Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Hero We Deserve

Back in the day, around 1989 or so, I managed to score tickets to a special screening of what was the hot movie of the day - Batman, with Jack Nicholson in the "real" starring role as the Joker. Tim Burton directed and provided the essential story, and the film was a hit. Several movies have come out in the intervening years, but the general trend was to drift toward the campy TV series from the sixties rather than stick with the grim 'n' gritty vision that Frank Miller brought in his The Dark Night graphic novel. As a result, the movies got weaker and weaker, although the recent Batman Begins looked to turn the franchise around. Under Christopher Nolan's skilled eye, Batman Begins did an "origins" picture about as well as anyone has, but it suffered from the limitations of the genre - the necessity of introducing important characters whose roles would not become ascendent until later films, for one. A somewhat fractured storyline, for another. As such, when the hype surrounding The Dark Knight, the second Nolan film in the franchise began to gear up, I was very skeptical. Even the metatragedy surrounding Heath Ledger's suicide, supposedly driven in part by his work as the Joker, looked exploited by the studio to gain momentum heading into the film's release. 

I am here to tell you that this is the seminal Batman movie. This is the one that takes the gloves off, this is the one that breaks the rules and comes to grips with the essence of what Batman is. And the amazing thing is that if there were ever a time to put a movie like this out, we're in it. 

First, I want to give a brief synopsis of what the film really does well and where it falls short. Most superhero movies have a cast of characters who have, at best, superficial roles and must be included for the sake of history. Harvey Dent as the DA, Jim Gordon as the last honest policeman, all take secondary roles to even Michael Caine's performance as Alfred in Batman Begins. In The Dark Knight, every role is an important one, fleshed out and given a full character treatment. This requires a master storyteller to pull off, and there should be an Oscar in the home of everyone who helped with the story and screenplay come next March.

The film also doesn't pull any punches. Superheroes are supposed to be for kids, but they are more than that when done well. Batman, perhaps more than any other comic book character, is extremely complex and requires the viewer to understand a sense of desperation that only maturity brings (or a childhood that none of us would wish on our worst enemy). This is not a children's movie, and I would hesitate to allow a pre-teen to go without significant preparation and debriefing. There are action sequences, but they are not the meat of the movie. It is the character development that takes the starring role, and thankfully so.

The acting work (with one exception) is outstanding. Morgan Freeman, Christian Bales, Heath Ledger (who is very hard to watch knowing the toll his amazing work took), Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, all showed up ready to make a very fine film, not just a summer blockbuster to help pay the bills. There is some journeyman work here that one doesn't associate with movies concentrating on men in tights and a cape.

There are some problems. Maggie Gyllenhall is awful - she looks awful, she acts like someone handed her the script an hour before, and even I can tell that she took the first choice as an actor that came to her in every scene, something you are taught *not* to do in Acting 101. The early portion of the film goes by at breakneck speed, and there are considerable assumptions made that the viewer is familiar with the mythos. This is not a movie one should watch if one hasn't seen Batman Begins or is not familiar with the backstory. Finally, there are at least a few points where I had trouble understanding dialog because of background noises in the film. These are all minor points, and by the end of the movie you really could care less, but it should be said that I have a critical eye for at least some things.

The essence of film noir is that even the good are flawed, and that the right temptation or circumstance will drive the noblest of us to commit terrible acts. Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, rendition of prisoners, suspension of Habeus Corpus, these are the terrible acts that Americans are committing not only on a daily basis, but for years. Recent estimates put something over 75% of the internees at Guantanamo Bay as being not the "worst of the worst" but people who were at the wrong place at the wrong time. The iguanas who live on and near the base have more legal rights under American federal law than the detainees have. Think about that for a few minutes. 

What is amazing is that these crimes have been commited, at least on paper, within the bright light of the realm of law, by elected leaders of what is ostensibly the freest country on the planet. Batman, in contrast, is not elected, he works outside of the law (albeit a law that has been horribly and actively twisted and corrupted, even if in the name of security) yet has a strict code of ethics that dictates the line he cannot cross. Early in the film, Christian Bales has a brief exchange with his "butler" Alfred, speaking of his limits, although the specifics are about his physical limits. He says something to the effect of "I can't think about what my limits are," but what he really is saying is that his code is all he has, and to rethink it would take him into places where he becomes no better than the people he fights. 

Harvey Dent, the new DA, however, looks to be the real thing. A man who will fix the law itself as the right thing. someone who may make it possible for the Batman to retire. He is the hero everyone wants to have, the person who will redeem the city for it's sins of allowing things to fall as far as they have. Because, in the final reckoning, whether it's Gotham City or 21st Century America, it is the people who hold the final responsibility for their leader's conduct. Of course, it will be no surprise to anyone familiar with the franchise that Harvey Dent suffers a terrible accident that drives him insane, and he does not end the film a hero, at least in truth. It is the Batman, in the finale, who is the hero the city deserves. And even he is only a hero in the eyes of a very few. 

In the end, the movie is about corruption and how the people closest to it are the ones who are best able to resist it. It is a movie about evil, both as random chaos and as greed. It is a movie about staying true to one's ethical system in the face of terrible and relentless pressure. It is a film about limits and what happens when one runs into them at high speed. 

It is a movie that should tell us quite a bit about ourselves, where we are, and how we got there. It is about how we should act, the leaders we should choose, and how those of us who are cynics and idealists alike are coming to realize that we are being crushed as inexorably as if we were at the bottom of the ocean. 

Almost miraculously, I read an article in a recent article in Esquire magazine (which I highly recommend, despite the expensive clothing articles and occasional cheesecake) that at first blush appears to be about Barack Obama. It is not - it is an article about us, about where we are, about how we got there, and about what we need to move forward. It is not a generous article about Obama, in fact it deflates the cult of personality surrounding him (which I think is a good thing, not because I don't think he would be a good president but because I'd like us to have him as president for more than four years). It is an angry article, angry at the Bush administration, at the Supreme Court, at Congress, but most of all angry that we are willing to give up the really important thing - freedom, morality, justice, honesty - so that we can keep pretending that we'll all get a big house and a riding mower if we just let the people in charge do whatever they want. Here's the link:

Not that anyone would want to know what I think, but if you want a glimpse inside my head, this is about as close as you'll get from someone who has never met me. This article should be required reading in every Civics class in the country, and for anyone who wants to register to vote, from school board members to being a party delegate. 

Jung's concept of Synchronicity never seemed so real as it did yesterday, when I both saw The Dark Knight and read this article. 

As we left the theater, my wife said that she was really depressed after seeing the film. There is no absolution without confession, although our leaders like to keep pretending there is (even the ones who look like our saviors). In The Dark Knight, someone pays the cost. wouldn't it be nice if we, all of us, the entire country of America, built on the bravest and best of ideals forged in an age of Reason with a capital 'R', wouldn't it be just grand if we all decided that, just maybe, we should pay that cost together. 

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