Custom Screening: The Dark Knight Rises?

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Before I even got a chance to see “The Dark Knight Rises” at a midnight screening last week, I was bombarded with emails and blog posts that frantically dissected  every frame for any hint of allegory to any time — historical or contemporary. The Guardian, sounding ever more the indignant successor to Pravda, sent me a link to a somewhat self-serving article: “Dark Knight of the Right.” Then, there were the advertisements for the film that pulled Peter Travers-like testimonials that alleged the film was the voice of our times. I had to ask, using the words of our favourite departed villain: “Why so serious?” “The Dark Knight Rises” is a summer movie, after all.

Christopher Nolan is not a man prone to idleness. His biennial summer offering is always unique in theme if not always in spectacle. Consequently, “The Dark Knight Rises,” though every bit the action-packed successor its immediate prequel was, is more about society than it is about sociopaths. This time, Batman is pitted against Bane, whom we soon learn is affiliated with the League of Shadows, the villains of the first film. Back then, the secretive organization’s mission was to provoke Gotham City into tearing itself apart in order to cleanse the world of its vice and corruption. Bane’s motivation in this film is no different, but his master plan, which focuses on grand-scale terrorism rather than just terror, is a bit more successful. It all feels a bit “Return of the Jedi” — same plan, different Death Star. Oh, and a villain with a breathing apparatus.

While “The Dark Knight” was a better film in its conception, execution and psychology (I still expectantly type “Freudian reading of Batman character” into Google only to be disappointed.), “The Dark Knight Rises” is a much more successful, if somewhat forced, exercise in allegory. It’s the subtle differences in motivation that make this film more pertinent to our time. While R’as al Guhl in the first film wanted to clear Gotham of its vice-ridden, criminal lowlives, Bane’s idea is to cleanse the city of the wealthy. After decades of peace, this exclusive set now revels in decadence on a degree that wontonly mocks the growing unemployment issues in the city. The animus has been switched — to use the language of the zeitgeist — from the 99 to the 1 percent.

Bane’s revolution begins with the storming of a Gotham City prison. The prisoners are soon armed and become his foot soldiers. Nolan, whose subtlety is perhaps lost in his wildly cryptic plots, thankfully did not go so far as to call this prison La Bastille. But, for all that follows, he probably didn’t need to. With Gotham’s police trapped underground, Bane’s thugs take on patrol duty, rounding up dissenters and trying them in a court. We’re told Bane doesn’t have a last name — if he did, there’s a good chance it would be Robespierre.

Cillian Murphy‘s Dr. Crane (who returns to the delight of fans everywhere) presides over this Jacobin-style kangaroo court; it is not justice that is meted out there, but punishments that revel in their cruelty. Crane’s sentences — inevitably a choice between death and exile (which is an impossible march over the thin ice of the Gotham River) are in so futile that he openly mocks them, sentencing Commissioner Gordon to “death by exile.”  In the pallid half-light of the Gotham winter, placed high on a veritable barricade of a judicial bench with its haphazard vertical lines painted by the screeds of transcripts spilling over into the court, Crane distributes this mock justice in the name of equality, all that’s missing is Jacques-Louis David to paint it all.

The ideas of Rousseau seem to impel the ransacking of posh apartments on the not-so-thinly disguised Upper-West Side by the ostensibly poor and needy. As a wealthy woman is aggressively pulled from her fur coat and a man is dragged out from hiding in a duotone shot that might be from “Schindler’s List,” we wonder what Nolan wants us to think. As perhaps every socially-minded film critic from St. Paul’s Square to Zuccotti Park has wondered, how, after the economic hurricane that has taken place between the last film’s 2008 release and now, can Christopher Nolan honestly make a film about a billionaire violently reclaiming his city from the great unwashed?

Personally, I think this is one of the great delights of the film. It revels in its controversy. Hollywood too often takes the headline-grabbing social issue of the day and repackages it as sanitized spectacle. This film takes the social issue head on. The idea that Nolan might be deliberately playing the devil’s advocate is, I think, where the comparisons with the French Revolution are their most provocative.

As Paris tore itself apart in the iron grasp of the Jacobins, it was an Irish scholar, Edmund Burke, who took the unfashionable position of declaring his opposition to the French Revolution. Burke was a liberally-minded man. He vociferously campaigned for the emancipation of Ireland and India as well as the United States. Indeed, so fierce an ally of liberty was Burke that upon reading him, Thomas Jefferson remarked: “The revolution in France does not astonish me as much as the revolution in Mr. Burke.” In Burke’s Britain, it was fashionable to see the revolutionaries breaking the shackles of the ancien regime and liberating the masses in the manner the English believed they themselves had done in 1688. Indeed, The Guardian review’s dual praise of Nolan’s spectacle and criticism of his politics smacks of Whig Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger’s criticism of Burke — that he “rhapsodies in which there is much to admire and nothing to agree with.”

The unlikely political position that Burke and Nolan found themselves in is similar and the ideological stands they took draw the two even closer together. Burke’s prescience distilled the ideological maelstrom into new social contract philosophy in response Rousseau’s. It was Burke’s belief that a contract existed not between the government and the governed but, “between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are yet to live.” This was a contract between generations, not government.

Nolan’s idea is not so different. This film, which will be Nolan’s last in charge of the franchise is about legacy on and off screen. There’s the Rookie Cop, keen to make a difference, not unlike the young Bruce Wayne and the decision Gothamites face to see in the new era or descend into madness. Nolan himself is looking for a successor.  As Anne Hathaway so memorably says, “there’s a storm coming,” one that will wash away the old guard, it would seem.  Batman is tired and losing his physical advantage. He knows he’ll either hang up the cape, or die in it.

In “The Dark Knight Rises,” the cowardly actions of the rich and poor are not so much there for contrast as they are for comparison. Both are driven by the same greed for material wealth. Whether this occurs on the stock market or in the streets, it’s not so much the beliefs of Occupy Wall Street as it is the London Riots. But the individuals in this society all come face-to-face with a moral decision and they all make the right one, as they have done throughout Nolan’s trilogy. It resonates with climax of “The Dark Knight” that found the passengers of two boats — while collectively capable of killing each other, unable to pull the trigger. The Burkean idea that as individuals we are society’s stewards — each capable of making the right moral decision  to preserve society for the next generation —is a provocative one. It’s British Prime Minister David Cameron’s “Big Society” complete with a “Wayne Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good.” On a small scale, people really aren’t so bad.

The unapologetically dark tones of this film do indeed beg to be taken seriously. However, if The Guardian and those of its ilk are to read Nolan’s film as some kind of political allegory, they would best put its catch phrases and imagery in context. They are murderous, those who take over Gotham, not the suppressed proletariat. And they are not led by Mahatma Gandhi, but by a psychopath with a steroid addiction. Nolan, thankfully, isn’t the sort of director to spoon-feed us allegory. His insistence on revolutionary motifs is more interesting provocation than didactic propaganda. In such troubled times as ours, and in an election year when the air is almost palpably thick with conflicting ideologies, it’s refreshing to see a visceral take on what happens when bad people take charge of good intentions.