The Greatest Conservative Films: The Dark Knight (2008)
“Perhaps both Bruce and Mr. Dent believe that Batman stands for something more important than the whims of a terrorist, Miss Dawes. Even if everyone hates him for it. That’s the sacrifice he’s making. He’s not being a hero. He’s being something more.”
WHY IT’S A CONSERVATIVE FILM:
You knew this film would be on the list.
It’s one of the most legendary examples of recent times—as originally set forth by the great Andrew Klavan, writing a piece in The Wall Street Journal and later talking to Glenn Beck about it. Glenn himself reiterated the film’s Conservatism to his then-colleagues on CNN.
And now, dear readers…it’s my turn.
Batman And The War On Terror:
To kick off, I can’t really put it any better than the master himself. So, as Klavan noted:
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.
The Joker is specifically referred to as a “terrorist” in this film—repeatedly, in no uncertain terms. There’s no “excuse” given for his crimes. As Alfred makes clear:
“Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men—just want to watch the world burn.”
It’s not about “what we did to set them off”. For men like the Joker—or Osama bin Laden, or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—it’s a matter of ideology. We can’t “change” them; we can only defeat them.
On “War Powers”:
Early on, Bruce Wayne, Rachel Dawes, and new District Attorney Harvey Dent discuss (with Bruce’s date, a Russian ballerina) the legality of Batman’s vigilantism—and to Bruce’s pleasant surprise, Harvey passes his “test”, and stands up for the caped crusader:
The fact that Bruce and Rachel play “devil’s advocate” makes it clear they’re both all too aware of the risks of such “emergency powers”…powers like, for example, the PATRIOT Act. But the key to justification of such powers is: It’s always done with “sunset” provisions—it has to. And ironically, for all the Leftist outcries against Bush-era “tyranny”, the PATRIOT Act had sunset provisions…and Obama, of course, removed them, and turned those powers against the Conservative media, the Friends of Abe, and the Tea Party.
In the first act of the movie, Dent, Gordon, and Batman team up to round up the mob, via Gordon’s investigation of criminal money transfers. Alas, the mob’s financier, Lau, has fled to Hong Kong—and as Dent notes, “The Chinese won’t extradite a national under any circumstances.” Batman says to leave it to him.
How does he do it? Bruce and Lucius Fox go to Hong Kong under the guise of a business negotiation with Lau…and then, at night, Batman snatches Lau and escapes via a “skyhook”. (James Bond fans will recognize the gadget from the final moments of Thunderball.) He drops Lau off at the Gotham Police Department.
Never once do our heroes question the morality of this—despite the Left constantly listing rendition as one of the key “controversies” of the Bush Administration. Heck, they even had Rendition as the title for one of their anti-Iraq box-office bombs, about how evil the practice is…. And yet here, Batman does it as par for the course. Sure, there’s some plausible deniability here for Gordon and Dent—but they clearly don’t have a problem with it.
“If We Do X, The Terrorists Win!”
Did you ever get as sick and tired of hearing Lefties say that, way back when, as I was? Frankly, I never understood their reasoning. I mean—I’m pretty sure Al-Qaeda didn’t do all those attacks on us because they wanted us to set up wiretaps and tighter security. They wanted to conquer the world—and we, and Israel, happened to be in the way.
In the real world, the terrorists win when we let their actions slide, without consequences. Hello, Clinton.
In the case of The Dark Knight, the Joker makes his demands, proclaiming that every day Batman refuses to turn himself in, more people die. After a few days of him carrying out his threats, people demand a surrender. But as Harvey makes clear, that would mean “the terrorist wins”:
“Should we give in to this terrorist’s demands? …One day, the Batman will have to answer for the laws he’s broken. But to us. Not to this madman.”
When words don’t work, Dent takes a third option, working up a plan (figuring—correctly, that Batman will catch on) to lure the Joker out. And it works…at first, anyway.
We see hints of it in Batman Begins, with Bruce putting listening devices in ears of the cowl. But here, Batman goes all the way. When all else has failed, he has no choice but to create a massive super-sonar program that effectively wiretaps the entire city, so as to map out everything as needed.
It’s a weapon of last resort. It has to be done. And it works.
It’s also the ultimate “warrantless wiretap”. As Fox makes clear, it’s illegal and “unethical…dangerous”. But it has to be done, as even Fox agrees—“this one time.” And again, there’s a “sunset”. Once everything’s done, the programs short-circuits.
Can Man Rule Himself?
Ultimately, the Joker’s plans depend on manipulating the people of Gotham into going as crazy as he is. He’s an “agent of chaos”, and his final act involves goading a boatload of citizens and a boatload of mobsters into blowing each other up.
It’s the great question—the one that separates the Right from the Left: Can people, left to their own devices, be trusted to do the right thing? Or will lack of oversight result in “greed”, “selfishness”, and so forth? “When the chips are down”, will people work together to get out of the chaos…or pull excuses and fall to the dark side of human nature? Was Locke right, or Hobbes?
In the end, at the last possible second…Batman’s faith in the people of Gotham is vindicated, and the Joker’s struck silent for the seconds our hero needs to defeat him.
In the end, some people fall…but freedom is always the best option. Because man can rule himself, after all. Even hardened criminals can find redemption, and foil the whims of a madman.
“This city—just showed you—that it’s full of people ready to believe in good.”
For Bonus Points:
As I’ve pointed out before, Bruce Wayne being a billionaire businessman helps as a perfect object lesson, proving the lie to the whole “Evil Greedy Corporate Executive” stereotype. To underline this, we have Lucius Fox, CEO of Wayne Enterprises—and supplier of Batman’s gadgets. And here, more so than the other two films in the trilogy, we see examples of Wayne and Fox as businessmen—albeit so as to conduct some corporate investigation of Lau. Such is underlined by Lau’s line about “a businessman of [Fox’s] stature”.
It’s something that Leftist comic-book fans are going to have to come to terms with, sooner or later: Bruce Wayne—and Tony Stark, while we’re at it—have to be rich, in order to save the world…because without all that “surplus wealth”, they wouldn’t have the funds for all those gadgets. Innovation requires financial incentive—one way or another. And a capitalist society, free of government interference, is the most innovative society of all.
Incidentally, fans of Atlas Shrugged will surely see the parallels between Bruce Wayne and Francisco D’Anconia—especially considering how Christian Bale plays up the “playboy” element of Bruce’s persona….
WHY IT’S A GREAT FILM:
Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is, by all accounts, the definitive masterpiece of the “superhero” film genre. It solidified the whole thing as a “serious” force in Hollywood. With Batman Begins, Nolan swept away the bad memories of “bat-nipples” and so forth that tarnished not only Batman, but superhero films in general. To be sure, the “realistic” trend technically began more-or-less in 2000, with X-Men and Unbreakable, and then Sam Rami’s Spiderman films. But it was Nolan, in 2005, that firmly grounded the genre into “believable”, and “to be taken seriously”. Suddenly, Batman’s gadgets didn’t seem so far-fetched: The batsuit’s made of advanced Kevlar; the Batmobile’s a prototype military vehicle, and so on. And meanwhile, Bruce Wayne’s origins got the hard, pathos-filled look it deserved.
“It’s not who I am, underneath…but what I do that defines me.”
With The Dark Knight, he went even further. And to this day, it’s held as quite possibly the gold standard for superhero films—only The Avengers competing for that title.
Dark? Yes. Humorous? Yes. Darkly humorous?
“Why so serious…?”
Absolutely thrilling, gripping, and emotionally charged? Absolutely. And along the way, charged with towering questions of what it truly mean to be a “hero”. As Henry Cavill’s Superman soon would, in Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, Christian Bale’s Batman must answer that question for himself: In a world where villains aren’t tied by anything—and society might not give you the support you deserve…how far must you be willing to go to fight that evil—and how far can you go, before you cross the line, yourself?
A Director’s Craft—A Matter Of Detail:
I “discovered” Christopher Nolan late enough so I’ve no fear of just being a “Nolan fanboy”—and as such, you won’t see me dialing back my admiration for him, just to seem “objective”. Objectively…he’s one of the greatest filmmakers alive today—if not, indeed, one of the greatest of all time. I’ll gush freely, without guilt. He’s more than earned it.
Along with Quentin Tarantino, J.J. Abrams, and Colin Trevorrow, Nolan is a purist for film—as in, actual celluloid film print. (As Quentin noted, Nolan was the “head” of the team who saved the celluloid industry—calling up those three filmmakers above to join with him and bail out Kodak.) As such, his movies have the sort of rich color palate you’re less likely to see in a “digital” movie.
But his style doesn’t end there. Nolan’s a lover of Film Noir, and as such, his films are as a rule filled with quite a “hard-boiled” sensibility—a “stylized crime realism”, as film scholar Jason Holt summed up as the “nutshell” definition of Noir. His Batman films are crime films—appropriate for the World’s Greatest Detective.
And like many a great director, Nolan’s a master of the importance of detail. There are several blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments that enhance repeated viewings, when you find them.
For example, you can see the Joker pop up without the face paint during Commissioner Loeb’s funeral, posing as a cop. He still has the “smile” scars, of course.
Also, pay close attention to the shot of Sal Marone getting into his car, just before Two-Face confronts him. To the far left of the screen, you can see Two-Face knocking out Marone’s bodyguard.
During Batman’s last exchange with the Joker…notice the camera rotating so that the upside-down Joker becomes right-side-up—and it’s the world that’s upside-down….
A Twist—Or Is It?
Let’s be honest—if we were allowed to “think about it”, Gordon can’t be killed—certainly not before he becomes commissioner like he’s “meant” to be.
And yet…we forget that, when he’s shot before our eyes at the aforementioned funeral. Or maybe, we wonder if maybe Nolan’s just that gutsy. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time a director’s messed around with the Batman mythology. SEE: Tim Burton making Nicholson’s Joker the murderer of Bruce’s parents….
Regardless…emotionally, we somehow accept it—especially since everyone but Gordon seems to think he’s really gone—including Batman, clearly struck with guilt.
All of this led to a big cheer in the theater where I first saw this, when Gordon pops up to knock out the Joker.
One last thing, before I move on to the cast: The giant set-piece action scene where the Joker’s rounded up at last is played up for maximum effect…so that the audience certainly feels like it’s the big climax—the final battle. It isn’t, of course…but at 2 1/2 hours, the movie’s long enough that it might have been, with a few scenes following to give it a satisfying wrap-up….
Alas, it ain’t over yet. And that’s the point—we’re meant to believe that the plans of Dent, Gordon, and Batman have gone off perfectly, the Joker defeated and order restored to Gotham…. But—
But it ain’t over. And just like that, everything comes crumbling down—and the darkness begins….
Okay. Now for the cast. Let’s start with the obvious one….
Heath Ledger’s Last And Greatest Role:
Heath Ledger won a posthumous Best Supporting Actor for his turn as the Joker. And it’s pretty hard to argue that he didn’t deserve it. From his “obvious-in-hindsight” reveal in the beginning (Remember what I said about “rewatch value”?), Ledger commands every frame he’s in. Creepy…intimidating…and absolutely hilarious—all at the same time.
“How ‘bout a magic trick? I’m gonna make this pencil disappear….”
His is a definitive interpretation of Joker, up there with Jack Nicholson and Mark Hamill—and there’s no need to argue who’s “better”, as they’re all delightfully different.
Nicolson’s Joker is a power-mad mobster. Hamill’s is a murderous comedian. Ledger’s is a cackling terrorist with an ax to grind against, well…against anything taken seriously in the world.
His is the most sadistic and vicious Joker we’ve ever had on screen—the one who most consistently lives out the philosophy laid out in the quintessential Joker comic, The Killing Joke. From that volume, we get his “multiple choice past” of “how I got these scars”—and of course, his obsession with proving to the world that “all it takes is One…Bad…Day.”
In the comic, his target was Gordon. Here, on the other hand…
Aaron Eckhart As Harvey Dent:
Comic book fans all know the tragic fate of Harvey Dent—and with his arrival in the film, we all knew it was only a matter of time. The question was just whether he’d turn in this movie, or later. At any rate, the perfect foreshadowing—from the trailers on—comes in that line, serving double-duty in reference to Batman:
“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
There’s also that coin he playfully flips around with Rachel…and then uses later to interrogate a man, as Harvey’s dark side comes out for the first time. The anger—which we saw hints of before; the righteous fury at the injustice of the world…tempered only by his confidence in himself and others in their power to make a difference.
Such is the tragedy of Harvey Dent, as that power’s stripped away from him…and all that he sees remaining—is Chance. The anger takes control, and Gotham is introduced to Two-Face.
Aaron Eckhart is absolutely perfect as Harvey. Clean-cut, with tousled hair and a chiseled jaw, he looks every inch the ideal hero, the “White Knight”, to take the mantle from the Dark Knight and save Gotham out in the open, through the law. And yet, he knows darn well how valuable Batman’s been to cleaning up Gotham—and proves willing and even eager to work with him, to help transition the city into the light. Witty, charismatic, and idealistic—aside from his inner anger, and lack of superpowers (of course), he’s almost Superman. (Kinda links the film to Batman v. Superman, thematically, doesn’t it? More on that, another time….)
And Eckhart perfectly brings out that anger…his portrayal of Two-Face so hauntingly powerful. He gains at once our sympathy…and our horror.
Christian Bale As Bruce Wayne / Batman:
For many of us too young for nostalgia over Kevin Conroy or Michael Keaton—and even for some of those old enough—Christian Bale is the definitive Batman. He’s certainly imitated enough….
But “Batman voice” or no, he’s still an excellent Bruce Wayne—a younger Bruce, trying to hold onto his ideals, amid all the darkness life throws at him and those he loves. (By contrast, Ben Affleck’s the older Bruce Wayne—and thus, I’m not about to choose which one’s “better”. More on that, another time.)
Bale’s Bruce has an easy charm, bantering with Alfred, Fox, and Rachel—and yet, he does convey a tortured soul…to the point of shell-shock when loved ones are taken from him. His is a Batman with a heart—driven by necessity to be a Dark Knight, yet longing for the day when he can hang up the cowl, and live a normal life—maybe with Rachel, if she’ll still have him. And he also has a brain—here, he investigates the Joker, striving to understand him and his methods, so he can figure out how to beat him. “The World’s Greatest Detective”—and here, we can believe it.
And so, immature DVD-trashing militants aside, we will always cherish what Christian Bale brought to this role—and no crazy rants, political or otherwise, will change that.
The Magnificent Michael Cain:
Michael Caine, naturally, is everything we’d ever want in an Alfred, and more—assuming, of course, we don’t want an active fighter. But we can certainly believe he used to be a British Secret Service operative, with the sort of experience to understand a villain like the Joker….
And yet, just as easily, he perfectly conveys a kind, warm-hearted father-figure to Bruce, giving him the alternative perspective and insight he so often needs—along with an ever-ready quip or two. He gives Bruce the support he needs, when everything seems to come crashing down upon him:
“People are dying, Alfred! What would you have me do?”
“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 no one else can make. The right choice.”
The Rest Of The Cast:
The immortal Gary Oldman—perhaps the greatest actor of our time—broke his typecast as “slightly-off-kilter villain” when Nolan cast him as eventual-Commissioner Gordon. Here Jim’s put through the emotional wringer, fearing some of his own decisions have led to the eventual tragedy…coming out in full force as he shouts after Batman, tears in his voice, “We have to save Dent! I—HAVE TO SAVE DENT!!!”
The geat Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox. Need I say more?
All right, then…
“Let me get this straight. You think that your client—one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the world—is secretly a vigilante, who spends his nights beating criminals to a pulp with his bare hands. And your plan—is to blackmail this person…? Good luck.”
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s…okay as Rachel Dawes 2.0—but frankly, Katie Holmes was different enough that it’s pretty noticeable.
Anthony Michael Hall has a major-if-you-notice-him role as TV news anchor Mike Engel. As fans of the series The Dead Zone (also starring my “other” favorite actress, the highly underrated Nicole De Boer) may remember, he’s actually played a superhero, himself….
Before The Dark Knight Rises, fans speculated whether two minor characters—the shotgun-toting bank manager in the beginning, and would-be blackmailer Coleman Reese—would return as The Penguin and The Riddler…especially as the manager’s played by William Fichtner, and “Why would Nolan cast a known actor in such a small role—let alone focus on him so much, like that…?” Also, there’s the Joker’s “What doesn’t kill you…” line—seen at the time as foreshadowing….
As for Mr. Reese (“Mysteries”), the theory was that, as he figured out Batman’s identity, but couldn’t do anything about it, maybe it’ll lead him into seeking out a vengeful battle of wits…?
Alas, none of that happened. They’re just two red herrings, admittedly fun to speculate about.
One wonders if that sort of game with the fans is intentional on Nolan’s part. After all, the Hispanic sidekick of Gordon’s seems for much of the movie to be Renee Montoya (from the classic animated series)…but we learn, alas, that her name is Ramirez—around the time we discover she’s “bent”. (Assuming, of course, we didn’t have the subtitles on….)
How do you give Batman a compelling musical sound, true to the very essence of the character…without finding it “held up” to Danny Elfman’s classic Gothic approach?
Just ask Hans Zimmer. From Batman Begins onward, he knew darn well not to try and emulate Elfman. Rather, go…elemental. The sound of a cape catching the wind, as thunder rolls…the driving repetition of low strings…the two long notes…and at last a melody of what might be a single horn, amid that drive.
Meanwhile, James Newton Howard brought in a soulful, sweet, and tragic theme for Bruce Wayne’s memories of his parents, and all they meant to him—linking to his “complicated” relationship with Rachel….
For The Dark Knight, they bring two new themes into the mix. For the Joker, a twisted, chaotic, atonal, experimental…uh…thing, reminiscent of Penderecki’s “Threnody For The Victims Of Hiroshima”. (Listen to it…if you dare.)
For Harvey Dent, a simple, “American” melody that sounds almost like it could’ve been a march…but softened and slowed—the theme of a noble man, sensitive and loyal…with hints of the sad tragedy to come—which all-too-easily turns dark and ominous when his sanity shatters, and he becomes Two-Face.
A Tragic Fall:
That last scene between Batman, Gordon, and Harvey Dent brings all the emotions of the film to a head. Despite the Joker’s ultimate plan being foiled…there’s still Harvey—broken and fallen, targeting his rage at Gordon and his family, and at Batman.
“It’s not about what I want—it’s about what’s FAIR!!! You thought we could be decent men—in an indecent time. But you were wrong. The world is cruel. And the only morality in a cruel world—is chance. Unbiased…unprejudiced…fair.”
As Batman struggles to reach the good man Dent once was…and the strings of the score intensify, we feel the tragedy of three heroes brought to the abyss. They all stared down into it…and one blinked.
“The Joker chose ME!”
“Because you were the best of us! He wanted to prove that even someone as good as you could fall.”
“…And he was right.”
Harvey has fallen too far. The Joker’s been defeated, and Gotham saved…but at a terrible, terrible cost.
And when all is said and done, in order to cover for Two-Face’s crimes, so hope will not be lost again…Batman must give up all his popularity, and be hated by all. And why?
“Because 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 our hero. He’s a silent guardian. A watchful protector.
“A Dark Knight.”
By The Way…
The first actress to “play” Rachel was actually none other than…Amy Adams. During auditions, Amy “stood in,” for the Batman candidates to play off of. It’s interesting to speculate on “what might have been”, had she actually been cast. She’d definitely have stayed on for The Dark Night—and meanwhile, Amy’s launch into super-stardom would’ve happened two years before Enchanted….
Still, she almost certainly wouldn’t have gotten cast as Lois. So…probably wouldn’t have been worth it.
In those audition tapes, Amy’s Rachel refers to a villain “Cobb”—a name used in Nolan’s Following, and later, Inception. Also, you can see Bale’s wearing the Batman Forever batsuit.
Prior to The Dark Knight’s release, Warner Bros. conducted an especially creative publicity campaign, centering on the election of Harvey Dent—campaign posters and everything. The two-disc Special Edition has a nice sample of this—six “episodes” of Gotham Tonight, Mike Engel’s evening news program. It serves as a great transition between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, filled with references to the aftermath of the former film. The final segment’s an interview with the newly-elected Harvey—cut short with a “this just in” about a bank robbery by a gang dressed like clowns….
(Pay attention to the “ticker” on those mock broadcasts. There’s a few political inside jokes….)
Also pre-release, rumors arose that a scene having the Joker in a body bag would be cut. Actually, the scene stayed. Good thing, too: It’s the legendary “Why so serious?” scene.
The Joker’s reaction to the hospital bombs’ delay was actually Ledger improvising, “rolling with” an on-set glitch.
Gordon’s daughter—aka Batgirl—is noticeably downplayed, visually. I don’t believe we ever get a look at her face….
The old guy who calls the Joker a thug to his face is Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT; yes…).
WHAT’S NOT ON THE LIST:
Batman Begins (2005)—not that I didn’t want it to be, so much. It would’ve been awesome to have the entire “Nolanverse” Dark Knight Trilogy on this list, one by one.
But…is Batman Begins really that political?
Maybe, if it were the one film…I’d have included it. Bruce Wayne, and his father before him, are good, noble billionaires. Thomas Wayne uses his wealth to help out the poor in Gotham—building the city-wide elevated train, and so on. And though Thomas notably leaves running Wayne Enterprises to “more interested men”, he’s not at all ashamed of his wealth, doting upon his wife and bringing her and Bruce to the opera. By movie’s end, the highly innovative Lucius Fox becomes CEO.
And of course, Ra’s Al-Ghul correctly observes: “Criminals thrive on the indulgence of Society’s ‘understanding’.”
See, the other two films of the trilogy are so deeply Conservative, through and through, it makes the Conservatism of the first one pale in comparison. And let’s be honest: Lucius’s line about “bean counters” rejecting the bulletproof combat suit because they “didn’t think a soldier’s life was worth 300-grand” might imply a “rift” between idealists who want to help people and “greedy” businessmen who “just” care about money…which kinda dulls things down a bit. Also, there’s Thomas’s line: “Gotham’s been good to our family, but…people less fortunate than us…”etc. Alfred even notes Thomas “nearly bankrupted Wayne Enterprises combating poverty.” (Big DC fans will recall that Green Arrow is also a rich guy—and a self-identified “big Lefty”.)
And of course, Ra’s Al-Ghul turns out to be an extremist.
Alas, it wasn’t until The Dark Knight that the series’ Conservatism truly shined through. Batman Begins, however, is just Conservative-friendly.
Buy/Rent this Conservative classic here. And stay film-friendly, my friends.
Any recommendations for films to make this series? Read the rules, here, and let us know!
Eric was raised by Conservative Christian parents, but first became especially passionate about politics in high school, through reading up on economic theory. He also first read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged around this time, for the ARI's essay contests. He now owns a great deal of Ayn Rand's work. Also included in his library are the collected works of Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Ann Coulter, etc.
Eric is no stranger to writing commentary, as the writer of the Conservative Considerations column on CampCampaign.com, and as a film critic and commentator on FlickRev.com. He has also carried on the Conservative tradition of talk radio commentary, as the host of "Avengers of America" for the USF student radio station, Bulls Radio. In the meantime, he is practicing what he preaches: Striving to enter the professional realm of Hollywood, he has already written and directed short films for the Campus MovieFest, which can be found on his YouTube channel, Hard Boiled Entertainment.