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 RottenTomatoes.com, 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.