Monday, February 23, 2009

Why The Dark Knight was actually 2008's Best Picture of the Year

I was inspired to write this piece about a week ago when a friend commented on my facebook status which opined that Slumdog Millionaire was not, like many had falsely also said about Garden State, a life-changing experience (for life-changing/paradigm-shifting movies, please see Requiem for a Dream, 21 Grams, Donnie Darko, or Trainspotting - also, like Slumdog, a Danny Boyle movie). Like Garden State, Slumdog was a good, entertaining movie. Nothing in the way of cinematography that we haven't already seen in a dozen Ridley or Tony Scott movies, and nothing in the score that many unheralded Bollywood films have served up for decades. No, the success of Slumdog lies in the fact that it is precisely the sort of indie movie that is supposed to win an Oscar. And that is also its most obvious failure.

What is supremely frustrating is that this rather ordinary movie won when the movie that was the finest one made this past year wasn't even nominated. I am speaking, of course, of Chris Nolan's brilliantly executed and instantly classic The Dark Knight, arguably one of the finest films produced in the last decade.

Sam Raimi's Spiderman made people realize that comic book movies could be taut, serious, and full of complexity, much like the best comics and graphic novels are. And Nolan's earlier Batman Begins banished our collective memories stained by outings like Joel Schumacher's clownish Batman & Robin. Nolan reminded us that comic book heroes are ultimately deeply related to humans, and he continues fine storytelling and an epic vision with his second installment of the Batman reboot.

In 2 hours and 12 minutes Nolan and his co-writer, Jonathan Nolan, manage to cover a whole panoply of human complexity and do it with a density fitting for a novel but perfectly suited to the best of what film offers us: graphic sweep. Because this is not a full fledged review, but only an outline of some elements of why The Dark Knight was such a fine film, please forgive the brief commentary...

The Dark Knight's themes

Doing what is right

We watch two ships full of passengers - one of convicted felons, the other of normal citizens, both face off with the difficult moral decision of blowing up the other ship to save their own. Augustine's principle of the double effect, the problem of group think, and the actual famous Prisoner's Dilemma all in action at the same time.

The unexpected

The episode above ties in directly to the unexpected - the convicts refusing to kill the civilians, the civilians waiting quietly for their annihilation via Joker's threat. One is supposed to blow the other up, and we fully expect it to happen as the clock counts down. But it doesn't...

What perhaps is most surprising is that earlier in the film, when confronted with his own choice, Batman goes for Dent instead of his true love - yet is it unexpected that Batman would put the interests of others above his own? We hear Maggie Gyllenhall try to calm Harvey down, shortly before she's blown to absolute bits, and Harvey loses half his face, forever.

The unexpected has a long history in the novel, but executed well in film, is breathtaking. A large majority of those of us in the theater were audibly aghast when we realized Batman had gone for Dent instead of Gyllenhall's Rachel Dawes.

The right to privacy

Bruce Wayne's incredible spy-machine, a device that makes NSA's tapping of our broadband look like the Pony Express and is the wet dream of any Bush administration flunkie or attacker of our civil liberties, used cell-phones in order to track specific words and conversations. Yes, it is used for good in this one specific instance, but it is Lucius Fox's refusal to cooperate in the absolute power (and as he sensed, the absolute corruptibility) of such a device, and Bruce Wayne's thoughtful foreknowledge of this faithfulness and his concurrence with it should be a lesson to us all.

The role of blackmail

It's always about money, isn't it? But how short-term is the thinking of the blackmailer when Morgan Freeman's character asks: "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." What a memorable line - delivered with perfect deadpan comic timing - and perfectly illustrative of the tense strings of deadly earnest seriousness and lighthearted humor that Nolan so skillfully frets us on.

A city under pressure

Nolan doesn't give us a comicized, fake Gotham. It's real. It's in daylight. It's in nighttime. It's normal. It's under pressure and siege. It is a real reflection of a real city, and thus a real reflection of what Batman is really about - us. Real people facing real problems. And that's the dramatic irony that hits home - here a comic book hero is helping us explore the very non comic book issues of our daily lives.

Citizens inspired

Indeed, in one of the poignant parts of the film, a Batman dilettante, dressed in hockey pads and a rubber mask, is being tortured by Joker, and he, terribly scared, tells Joker - "he (Batman) helps us realize we don't have to be pushed around by scum like you." For this line to be delivered by a man who knows he is about to die would be a simple line inserted into the mouth of a superhero. But it isn't a superhero - it's an ordinary man, dressed in the garb of a hero, showing how one man can inspire a movement - that despite the utter unconventionality of a man dressed like a bat fighting crime - that crime sucks and it needs to be fought by people other than police - and the people get that, and respond, with bravery.

The wonders of technology

I wouldn't be a red-blooded male if I didn't tell you that when I watched the 18-wheeler flip and Batman do a wheelie off a building with his sweet Batbike I whooped pretty loudly in the theater. But that's not all Nolan wows us with. Gone are the cheesy ordinary gadgets from the utility belt, hello to the Q-type 007 gadgets of the 21st century. And we do like it, Mikey.


"Some men just want to watch the world burn." Michael Caine's understated and perfect delivery of this now classic line is not only so relevant in a financial crisis precipitated by the spawn of Gordon Gecko, but it's also so very problematic to those of us seeking a motive. Motive, the pure hard currency of those who think reason will carry the day and have no place for the supernatural in explaining crime and wrongdoing. Yes, evil is real. Yes, evil is supernatural, in the worst sense. And evil will not be reasoned with, no matter how dead you make God or how much you mock the constancy of Good and the necessity of its struggle with Evil.

Necessity to protect those we love

Not only does Batman go for Dent instead of Rachel, Commissioner Gordon has to let his family think he has died in order to play the Joker and thus capture him. This is Cincinnatus-like civic dedication. And that's where we know it's a movie, because we don't have those kinds of civil servants anymore, not at any level of federal government.

The contradictions in all of us

Batman - between Bruce Wayne and Batman. Between a playboy and someone who wants to settle down. Between duty and desire. Between Rachel and Dent. Between Gotham and the Joker.

Dent - Aaron Eckhart's brilliant performance really doesn't leave us any room for criticism. White Knight vs. Dark Knight. Truth vs. Dishonesty. Optimism vs. Cynicism. His own self-fulfilled Cassandra-like prophecy: "You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain." Nolan's brilliant ending allows us, and Dent/Two-Face, to see both parts fulfilled.

Rachel - her true love and her real love. Waiting and Not Waiting. Dedication to a man who knows what his life's purpose is - yet he dies betraying it, while the man she left betrays himself to save the city. Juliet, eat your heart out.

Lucius and Alfred - loyal, trusted confidantes. Their very existence also confirms we are in a comic book, yet their genuine, real, and effortless performances are a real treat and a complement to the Bale/Eckhart/Ledger youthful crew.

This is all to say nothing of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard's haunting and memorable soundtrack. The only danger of having someone like Hans Zimmer always doing movies like this is that sometimes you can't keep Batman from blending with Gladiator, which was ultimately derived from Holst's The Planets. But, onward to the so-called "Best Picture of the Year"...

Slumdog's themes:

formulaic love story = boy meets girl....tragic circumstances...separated...finally meet again...girl standoffish...boy steadfast in his love...girl comes around...but prevented by outside forces...finally meet again, and live happily ever after...

poverty in India = as I've said in other places, nothing we haven't seen long before in Gandhi or City of Joy.

good storytelling = Danny Boyle first gave us Trainspotting, so we don't doubt his storytelling ability, but this doesn't move anywhere near as fast as Trainspotting, nor are we confronted with utter unpredictability. In fact, the great weakness of Slumdog is that right from the beginning, we know we are headed directly for a happy ending. And that is its great tragedy.

great soundtrack = A.R. Rahman is well known everywhere but the US, so to say that this music is a "discovery" is like an American discovering the metric system or soccer, both of which seem to prevail everywhere else in the world except with us. In other words, it would be ignorant to call this a "great new sound" because it's been around for ages. We've just been too busy listening to Chris Brown and Britney and the know, our meaningful American anthems.

And this movie beat out The Dark Knight?

Apparently not only Wall Street is capable of incredible stupidity: 8949 Wilshire Boulevard; Beverly Hills, California 90211. That, my friends, is the address of the Academy. Know that there is somewhere else for Stupid to live, should it leave Wall Street for warmer weather.

Overland Park, Kansas

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