Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Dubya & The Dark Knight

According to a recent poll by American Research Group, a mere 21 percent of Americans approve of George W Bush’s performance as president. Meanwhile, over at, 93 percent of participating readers approve of The Dark Knight. Go figure. If you think those numbers have nothing to do with one another, think again. Though the latest Batman flick, written by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, can’t be blamed for some of the catastrophes that have soured Bush’s favorability – a capsized economy; a troop-mauling, money-sucking, never-ending war; lies, damn lies and violations of the Geneva Conventions, etc. – The Dark Knight is likely to go down as the most pro-Bush-policy blockbuster to ever come out of Hollywood. Working together, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Roger Ailes would struggle to come up with anything so slyly propagandizing.

So be it. There have been a handful of implicitly (and explicitly) anti-Bush movies in recent years – though fewer of them than O’Reilly & Co like to suggest – and there are surely more to come. Yet the case of The Dark Knight is especially interesting on a few levels: 1) because this box-office-hungry summer blockbuster is pro-Bush at a time when most of the country isn’t; 2) because you wouldn’t expect a comic book flick to be so allegorical; 3) because if my experience is any indication, an anti-Bush moviegoer can be perfectly aware of all the Bushian ideology and not feel dirty walking out of the theater.

Then again, talk to me in a month, by which time Bush will have requested that his secret service codename be changed to “Caped Crusader.” At that point I might feel differently. Thing of it is though, that nickname wouldn’t be far off in terms of an allusion to The Dark Knight, and certainly it would be more appropriate than Bush’s other favorite heroic self-comparison to Abraham Lincoln. Why?

Before we get to the ways The Dark Knight equates Batman to Bush, we must first note the film’s many parallels to the events of Bush’s presidency – though they aren’t always flattering.

(Nothing but spoilers ahead.)

The Dark Knight: The Joker strikes Gotham City with boldness previously unseen. Batman, still focused on the old enemy power structure, decides that the Joker “can wait” and goes after other criminals.

Real World: Osama bin Laden orchestrates the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. invades Afghanistan but then quickly turns attention to Iraq, where the familiar Saddam Hussein remains the itch they haven’t been able to scratch.


TDK: Batman succeeds in landing his lesser targets, but he underestimates the influence and reach of Public Enemy No. 1. He believes he can get to the Joker by determining his motivation. Alfred notes that the Joker might not have motivation beyond wanting to “watch the world burn.” Batman soon finds himself in a war with an enemy he doesn’t understand.

RW: The U.S. lands Hussein but underestimates what it will take to bring stability to the Middle East, which is overrun by chaos, terrorism and religious fanaticism. The intended carrot of Western-style democracy and “freedom” prove ineffective. The U.S. finds itself in a war with an enemy it doesn’t understand and can’t influence without brute force.


TDK: Batman is hamstrung by his ethics. Threatening a mob leader he is told that no one will cross the Joker because the Joker has no rules.

RW: Attempts to infuse the Middle East with Western-style democracy are complicated by the ruthlessness and unpredictability of Islamic terrorism in the region. Chaos reigns supreme.


TDK: Batman compromises his supposed ethics when the mood strikes him. He “questions” the Joker in an interrogation cell by using his fists and slamming the Joker onto a table and into a window. To get another criminal to give up the Joker, Batman drops the mobster to the concrete from several stories up.

RW: America compromises its supposed ethics by resorting to torture, calling its treatment of prisoners permissible in wartime (among other justifications).


TDK: Using similar anything-goes logic, Batman eavesdrops on all of Gotham’s cell phone calls in order to find his terrorist. When the terrorist is located and the surveillance device is no longer necessary, Batman allows for its destruction.

RW: The Bush administration implements warrant-free wiretapping of Americans, citing the need to protect its citizens from terrorism. The Bush administration more or less asks Americans to trust that their wiretapping will be used only for its intended purpose.


TDK: When the trickledown effect of terrorism claims the life of one of Gotham’s heroes in less than flattering circumstances, Batman decides that the public can’t handle the truth and fabricates a story of pure heroism.

RW: Pat Tillman, the most well-known soldier in the “War on Terror,” dies by friendly fire. The initial story released by the government claims that Tillman was killed by the enemy making a heroic charge.


How does that add up to a pro-Bush message?

1) Because when Batman is ready to pack it in as things turn ugly, Alfred encourages him that the heroic thing would be to stay the course. The following might as well be a conversation between Bush and Dick Cheney about Iraq.

Bruce Wayne/Batman: People are dying, Alfred. What would you have me do?

Alfred: Endure, Master Wayne. Take it. They’ll hate you for it, but that’s the point of Batman. He can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make. The righteous one.

2) Because after Batman elects to follow Alfred’s advice and be the bad guy in the court of public opinion for the good of Gotham City, Commissioner Gordon issues a Karl Rove-worthy explanation of Batman’s actions:

“He’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he’s not a hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector, a dark knight.”

In other words, Gordon is saying, we’re lucky to have him around. Somewhere, Bush looks in a mirror, nods his head and smiles.


Anonymous said...

I also noticed all the allusions to the Iraq war. Some of my idea's might be a bit of a stretch but I thought the scene where the prisoners get on the ferry first to leave Gotham was a reference to Guatanamo* Bay, because one person in the crowd of citicezens* says something along the lines of thats not fair how come they are being treated better than us. Showing that the treatment in Guatanamo* is better than treatment to Americans because they get their own doctors and other benefits.

Another allusion that maybe a bit of a stretch to imagine is when the police and swat team is escorting Harvey Dent the scene look like actual fighting in the iraq war. Reason to belive that there is a fire truck that is burning forceing to the police to take another route,to me it resembles the equvilance to a exploded car from a road side bomb and at one point one of the swat members says "I didn't sign up for this" seems like something a soldier would say in the war when "stuff hits the fan" and another swat member see's the joker use an RPG and the says we need aerial support. Doesn't sound like somthing a swat member in New York says. Anyways its a pretty far stretch to see it to relate to the Iraq war but it is fun to imagaine it was. And no im not a crazy conspirator about war I just find it intersting to see this movie from a different stand point.

Jacob said...

Haha, followed your link over from ed's post-- I really like this. But, ultimately, I have to fervently disagree, for a couple of small but crucial points.

"When the terrorist is located and the surveillance device is no longer necessary, Batman allows for its destruction."

Not only that, but we have an extremely likable character condemn this strategy as dangerous, as "too much power for one person." I think the filmgoer is supposed to agree with him, and really question Batman's use of it.

"When the trickledown effect of terrorism claims the life of one of Gotham’s heroes in less than flattering circumstances, Batman decides that the public can’t handle the truth and fabricates a story of pure heroism."

But the big difference between this and the analogue is that Batman is the one taking the fall for these horrendous crimes. He's the noble scapegoat. I don't think we can apply this to the Bush administration.

Finally, and most importantly, I think these criticisms hinge too strongly on a presumption: that Batman is the ideal, the hero. He's not-- that's the point. He's a vigilante that would be better replaced by white knights, that work with the system, not against it. I think the film even suggests (tentatively) that people like Batman are the very thing that cause people like the Joker. I definitely see an analogue to the Bush administration here, but it's not flattering.

But ultimately, I think any analogy with the Bush administration is more amusing coincidence than anything Nolan intended. I think Nolan would insist, and most would agree, that Bush should not be a vigilante, a Dark Night. He's the one who should be working through the system.

Ed Howard said...

There's no arguing with many of these allusions to Bush -- some of them are so obvious they're barely subtext, like the wiretapping and violent interrogations. Others seem like stretches, especially the Pat Tillman thing; there's no basis for that parallel in the film itself.

That said, I think you're dismissing too easily the possibility that the film could be making unfavorable comparisons between Bush and Batman. Just because Nolan is occasionally suggesting a link between the two doesn't mean he or the film approves of these actions. In fact, there's every indication within the film that the morality of Batman's methods is very much questionable. If the goal of the Joker is to push people into crossing ethical boundaries, thus contributing to the destruction of a democratic social order, then he succeeds to the extent that he causes Batman to become unethical. During the interrogation, the Joker takes obvious delight in the fact that Batman is breaking the rules, and even pushes him to violate the last rule he has left, which is to refrain from killing. He enjoys seeing a force of good transformed in this way. And Batman's response in this scene, the way he allows the Joker to push his buttons, results in the tragedy with Rachel and Harvey. Later, of course, the Joker taunts a cop into similarly breaking the rules, which results in disaster -- the film suggests that when we allow ourselves to violate our moral codes, we risk opening ourselves up to retaliation and losing sight of our priorities.

The film is about the collapse of social order, which is why so many people have described it, usually as a criticism, as "bleak." What has Batman/Bush really accomplished by the end of the film? Many are dead, the genuine voice of justice in Gotham has turned to evil before (quite possibly) dying, corruption remains rampant in the police force largely because it's been ignored by Gordon. There's not much to love about Batman or his allies in this one; he's a curiously passive and incompetent superhero. As you even point out, he leaves the Joker alone at first and decides to go after the mob instead, a horrible mistake. I also read that as a possible Bush allusion, but if it's about Bush I see no way to interpret it other than as virulently anti-Bush. The only "good guy" in the film who seems genuinely good and ethical is Harvey Dent before his transformation. He's the one who wants to stick to the rules and serve justice, and to a large extent his transformation into Two Face is precipitated by the decision to begin working more and more outside of the rules. If anything, the film is a morality tale about the tragic consequences of suspending ethics to fight a threat.

Jason Bellamy said...

Jacob & Ed: I certainly agree that many of the allusions to Bush are unflattering, namely the idea that Batman (Bush) bungled his first effort at identifying/understanding the enemy. And certainly, absolutely, to the point that Batman crosses ethical boundaries.

Is it a cautionary tale then? To a degree. But is it anti-Bush? Not a chance, unless you walked out of “The Dark Knight” saying: “Finally, they have that scumbag on the run!”

Gordon’s film-closing moralization is the key here. Batman is “not a hero.” But he is “a silent guardian, a watchful protector, a dark knight.” In other words: he isn’t a hero by the pure definition of the world, but he’s a hero just the same. For all the fanboys who laud Nolan’s pictures for finding the true-to-the-comic-book darkness of the Batman character that makes him the imperfect vigilante, well, we’re still cheering him, aren’t we? He’s still the good guy, is he not? Silent guardian? Watchful protector? Dark knight? Those are all compliments, I believe.

Thus the film is saying, Gotham will hate him now, but history will look back on Batman fondly. Or, even if it doesn’t, the reality will be that Gotham would be much worse off without Batman than with him.

As for the surveillance device and the Tillman comparison: those actually go hand in hand. Yes, the screenplay makes it clear that the device is unethical and celebrates the nobility of Batman that he allows for its destruction. But the device served its purpose, didn’t it? And Batman didn’t abuse it, did he? And if he had to build another one again in the future to deal with a similar terrorist, don’t you think he would?

So the underlying message here is: yeah, it’s unethical, but it's used ethically, by good people (Batman and Lucius Fox) to stamp out terrorism. So here’s where the Tillman/Dent lie comes into play. “Trust me, I know what’s best.” That’s what Batman essentially is saying by creating the illegal spying contraption and by creating the story about Dent. The Bush administration could make the same argument about its wiretapping project and its Tillman cover story. In “The Dark Knight,” it has been argued here, the hero – oh, sorry - I mean the vigilante who protects us from villains … he tells a “noble lie.” But it’s still a lie. I think the Bush administration believes many or all of its lies are noble too.

So we can agree that Batman’s methods aren’t ideal. We can agree that he’s a vigilante. But let’s be honest: he’s still a hero in Gotham’s dire times, until something better comes along, right? Thus, given all the parallels, and despite all his mistakes and breaches of ethics, Bush is a hero, for doing what needed to be done in the post-9/11 climate.

Now, if you're arguing that "The Dark Knight" views Batman as a contemptable figure, a villain who is merely preferrable to the terrorists he fights, well, then it's a different story. But as Gordon goes all gaga for Batman in the final moments, and the Caped Crusader rides his motorcycle into a heavenly light of hope, well, he seems pretty heroic to me.

hokahey said...

I noticed the film REFLECTING signs of the times - as other films have done recently: Batman drops the mobster off the building and he tries to beat the truth out of the Joker reflect the use the question of the use of torture. Also, the whole question of whether or not killing others to save the majority seemed to be raised during the episode with the ferries; again, another concern of the day. Finally, the bleakness of the film and sheer badness of the Joker are signs of the times too; we are seeing more bleakness in films these days, as in last year's No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, In the Valley of Elah, and Bug. So, I see the reflections of our place in time, but I don't see the pro-Bush allegory.

Jason Bellamy said...

From "The Wall Street Journal," related reading: "What Bush and Batman Have in Common."

A sample:

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.

Jacob said...

Jason, do you know what happened to one of my posts? I constructed a short-ish response to you, and it seems to have disappeared. Did I screw up in posting it? Did you accidentally reject any recent comments?

Jason Bellamy said...

Jacob: I didn't see it or reject anything. Strange. Give it another shot if you're willing.

Jacob said...

Yargh! Did this one not go through either?? What's going on??

Jason Bellamy said...

Yargh, indeed. Nope, didn't see anything from you...other than this, obviously.

Not sure what the problem might be, but two suggestions: 1) make sure you copy your comment content somewhere else before you submit, just in case; 2) I've noticed on tihs and other blogger sites that the publish button in the right column seems to be more reliable than the publish link that will appear at the bottom of your comment in preview form. So even if you preview, use the button on the right to publish. Maybe I'm just imagining, but it seems to work better.

Jacob said...

Okay, I'll try not previewing it.

My point was simply referencing that scene where Batman stops Dent from playing coin-flip Russian roulette with that Joker henchman, telling him that everything would be lost if someone found out about this. "Your stand against the mob has been the first, legitimate ray of hope that this city has seen." Bush can't parallel Batman, because he has to parallel Dent: an administrative figurehead that must and does work with/through the system, not against it. Whether we end up cheering for Batman at the end of not, we cheer for him as a vigilante. Which is something that Bush is not, cannot be, and must not be.