So this time around, I was really looking at what comments Nolan was making (along with his screenwriting partner and brother, Jonathan Nolan) on our modern world. Once you notice it, it really does stick out pretty palpably. For example, it's easy to say that the film is the story of a city - Gotham - under siege by a madman "terrorist" who calls himself "The Joker;" a man who has murdered several people around the city and is threatening to kill more until the Batman reveals his true identity. This, of course, would be a simple fix if Gotham didn't truly need Batman to keep his identity secret so that he could go on protecting them and living as a symbol of its citizens' right to live without fear. And now that freedom is being threatened - and people are living in fear. What do you do?
The scene that really stuck out for me on this concept was when Batman devises a sonar system utilizing every civilian cell phone in Gotham city as "a high-frequency generator/receiver" to give him ultimate control to see everything everywhere in the city. His trusted accomplice, Lucius Fox, says that the invention is "beautiful... unethical... dangerous."
I think the obvious allusion here (which, sadly, had escaped me until now,) is to the Bush-era wiretapping, email-reading and phone-monitoring that was allowed to occur under the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001. A storm of controversy surrounded the act at the time of its passage and the concept that the government had allegedly granted itself permission to invade the private affairs and conversations of its citizens on the basis of anti-terrorism investigation, obliterating a few very important civil liberties that are essential to what many Americans call their "inalienable rights."
"This is wrong," says Lucius Fox.
Batman says, "I've got to find this man, Lucius."
"At what cost?" he replies.
Batman explains to Lucius that he is the only one who has control of this power, much like, under the Patriot Act, the President is the only one who has control over its civil liberty-invading powers.
"This is too much power for one person," says Lucius. "Spying on 30-million people isn't part of my job description."
Now ultimately, Batman knows this is illegal and unethical. But he believes that it must be used this one time to allow him to capture the terrorist that is plaguing the city. He tells Lucius how to destroy it after it has served its purpose and Lucius is happy to do so, which is all well and good for Gotham City. But it raises a very serious question for our real lives. Is it ever okay - morally justifiable - to invade the privacy of an innocent civilian with the hopes that it will lead to an ultimate justice? How can this power be misused and abused? - for inevitably, someone, somehow will abuse it. And what implications will that abuse have on the future of freedom in America? Is it the slippery slope that some would have us believe, leading our country to a point of vulnerability that will be its undoing? Or is it simply a necessary evil? - the ends justify the means?
And then there's the situation in the film where there are two ferry boats - one carrying civilians and one carrying prisoners - which have each been rigged with explosives. Each boat's passengers are given the detonator to the other's bomb. The Joker announces to both boats that if the passengers of one boat choose to detonate the other, their boat will be spared - but if no one uses their detonators, then The Joker will blow up both boats. It's a classic, diabolical "Joker-style" catch-22. But it's also extremely reminiscent of the Cold War nuclear proliferation conundrum between super powers like the United States and the Soviet Union; both have nukes to destroy the other, but whoever fires first may doom themselves. The Joker says he won't destroy that boat, but how can they trust that the detonator they hold isn't actually the one that will blow up their own boat? Mutually-assured destruction? Hmmm...
Ultimately, even though both sides weigh the pros and cons of "pushing the button", they both decide not to - no one wants that kind of guilt on their conscience, even if they do live through it. In the end, the passengers of both boats decide to have faith in the goodness of their fellow human beings and let the chips fall where they may. In other words, they don't give in to fear.
And suddenly, I've realized that a major theme of The Dark Knight is "enslavement to fear". Go ahead - watch the film again and see how many overt references there are to fear; being free from fear, the power of fear, manipulation by fear...
In the wake of the attacks of September 11th, 2001, Americans were filled with fear; fear of more attacks, fear of death, fear of chaos, fear of war, and fear of a life unlike anything we've known up until now. This fear caused them to vote certain ways, act certain ways, say certain things and essentially freak out. The famous words of a long-past President were brought up a lot in those days - as a reminder - "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." I could argue that The Joker knows this. But he also knows that the people of Gotham have forgotten it; they don't live their lives according to this noble truth. And perhaps he finds it hilarious to dangle the city's biggest fears in front of their faces and watch them scream in horror.
Truly, The Joker is a creature without fear - "an agent of chaos," as he puts it. He happily puts his life on the line, rigging himself with grenades as a threat to his enemies, pushing the barrel of a pistol to his own forehead and handing the trigger end to Harvey Dent in a lesson about introducing chaos into the world, or even laughing maniacally when Batman causes him to flip head-over-heels and plunge 400-some feet off of a downtown skyscraper toward his death (only to be wrangled by the bat-arang at the last minute and hoisted back up). The Joker has no fear, which would be a fairly healthy gift were he not also a criminally-insane, homicidal maniac and completely void of human compassion. His lack of fear is rather dangerous to others, but his points ring true.
The Joker tells Batman how he sees the people of Gotham:
"To them, you're just a freak... like me! They need you right now. But when they don't, they'll cast you out like a leper. See, their morals, their code - it's a bad joke. It gets dropped at the first sign of trouble. They're only as good as the world allows them to be. I'll show you - when the chips are down, these 'civilized' people... they'll eat each other. See, I'm not a monster. I'm just ahead of the curve."
The Joker may be right. "When the chips are down," he says, the people of Gotham will react to their fears, out of desperation. "These 'civilized' people," - these Americans - will turn on one another out of fear and a survival instinct, vote emergency powers to their leaders, disabling their own protections, the laws that ensure their freedoms, and soon... "they'll eat each other."
But Batman wants to help Gotham realize its potential for good (especially if it's through an unmasked hero like Harvey Dent). The ferry boats don't try to kill each other; they don't fall prey to the Joker's tricks. Gotham is growing and under the purity of the glow of the Bat Signal, they find the strength to "endure" (as Alfred puts it). It's a happy ending for Gotham - they're showing signs of nobility, compassion and great humanity. Someday, they city may no longer need Batman, for there may come a day when their fears no longer put them at the mercy of terrorism.
Perhaps, someday, all of America will be so brave.
P.S. I guess fear has been on my mind a bit lately. Earlier today, I watched "The Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear" on the National Mall in Washington D.C., hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert - (a rally held in opposition to the fear-mongering, hate-mongering and mostly ignorance-mongering FOX News Corp.-funded rallies hosted by Sean Hannity, Bill O'Rilley and Glenn Beck and mostly focusing on the concept that fear is a manipulation tool and that we ourselves - and not the media - must have control over our fears in order to maintain sanity.) Jon Stewart gave a great speech about this. Watch it here:
And last night, I stayed up pretty late watching a Netflix movie called Defending Your Life, whose premise was that, in the afterlife, we are all judged in a trial to determine if we've progressed enough to move on to the next world or if we must go back to Earth to learn more about overcoming our fears. Fear, in this movie, is what keeps the "little brains" on Earth, whereas the "Big-Brains" - those who use more than 5% of their brains - progress and go on to a much more wonderful world. In fact, here's a clip featuring the film's writer/director/star Albert Brooks as "Daniel" and Rip Torn as his lawyer in the afterlife, "Bob."