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

Culture Watch

Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School.

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.       

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Evan Shawn Powell - 8/27/2008

Considering I was agreeing with you, in a general sense, that Mr. Briley's review is biased by his political view, I am not sure why you are trying to conflate my views with his when you know nothing of mine and precious little of his. This is hardly objective.

Second, I was also pointing out that perhaps you too have to deal with political bias. You did not really address this but to write a snotty little rant where you implied compare me to Dr. Suess and I guess my writing as well. You accuse of some kind of opinion that I have never shared and you spit a self righteous indigination in as a cherry on top.

Emotional and subjective, hardly objective sir.

Lorraine Paul - 8/26/2008

Hear! hear!

Lorraine Paul - 8/26/2008

It seems to me that what we have here is the no-man's-land (sic) where modernism and post-modernism meet.

As one who loathes post-modernism but often finds it a useful tool may I suggest to you Mr McCarthy that in post-modernism there is the 'death of the author'. Therefore, reading Batman comics from their earliest inception and speaking to the writers of the lastest blockbuster is immaterial.

What I will say is that the themes raised in The Dark Knight are as old as time itself. The writers of Batman do not have a monopoly on these moral 'dilemmas'.

Shakespeare said it in a few immortal words...To be, or not to be etc...

Popular culture has always reflected the deeper concerns of society. Remember those Nursery Rhymes we used to love when we were children? They were nothing more than political pamphlets disguised as 'fun'.

Which gives new meaning to the rhyme which goes...

"The King of Spain's daughter came to visit me
And all for the sake of my little nut tree!"

Very Vulgar!!

Jon Martens - 8/26/2008

That it was a critique of Bush and the Patriot Act and whatnot?

People read too much into the plots of books and movies.

Scott McCarthy - 8/26/2008

Wow, Mr. Powell. That was a fairly decent Dr. Seuss impression!

Anyway, the issue that I have with Briley's 'allegorical' commentary is the same issue that I have with your statement of the film being "loaded" with "political bias", in that both of your observations are projections.

Individuals pretending to be intellectuals without being objective is a recipe for ignorance.

I mentioned that anyone could pick up a Batman comic from any era to find the same themes as the movie. This is fact. And it’s easy to find out, do a little research, find some stories written in the 70’s, 80’s, or 90’s, read them, and wha-la! You’ve just exercised empirical research! From which, you can actually base your opinion on facts! Yeah, I know, it’s pretty crazy stuff, but it’s usually 99% idiot-proof. Back to my point, such research will enlighten one to realize that those themes in the movie cannot be strictly connected to having arisen from the collective American consciousness struggling with post 9/11 events. It is obvious that those themes were already present in the “American” psyche for many years, which could be a result from any numerous events that may have taken place since the 40’s.

But, evidently, you, and Mr. Briley, conveniently choose to overlook that fact..... It’s much easier to believe what you wish to believe, right? You wouldn’t want any pesky facts ruining your carefully constructed view of what you think the world to be?

Mr. Powell, inherent in the essence of your statement lays the accusation that the writer, or writers, of The Dark Knight purposely weaved an allegorical work of fiction to propagate a particular political agenda. The same accusation is inherent in Mr. Briley’s Tour de Farce. How dare you? Have you spoken with any of the writers to ask their opinion? To hear, from them, their true intentions, if any, other than writing a simple, yet, well-crafted work of fiction?

No. Again, why would you want to risk the theory that you created to be discredited? It so much easier to spread ignorance.

Well, with intellectuals like you, and Mr. Briley, who needs politicians?

Rodney Huff - 8/25/2008

While much ink has been spilled about the Bush administration's "dark side" tactics in the post-9/11 world, there still remains the elephant in the room; and that is the Bush administration's role in the incidents that ushered in this new world.

For instance, it is now well documented that the U.S. government received warnings about imminent domestic attacks from at least 14 foreign governments during the summer of 2001, some of which were detailed and indicated the use of hijacked airplanes as weapons. During the G8 Summit in Italy that summer, Bush stayed on an aircraft carrier offshore rather than in a hotel because of the many warnings about an al-Qaeda plot to use airplanes as flying bombs to kill the G8 leaders (see Paul Thompson's "The Terror Timeline.").

Bush and co. were clearly lying, then, when they said that no one in this administration could have imagined that terrorists would hijack airplanes and use them as missiles. And, clearly, the 9/11 Commission completed the cover-up when it concluded that a failure of imagination prevented the intelligence community from stopping the attacks.

So a question that's even more disturbing than those raised by the Dark Knight is: Having been given all these warnings about an imminent terrorist attack involving hijacked airplanes, why didn't anyone in this administration call the Port Authority after the first plane hit the WTC and order an evacuation? Why did Bush continue to talk about a pet goat in a Florida classroom when he learned of the events unfolding in Manhattan? Why didn't anyone respond adequately to the crisis?

How could 19 hijackers with box-cutters circumvent the most sophisticated air defense system in the world? What happened to U.S. air defenses that morning? How could the Pentagon, arguably the most heavily guarded building on the planet, be caught off guard nearly an hour after flight 11 struck the WTC? Why weren't U.S. fighter jets scrambled in time to intercept or shoot down any of the errant planes?

These are all disturbing questions that the fraudulent 9/11 Commission failed to answer. They ought to raise serious political issues concerning foreknowledge of 9/11 and the complicity of those who knew and facilitated these attacks(e.g., inducing the failure of U.S. air defenses) or those who knew and simply did nothing to stop them.

Evan Shawn Powell - 8/25/2008

Mr. Briley writes a review of a movie loaded with the bias of personal politics and is thus suspect perhaps just wrong...

Mr. McCarthy writes a review of a review....why should anyone believe that Mr. Briley's faulty perceptions, due to his personal politics, are absent from Mr. McCarthy's review?

Truth has died twice over and audiences are destitute of the truth?

Scott McCarthy - 8/25/2008

With all due respect, Mr. Briley, I believe your personal politics has colored your examination of the film. An examination that is reading a little too much into a science fiction story.

Batman, as a comic, has been around since 1939 and has been to focal point of hundreds of thousands of stories. The motif and themes in the movie have been taken directly from the comics. Most of the plot points and themes that you have referenced, where expressed in numerous stories of the Batman comic. Those main themes about the moral implications of using torture and combating 'terrorist' tactics, basically Batman's struggle with the Joker (and other villains), were explored in the comics many times over the 69 years. A majority of the plot and themes of The Dark Knight were taken from comics written in the 80's and 90's. My point being: Those themes were existent before George W. Bush's presidency and the current war!

History is filled with examples of analysts, critics, and sociologists who have over analyzed particular works of art, mistakenly making attempts to attach a connection or relevance to specific events of an era. For instance, many critics and sociologists tried to claim that the Lord of the Rings was an allegory for World War II, when the author, J.R.R. Tolkien, vehemently contested such observations! True, his personal experience in the military must have had some impact on his psyche, but he was very adamant in making it clear that his epic Trilogy was not an allegory for the war. His sole intention was creating a mythos to stand on its own. Regardless, it is typical for many to want to “read” more into a work of art, or literature, but what they must remember is that they are interpreting! It is a personal observation, not fact.

It is a mistake to state that the movie The Dark Knight has any hidden or allegorical themes to any events during Bush’s presidency, since those themes were already present and part of the Batman mythos for many many years before Bush took the Office. The problem I have with your article is that your making the connection of the themes as based in fact. You’re insinuating that the movie is a subliminal, or subconscious, expression of the collective American psyche’s struggle with events regarding the war. The truth is, that is your personal interpretation. Not fact.

Those with the power to publish to thousands, or millions, should be a little bit more responsible for what they report to be factual, more than what you have done here.

If anything, your ‘review’ is a perfect example of major modern issue with America, which is: Personal political bias is the death of truth!