Friday, November 4, 2011

Dark Knight and the War on Terror

I just got done showing "Dark Knight" (2008) to my film class. I hadn't watched it since the year it came out, and I'm surprised how different the film feels today, just a few years later, particularly when viewed as a metaphor for the War on Terror.

The film is filled with visual references to 9/11. We see buildings explode and collapse, firetrucks burning in the street, firefighters standing in burning rubble, and of course Batman (seen above) sitting amidst twisted metal, wondering how he failed. And then there's Heath Ledger's Joker, possibly the most interesting on-screen villain of the past decade, standing in for Bin Laden. He's a true supervillain, smarter than his pursuers, able to exploit people's fears to pursue his goals, and totally undeterrable by conventional forms of power.

What does it take to bring down such a villain? As Golda Meir says in "Munich" (2005), "Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values." And indeed, Batman must break some rules (including, eventually, the no-kill rule so essential to his identity) to protect Gotham. He famously does so by building a surveillance device that blatantly violates the privacy of every mobile phone user in the city, a device so monstrous that it nearly forces the resignation of his confidante Lucius Fox. This device could serve as a metaphor for the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping, or "enhanced interrogations," or any other Constitutional violation enacted in order to protect Americans. But Batman rescues his device from abomination by building in important safeguards: it can only be used once, and it can only be used by Fox, the person who despises it most. The device also has the virtue of working -- Batman finds the Joker and brings him to justice. If Bush-era torture had such built-in safeguards, and if it had clearly brought Bin Laden to justice, might we have a different view of it today?

Even this, though, is not enough. Batman is not content with Gotham being protected by a secretive vigilante; if the city's going to ever have hope of being a decent place to live, it will need public servants unafraid to stand in the daylight. So Batman ultimately sacrifices his own reputation to advance what he sees as a necessary lie. He's willing to be the villain himself, loving his city so much that he's willing to be hated by it. This is a decision that no elected official can make -- if you're hated, you're quickly out of power.

The ideas that some truths are too important to be revealed to the people and that sometimes leaders must be despised to do their jobs makes for a rather anti-democratic and complex message. And the film is decidedly ambivalent about how a society of laws should deal with an enemy who appears bound by no laws at all. It also takes on somewhat different meaning today, when our own supervillain has already been caught, killed, and exposed as a sickly middle-aged man sitting in a room full of porn.


Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

The big difference between the Dark Knight and terrorism, and it is an essential definitional one, is that the villan's motives are not particularly political. The Joker does not lead a political movement that dervives from grass roots sympathy. It is not war by other means, it is crime at a high crescendo.

One of the reasons for ambivalence about war on terror techniques is that while terrorist acts constitute unambiguous crimes, when removed from the criminal arena and brought to the level of war, it becomes not just war by other means, but politics by other means. A terrorist group without a political wing really isn't a terrorist group.

If terrorist groups were like the Joker, comprised of isolated evil people motived by ideosyncratic grudes without a political agenda that has grass roots sympathy or any necessary economic role, an exclusively military and technological solution of the type that the Dark Knight's efforts exemplify would work.

But, terrorism isn't like that. Terrorism isn't fundamentally about evil people who hate the world. Terrorism is about the failure of politics to provide the route of least resistance for a political movement to achieve its ends. Its vanguards are disaffected members of elites, not the downtrodden losers who commit street crimes. Our constitution makes certain methods of dealing with terrorism problematic because our nation was founded by people who started their struggle, in part, as terrorists and worked their way up to being sovereigns.

Seth Masket said...

You make a very good point, Andrew. The Joker does have a motive -- to demonstrate that society's rules are a sham and that its principles will be tossed aside the moment things look grim -- which can be broadly construed as political, but it's nothing like "Get the soldiers out of Mecca." Yet the political motives of Al Qaeda were often ignored in the early part of the War on Terror. Administration officials and talking heads regularly just said that "they hate our freedom." Dan Rather, of all people, said, "They're just evil."

So I think it fair to say that the Joker in "Dark Knight" was regarded by Gotham's elites much the same way that Bin Laden was regarded by America's elites in the early 2000s.

metrichead said...

You left off the scene where Batman is interrogating the Joker, beating him to a pulp. By the time the Joker's on the floor, he's mocking Batman because for all his might, he can't make the Joker spill what he knows. (I'm sorry, I'm horrible film critic; I'm an even worse football player).

At the risk of sounding psychotic, I found some of what the Joker had to say in regards to power brokers quite true; that they are all in their own little ways trying to control people. (The hospital scene where he, dressed as a nurse, taunts Harvey Dent/Two-Face). Was there not a bit of an anarchist/Libertarian streak in his message?

Jason McDaniel said...

Love your comments, Seth. I agree that the film is ambivalent towards legality, and that it seems anti-democratic. But reading your comments, I am reminded about why I loved the movie for its "political science." It seems to me that the film is generally positive towards political institutions, and has a Madisonian take on democracy. Batman erects an "institution" of separated powers around the surveillance device because he understands that "men [not to mention batmen] are not angels."

Additionally, by sacrificing his reputation in favor of Harvey Dent, Batman makes a strong claim for the importance and legitimacy of political institutions and processes. Extra-legal means may be necessary, Batman may be necessary. But, lone vigilantes are limited and dangerous. In the end we must rely on elected representatives and political processes.