanized, though, he is made more approachable, while the Joker, strangely disturbed but mesmerizingly brilliant, is a citizen of a world that we deeply fear. He is a man who, in Alfred’s words, loves to watch the world burn. He is not only evil personified; he is also the filmmaker’s embodiment of anarchy. In a speech that reminds us of life in Baghdad, he shares with the audience his political philosophy: “Nobody panics when they expect people to get killed. Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plans are horrifying. If I tell the press that tomorrow a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will get blown up, nobody panics. But when I say one little old mayor will die, everyone loses their minds!”

Gotham is a microcosm of the real world, for here when truth and honor are endangered, justice is also jeopardized. Alone in his apartment after Rachel’s death, the Batman painfully attempts to reset his moral compass. Examining his role in the escalation of violence that is tipping the city towards chaos, he asks Alfred, “Did I bring this upon [Gotham]?” It is at this moment that Batman senses that the war in Gotham has exacted too high a human and financial cost. The vision he had had of a good clean fight has indeed been turned inside out, the guerilla-like warfare becoming Batman’s moral quicksand. The fight has swallowed up his optimism and his faith in the invincibility of honor, democracy, and truth. In the penultimate scenes, he stands before us, guilt-ridden and fully prepared to be punished for what has gone wrong. Shouldering responsibility for his failures and excesses, Batman proceeds to set a standard for how men in a war should behave. As he does this, he defines for the viewer honorable behavior. In his eyes, an honorable man does not let his men take the blame for a commander’s errors. Granting Dent a soldier’s honor, Batman allows Dent to achieve a state of grace in the eyes of society. He cleanses him of his sins and sanctifies Dent’s work as a loyal foot soldier in his cause. In doing so, Batman achieves a new level of understanding that nations in defeat might employ for themselves. Accepting foibles and weaknesses, he finds inside his tough moral code some level of forgiveness for himself, some way of accepting the limitations of his peculiar morality. His zealousness has allowed his inscrutable and enigmatic enemy to outwit him at every turn.

Analyzing Dent’s behavior as flawed, Batman also defines for the viewer the difference between two types of violence: reflexive violence and reflective response. Reflexive violence is not born of thought; it is instead men acting irresponsibly, taking actions into their own hands, or taking lives without any ethical concern. This is the type of violence Dent embraces in the aftermath of the bombing. He becomes the vigilante that his society has begun to scorn, that one man who oversteps the boundaries that democracy has upheld as appropriate. In direct opposition to reflex, reflective violence finds its roots in some rational thinking that uses killing as a means to a logical end. It is this type of reasoning that is used in war to defeat the enemy. What is the most dangerous thing about the Joker is the way in which he merges reflective response with reflexive violence. He loves a knife because when he lashes out at a victim it is a slow death, but he also revels in an intricate choreography that sends buildings tumbling to the ground with only the appropriate victims in them. Carefully choosing ways to upset the system, devising ingenious situations that force those in the moral majority to make impossible Solomon-like ethical decisions, the Joker threatens the moral foundation of the Batman legend. His actions cannot help but mandate a change in Batman’s battle plans. So many beliefs have been capsized by the Joker’s behavior that there is nothing left but to give the people a “what they want” solution. At the end of the film as Batman chooses to use deception for the public’s sustenance, we viewers are left pondering not only the relationship between heroism and truth, but what balance can be struck between our allegiances to our morality and our understanding of our enemy’s often murky personal code. Is the truth relative to the value system each individual honors? Should our leaders deceive us because illusions are in fact the basis of our fate? Do real heroes exist or are we, the public, accepting of the illusionary ones?

The movie’s ending leaves us guessing about all those answers. Most assuredly, Batman doesn’t win his war against his enemy, but as he moves offstage, to become society’s villain, he is not so much a martyr to a cause as he is a seer on a quest. There is grace in his defeat. What he needs to do is something that we all need to do from time to time. The opportunity to stop and think about who we are and what we intend to accomplish through our actions is necessary for men and for nations. Without self-examination, we cannot grow. As he speeds off into the darkness, we know intuitively that the next chapter in Batman’s life will be different from this one. After all, real heroes do not act blindly. They learn from experience and they grow and change. Heroism and honor aren’t found in blind obedience to commands that are destitute of meaning. That is where the Nolans’ movie intersects with the other antiwar films that have flooded our theatres. What this second installment in the Batman saga proves is that heroes must know not only their limits, but also the limits of their beliefs. At the end of The Dark Knight, Batman discovers through reflection that there can be ideals that are too great to be sustained by even a superhero such as he. The thought leaves us trembling. If these ideals are too great for a character like Batman to support, maybe they are too elusive and burdensome for even a country as great as America.

And what about truth? What is the film saying about the importance of truth in a war? The angry filmmakers enumerate every untruth. We have never found the weapons of mass destruction; the war that we were to have won in weeks has turned into years. Cost overruns are monumental, reaching over 543 billion dollars and still rising. There are those who say that our chances of being victors bringing democracy to another part of the globe are as much a work of fantasy as the Batpod, Batmobile, Batsuit, and Batdarts. Is truth something like the Joker’s tale of his smile, a story reshaped to fit every audience? Or is it like a campaign promise, something offered to every ethnicity when they are in earshot? As we listen to Gordon’s speech, his elaborate homage to a fallen leader nothing more than a string of stock epithets, the viewers doubt for the first time Batman’s ethics. Should he really honor a man who was called Two-Faced behind his back? Is this laudable behavior? Or is this normal behavior for a man who has lived his life as performance art? It is most probably the latter. As Bruce Wayne, Batman has always engaged in cultivating an illusion. His life has been so artfully staged that Fox can most easily dismiss Coleman Reese’s implications that Wayne is indeed the Batman by simply asking Reese if their playboy boss seems capable of capturing criminals during his off-hours. Illusions are what most of us live by, this film intimates, for as The Joker rushes forward to blunt Reese’s exposure of Wayne’s identity, he too affirms that illusions are necessary and even acceptable. Implying that Gotham City needs its illusions because that is what its citizens require to make the appropriate choices, the Nolans seemingly suggest that America needs the same. Should America similarly be allowed its illusions? Although the filmmakers never directly answer that question, they seem to intimate that we, who have become that caped crusader overseas, need that same time out as Batman. If we want the dawn to arise for us as it did the men and women in the boats in Gotham’s harbor, the time has come to reflect upon what should be our next thoughtful and most graceful move.

September 2008

From guest contributor Susan Orenstein

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