Thursday, December 1, 2016

"The Dark Knight" as Neoconservative War Propaganda

What follows is a transcript of a talk I gave in March 2010. In it, I argue that Christopher Nolan's 2008 blockbuster The Dark Knight is a form of mass-media pro-"War on Terror" propaganda, particularly in how it uses the tropes of melodrama to move audiences to sympathize with its vigilante hero. Since this was a live talk, it is somewhat unpolished -- even a bit melodramatic -- but the ideas are accurate and I stand by them.*

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) as Neoconservative War Propaganda

Christopher Nolan’s hugely successful blockbuster The Dark Knight (2008) deploys the imagery and rhetoric of the War on Terror melodramatically in order to emotionally justify the actions and ideologies of the Bush Administration post-9/11.  As Linda Williams argues, melodrama is best understood as an American cinematic mode rather than a genre, since its conventions can be found in nearly every genre of American film and in American public discourse writ large: “[The] basic vernacular of American moving pictures [and culture] consists of a story that generates sympathy for a hero who is also a victim and that leads to a climax that permits the audience, and usually other characters, to recognize that character’s moral value.” The Dark Knight is a melodrama dressed up as a superhero action film, communicating the moral value of its titular hero through his prolonged status as a victim.**

Batman is well-suited to this task, since his back story is itself couched in family melodrama -- innocent parents killed by a cold-blooded criminal, traumatized orphan son left to fend for himself -- which, according to melodramatic logic, justifies his adult vigilantism: as Jonathan Lethem puts it, "Batman’s losing his parents to violent crime forever renews his revenger’s passport." Further, as Will Brooker has documented, Batman is a shifting cultural signifier that takes on different meanings at different historical moments: a fighter of Nazis during WWII, a pop art/camp icon in the 1960s, a dark vigilante since the late 1980s.† The Dark Knight obviously plays upon this latter iteration of the character, emphasizing Batman's angst-ridden suffering as Gotham's protector and thereby valorizing his existence and deeds, which include unethical anti-terrorist practices such as lack of public accountability, violent torture, and widespread surveillance of U.S. citizens.

As I will demonstrate, by concluding with and melodramatically emphasizing scenes of Batman’s unjust persecution as a criminal by an ignorant yet morally indignant public, The Dark Knight ultimately apologizes for the deeds of George W. Bush, downplaying the importance of public dissent and generating viewer sympathy for the pain and struggles of a right-wing vigilante who gets the job done at all costs. Despite a few key scenes in which Batman’s morality is briefly called into question, and its strong suggestion that Batman and the Joker are far more alike than they are different, the film ultimately undermines legitimate critiques of the War on Terror by foregrounding that, in the face of “agents of chaos” like the disturbingly apoliticized Joker and the easily corruptible Harvey Dent, we need “silent protectors” like Batman who will save us even when we may feel uneasy about their tactics. 

Many critics and academics agree that The Dark Knight has strong neoconservative themes, depicting torture, vigilantism, and violation of international law as the price Batman pays for bringing justice to Gotham city, but few commentators agree on the exact implications of how those timely themes play out in the film. Was the film a critique of those ideas, a neutral meditation on them, or, as I felt in my gut each time I walked out of the theater, an endorsement of them?

Of all the published responses to The Dark Knight I read, the most clarifying was a September 2008 Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by fiction writer Jonathan Lethem, who comments that "a morbid incoherence was the movie’s real takeaway, chaotic form its ultimate content." Lethem sees the film as having no particular argument or cohesive "endorsement" at all, but rather as a "cognitively dissonant milkshake of rage, fear and, finally, absolving confusion." The fact that Lethem uses terms like these -- rage, fear, absolving confusion -- to pinpoint the nature of the film's lasting impact reminds us that this film, like all mainstream blockbusters and the majority of American public discourse, is first and foremost a melodrama, intent upon activating viewer emotions regardless of the logic or illogic of its narrative claims.†† Lethem's "absolving confusion" refers to the excessive, victimized catharsis of melodrama. Reading Lethem's piece I became convinced that trying to make sense of Nolan's film made no sense -- unless I approached it from the point of view of analyzing its emotional impact on audiences, highlighting its use of melodramatic tropes to generate viewer sympathy for its suffering protagonists and their causes.

Film scholar Linda Williams’ explanation of the melodramatic mode is crucial to analyzing the cultural logic of melodrama and its ubiquity in American popular and public culture. As Williams argues in "Melodrama Revised," melodrama is best understood as a mode or loose collection of tropes rather than a specific literary or filmic genre, though it has strong historical ties to sentimental fiction like Uncle Tom's Cabin and women's films (or "weepies") like Stella Dallas (1925, 1937) and Terms of Endearment (1983). As Williams explains, “the mode of melodrama [. . .]  [moves] us to pathos for protagonists beset by forces more powerful than they and who are perceived as victims” (42). This set of structures -- heightened pathos, clear oppositions between good and evil by which we are made to identify and empathize with a suffering victim, and thus to yearn for narrative closure via the defeat of the victim's oppressor(s), is common to all genres of American film and, as Williams argues, to American popular narratives writ large. As she states, “melodrama has always mattered and continues to matter in American culture [. . .]  the sexual, racial, and gender problems of American history have found their most powerful expression in melodrama” (82).

One has only to give a cursory look at the post-9/11 rhetoric of the Bush Administration to see these principles at work. The televised footage of the attacks and their aftermath showed the American public images of suffering families of World Trade Center victims, aided by heroic (and also suffering) New York firemen, all beset by faceless, evil terrorists whose motives were seemingly incomprehensible to us. Melodrama activates the emotions as a means to arouse moral indignation over the plight of its suffering victims. In the case of 9/11, the heightened feelings of righteous victimhood generated by the melodramatic narratives peddled by mainstream news and the Bush Administration were used to foment acceptance of the Iraq War and to foreclose nuanced analysis of the root causes of the actions and political views of the real-life "terrorists."

We can see a similar deployment of melodramatic tropes in The Dark Knight, particularly in two key montage sequences that strive for maximum emotional impact via juxtaposition of music, image, and pathos-laden speeches delivered in voice-over. Note that the montage has long been used to express emotional states and arouse emotional responses: e.g., the "falling in love" montage or the "preparing for climactic battle or contest" montage. Music, usually present in montage sequences, is the melos of melodrama and plays a significant role in influencing viewer sympathies, as we shall see. Through close analysis of these short montage sequences, I will demonstrate how The Dark Knight uses melodramatic conventions to arouse viewer emotions at key moments in its story, which is ultimately structured as a domestic melodrama centered upon the suffering Gordon family and their need for protection against unquestionably evil "terrorists" like the Joker and Two-Face. I argue that the film's emotional focus and final sequence attempt to respond to the question: What kind of hero or protector does Jim Gordon's family need? The answer, of course, is Batman.

The first sequence I want to analyze, just to lay the groundwork for my melodramatic interpretation of the film's ending, is the one in which images of Batman mourning over the crater of a destroyed building (an obvious reference to Ground Zero) are accompanied by a "Dear John" letter to Bruce Wayne read in voice-over by the now-dead Rachel. Note that this sequence is preceded by a quintessentially melodramatic "nick of time" chase sequence, wherein the Joker places two victims in two separate locales with two separate ticking time bombs -- a variant on the classic damsel in distress setup germane to the earliest theatrical and cinematic melodramas.

CLIP: "BURNED DOWN" SEQUENCE (DVD Ch. 25, 1:36:48 - 1:37:54)

The death of Rachel and fall of Dent = unconsummated love, the "too little too late" of melodrama. The two bombs scene even includes a classically melodramatic last-minute confession of love from Rachel. This was the "proper" marriage that could have symbolically restored order to Gotham -- its "white knight" fulfilling his domestic / romantic goals. Of course, this same theme of suffering over lost opportunities applies to Bruce Wayne / Batman, and even more so, since he not only loved Rachel but could have done something to stop Rachel's death, but fails. In the "Burned Down" montage sequence, Batman's failure to stop the bombs in time is rendered in extremely personal terms -- he loved Rachel and is getting a classic "Dear Bruce" rejection letter, and also considered the now-disfigured Harvey his friend. Yet Bruce/Batman's personal suffering and grief are powerfully linked to the destruction of the building itself and the public efforts of the firefighters -- an obvious echo of post-9/11 images of the area around the WTC. Batman's grief is not just over his personal relations but his failure to protect Gotham City, and the deep bass drone of the music, suggestive of a dirge, accompanied by the late Rachel's voice reading the letter, connotes tragic loss, and heightens viewer sympathy for Batman, who suffers horribly (note his bowed posture in the montage) for his perceived failure to thwart the Joker's plans.

Now to move to the film's concluding montage, which unfolds to a voice over by Jim Gordon, recently returned from the "dead" after faking his death in order not to "risk my family's safety."  [Note that Gordon's wife has two lines in whole film but we see her weep plenty.] Indeed it is Gordon's family that takes center stage in the final act of The Dark Knight. The now homicidally insane Harvey Dent takes his revenge on Gordon's family, kidnapping and threatening to kill James Gordon Jr. (Nathan Gamble). Like Rachel, Gordon (and his family) directly suffers at the hands of a madman -- until luckily Batman shows up in time to save Gordon's son and defeat Dent. Immediately following this rescue, Gordon delivers the film's final soliloquy, which is framed as an explanation to his now-safe son about why Batman is necessary.

CLIP (start at 01:11): "DARK KNIGHT" SEQUENCE (DVD Ch. 38, 2:22:23 - 2:23:24)

Whatever questions the film may fleetingly raise about the morality of Batman's actions are swept away -- at least in the emotional register -- by the tenor of this closing sequence. Viewers like me, who are used to maintaining a certain critical distance even when we are to some extent being swept in by the film's emotional siren song, may still feel uneasiness at a moment like this. We may not respond in the exact way the film seems to want us to. Nevertheless, at the formal level, the last few minutes of The Dark Knight are a rousing battle cry to forgive and forget the specifics of what Batman has done, and to feel deep sympathy for this noble, suffering loner who agrees to be persecuted in order to maintain the facade that Harvey Dent was a good man. He and Gordon conspire to lie to the public to keep them safe, and this closing sequence diverts our attention from the political implications of these deeds and instead frames the issue in terms of lone white heroes doing what must be done to keep our children and families safe. That is melodrama: The Dark Knight’s conclusion celebrates Batman’s actions and melodramatically restores him to a place of heroism via his internal suffering and public victimhood.

It is on these grounds that I conclude that The Dark Knight is neoconservative war propaganda, for like all the most effective propaganda, its most potent sequences directly trigger the emotions without necessarily arousing too much critical thought -- perhaps even confounding some forms of critical analysis due to their seemingly deliberate obtuseness. As Lethem concludes, "In its narrative gaps, its false depths leading nowhere in particular, its bogus grief over stakeless destruction and faked death, “The Dark Knight” echoes a civil discourse strained to helplessness by panic, overreaction and cultivated grievance" (2). Like me, Lethem fears the power of melodramatic tropes to overwhelm viewer emotions at the expense of critical analysis and further discussion. He fears the "helplessness" of a public used to being swayed by gut feelings, used to knowing who the good guys and bad guys are, and used to accepting melodramatic self-sacrifice as a barometer of moral value. I fear these things and that is why I fear the overwhelming popularity of blockbusters like The Dark Knight, for it only affirms Slavoj Zizek's contention that "we feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.  [. . .]  [All] the main terms we use to designate the present conflict -- 'war on terrorism', 'democracy and freedom', 'human rights', and so on -- are false terms, mystifying our perception of the situation instead of allowing us to think it."‡ Think it, no. But feel it, yes.

* When I give live presentations I am a big improviser and digresser -- I feel that a certain amount of unplanned, spontaneous side talk helps me keep things lively and engaging for everyone. Therefore my written talks usually contain rough, bullet-pointy sections for which I "fill in the blanks" in the moment. This is especially true for clip analysis -- sometimes I will chat a little over the clip, etc.
** Linda Williams, “Melodrama Revised.” Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory.  Ed. Nick Browne. U California Press, 1998. p. 58.
† Will Brooker,  Batman Unmasked: Analysing a Cultural Icon.  London: Continuum, 2000.
†† If indeed the Gotham City of Nolan's Dark Knight is a version of the "closed world" of melodrama, then Batman's Batpod flight past the camera at the end of the film parallels Stella Dallas' purposeful stride away from the site of her daughter's wedding or Julie's march off to the yellow fever camp at the end of Jezebel. It is an act of self-sacrifice that is meant (in the film's melodramatic logic) to ennoble the victim-protagonist. See Thomas Elsaesser, "Tales of Sound and Fury" in Imitations of Life (Ed. Marcia Landy, Wayne State UP, 1995) pp. 78-9.
‡ Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real!  Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates. Verso, 2002. p. 2.

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