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Tuesday 2nd May: First Tuesday Current Affairs discussion
Discussing First topical issue (Simon Belt) and Second topical issue (Mark Iddon)
|Manchester film reviews|
Reviewed by Ian Betts July 2012
There is a terrorist on a plane. While he and his devoted followers murder its passengers, he shows no signs of remorse, nor fear of reprisal. Explosions dismember the hull and as the metal carcass of corpses falls to the ground, the terrorist escapes promising to wreak only greater havoc.
His name is Bane.
A hulking sociopath of immense will and strength, he is the villain in The Dark Knight Rises, the final instalment of director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. While you may not be familiar with the character and his comic book origins, the opening scene of the film’s depiction of aerial terror plays on our memories of the September 11th attacks, and thus Bane’s assault on American society triggers very real and immediate fears.
As I write reports have been published of a shooting at a screening of the film in Denver, and questions must be asked about how and why this occurred. It would be insensitive and wrong to speculate about this event, but it is fair to suggest that there is something in this film that has touched a nerve in American society, whether it is the mass-marketing surrounding such a block-busting release, or the depiction of brutal violence in a film marketed to teenagers; for whatever reason that may emerge, the film has become entangled with the politics and social issues of the nation it depicts.
And while Nolan and his crew have already been quick to deny pursuing a political agenda in order to distance themselves from the Occupy Wall Street campaign and following protests about Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital company, The Dark Knight Rises is filled with the political and social issues of our time. In fact, his brother and co-writer Jonathan Nolan has compared the work to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities suggesting that he wanted to explore the collapse of society in ‘a civilization that completely folded to pieces’.
Indeed, the Nolan brothers seem to delight in the complete disintegration of modern society at the hands of a tyrant in this film. Bane is an unstoppable juggernaut, a Bin Laden figure leading a ground force invasion of the US. But he is not the only villain. With Commissioner Gordon, Batman has covered up the crimes of District Attorney Harvey Dent in order to keep hundreds of the mafiosos they convicted behind bars. We also learn that the business of his alter ego Bruce Wayne is suffering to the extent that he can no longer support local charities and orphanages, and the billionaire is criticised as a powerful man who has failed to protect the needy despite the means available to him.
Using these failings to justify his actions, Bane threatens to set off a nuclear explosion and, with some other well-placed bombs isolating the city from outside intervention, he releases all the prisoners that Batman has locked up and calls for a revolution, giving the city over to its people to rule themselves. The results are savage: looting, rioting, executions, violence, fear and despair rule the streets. His efforts are enough to bring Batman out of retirement after an 8-year exile, and I won’t spoil here how the much-anticipated battle between these modern-day titans unfolds, except to say that it yields some violent, bone-breaking results.
As Bane battles Batman, an epic ideological war is being waged, with Gotham’s liberated criminal underclass cooperating as a neo-Bolshevik horde revolting against the corporate capitalism that Wayne and his rivals have perpetuated. In fact, after recent events in the banking industry, you may well enjoy Bane’s assault on the Gotham stock market in the opening act where his terrorist cell, in blue-collar disguises as cleaners and delivery men, bully and intimidate the flippant, heartless bankers who are too busy having their shoes shined to notice the men with automatic rifles taking over the building. Their homes are ransacked, and the wealthy men behind the corporations are put on trial as the greedy bourgeoisie who have bankrupted a city. Gotham’s ruling elite faces plunder and ruin unless Batman intervenes.
It is perhaps no surprise then that the Telegraph has already claimed Batman as the ‘ultimate capitalist hero’, saying that Nolan has depicted ‘the plutocrats’ champion, forced to defend his city against the impoverished victims of depression and globalisation.’ It’s an indulgent appropriation of the narrative for political purposes, as forceful and as fanciful as the denunciations in support of Romney; indeed, much of the film is spent drawing attention to the failings of such plutocracy embodied in the corrupt businessmen that Bane colludes with, rather than suggesting that reinforcing ‘established social order’ is the best solution to such extreme social ills.
Still, the film is a resonant contextual commentary, though it does seem a failing of the narrative not to offer a more radical resolution to the siege on capitalism that the story initiates. At a recent Salon event on literature and politics, poet John Siddique criticised Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for being a post-apocalyptic manifesto that seeks to justify the dominance of white Christian conservatism in the US; I think a similar criticism applies here. Batman is a post-modern messiah, ready to sacrifice himself to save the city of his birth and the capitalist free-market system that he has profited from; it is therefore no surprise why right-wing political commentators are desperate to publicise their spin on the material.
Although it is rooted in a reality, we must remember that The Dark Knight Rises is a comic book movie first and foremost, and soon these moral posturings give way to explosive action and narrative adventure. With the aforementioned nuclear time-bomb ticking, there’s only one man who can save the city and on these terms, the film doesn’t disappoint. Playing Batman, Christian Bale gives his most accomplished and nuanced performance in this role as a man consumed by equal measures of traumatic damage and dogged determination.
In fact, the film is full of incredible performances. Anne Hathaway’s slender-legged cat burglar is an alluring, two-faced femme fatale while Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s beat cop John Blake injects the decency and compassion that we fear Batman has lost. For the brief time he is on the screen Matthew Modine is a resurgent scene-stealer as Police Lieutenant Foley, whose self-serving actions contrast greatly with Gordon’s desperate attempts to bring order to the city. However, it is Michael Caine who delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as Wayne’s butler Alfred, the surrogate father figure who is burdened with the responsibility of a life which Bruce holds so cheaply; his tear-jerking pleas for understanding are touching attempts to protect what little of the Wayne legacy remains.
For the final iteration of this series, the Nolans have afforded each of these characters rich story arcs but they are squeezed by the scope of the plot, with a five-month war concertinaed into little more than a single montage that sees the return of Nolan’s feted non-linear narrative style. It is the scenes between Bale and Caine that make you feel something is at stake in the film, as perhaps too often the characters are swallowed up by the scale and impact of the events around them. This is no terrible thing, and the film is a three-hour thrill ride that proves a bombastic finale to Nolan’s trilogy.
It may not have all the answers, but the narrative does function as an allegory about hope and redemption; in fact, the pace of the film and Nolan’s relentless hyper-dramatic directing style creates intense scenes where every choice or piece of dialogue is pressure-loaded with potentially lethal consequences. It is brimming with brutal acts of violence, many occurring just off-screen to satisfy the censors, and with today’s reports, as with the death of Heath Ledger before the release of The Dark Knight, a macabre sense of death permeates through the franchise once again. Nevertheless, it remains a truly iconic work, and Nolan’s greatest achievement is the production of a trilogy of films that is somehow greater than the sum of its parts; a hero’s journey that is deeply rooted in the events of recent history and the social traumas that have damaged and reshaped the world we live in.
As far-fetched as it may sound, Nolan has created a contemporary legend born out of the values and concerns of our time; like the tale of Robin Hood, it expresses ordinary people’s disgust with the greediness of corrupt elites and their desire for deliverance from such oppression. Both are escapist fantasies, but nonetheless are continually revived in our culture and we must therefore recognise the value of such narratives and the interrogation of society that they allow.
The Dark Knight Rises may not offer a real solution to the social issues it explores, but it certainly asks the right questions.