Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Super Delegates: Harvey Dent in "The Dark Knight" (2008)

Aaron Eckhart in The Dark Knight
Welcome to Super Delegates, a bi-monthly column released on Tuesdays and are done in part to recognize politics on film, specifically in regards to Oscar-nominated works. With this being an election year in the United States, it feels like a good time to revisit film history's vast relationship with politicians of any era and determine what makes them interesting while potentially connecting them to the modern era. The series plans to run until the end of this 2016 election cycle, so stay tuned for every installment and feel free to share your thoughts on films worthy of discussion in the comments section.

The Dark Knight
Release Date: July 18, 2008
Directed By: Christopher Nolan
Written By: Jonathan Nolan (Screenplay), Christopher Nolan (Screenplay and Story), David S. Goyer (Story), Bob Kane (Characters)
Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart 
Oscar Wins: 2
-Best Supporting Actor (Heath Ledger)
-Best Sound Editing
Oscar Nominations: 6
-Best Cinematography
-Best Editing
-Best Art Direction
-Best Make-Up
-Best Sound Mixing
-Best Visual Effects
Delegates in Question:
-Harvey Dent

When one thinks of superhero films, it is likely that politics don't immediately come to mind as well. After all, the stories are often simple: good guy wins over bad guy. There's not much to it. However, director Christopher Nolan received countless acclaim for reinventing the superhero film as a political allegory for the modern era when he tackled The Dark Knight. Following the reboot of D.C. Comics legend Batman in Batman Begins, he created a universe that not only felt like a real city, but had a working legal staff and police officers who worked with frequency to keep the streets of Gotham safe. One could easily understand the constructs of Nolan's universe without having to pull outside forces. Gotham feels like a real city down to how it treats crime in the city - yes, even with a man who drives around in a Batsuit.

This isn't the story of Batman and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) specifically. This is almost one that feels like a radical allegory for the America that current Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks of. To understand this, one must first look at The Joker (Heath Ledger): a fairly anonymous, ambiguous villain whose simple goal in life is to "Introduce a little anarchy." He isn't in it for the money. He burns his share when criminals give him a mountain of cash. What he wants is to see the world turn against each other in fear that their neighbor will be the first to assault them. This is most evident in his final plan as two evacuating boats carrying criminals and innocent civilians are forced to consider blowing the other up to prolong their own safety. It becomes tense despite The Joker watching from a nearby skyscraper, hoping to see explosions and misery spread across the city. Batman believes that good will prevail (in the aforementioned incident: it does). 

On the other side is shining light: Harvey Dent. While not a politician in the traditional sense of the Super Delegates subjects, he is seen constantly putting crime in jail. He even manages to shut down an entire operation lead by Carmine Falcone that puts an unprecedented number of people behind bars. He is a hero in the legal justice system. He is the one making all of the difference. He is also dating Bruce Wayne's former girlfriend Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal), which causes a bit of a riff between Bruce and Harvey as they meet for dinner. During the session, Harvey claims the unfortunate reality of what's to come: "You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain." At no point early on does Harvey strike viewers as being the villain - even with rumors that criminals call him the prophetic Two-Face.

As The Joker targets government officials and murders people simply to get Batman to give up his secret identity, the tension rises and the mentally unstable are used as decoys for The Joker's unknown plan. There is an ecstasy to him as he blows up a hospital. Then, in the moment that turns the film into an actual political allegory, The Joker kidnaps Harvey and Rachel and places them at opposite ends of town with intent to have them die in an explosion. The survivor is Harvey, whose face gets drenched in gasoline and causes partial face destruction that leaves him scarred, turning him bitter as he recovers in a hospital room. He is there visited by The Joker, who manipulates Harvey into being just as ruthless as he is. In some respects, Harvey is a little less hostile in that he leaves life up to a coin flip, shooting whoever chooses the wrong side.

It may be a crude analogy, but The Joker does come across as a far more intelligent and maniacal version of Trump. His reasoning doesn't make sense, but he intends to destroy the world in favor of his own benefit. He believes that spreading fear will make people loyal to him. He goes after the biggest candidates and destroys them morally. Speaking as Trump bullied his way into the Republican nomination, it is easy to see Dent as the purer candidates who couldn't withstand the scrutiny of a man who could do the most embarrassing things imaginable and still end up on top. One could look at last year when Trump first announced his bid for the candidacy. News anchors were laughing, believing that maybe Jeb Bush would get that nomination. Anyone but Trump was in runner up. Then it was down to the only candidate as scuzzy as him: Ted Cruz. By then, it was about destroying other people's morals just to have more power than them.

The Dark Knight feels covertly relevant to the 2016 election because it does feel like there's a certain deception that has leaked out of the candidates. Trump is more likely to get called out on his lies while Hillary Clinton is accused of lying about her own health. The optimistic eye seems to be fading much like Batman's hope for ever removing crime entirely. Try as hard as you want, but sometimes you have to get your hands dirty and do some questionable things just to keep reputations in tact and others from worsening. Politics are a confusing field, and it does feel like The Joker is throwing curve balls left and right to make candidates look awful and make the promise of hope seem nonexistent. As Alfred (Michael Caine) once says "Some people just want to watch the world burn."

Harvey ends the film a murderous freak, wishing to kill Jim Gordon's (Gary Oldman) family. Batman interferes in time, leaving Harvey dead. Batman is now a murderer in the eyes of Gotham, but Harvey's reputation is kept in tact. He is a hero and even in the sequel, The Dark Knight Rises, he is hailed as a man who made the city better. The argument could be made that as dirty as politics can be, there are those who do their best to keep the candidates with promise looking pure while ruining their own reputation. There's probably a correlation to the 2016 election season, but it isn't clear at this moment. For now, The Dark Knight perfectly symbolizes the struggle between good and evil, and how important it is to remain honest and truthful in times of crises. 

Even if this is a stretch, The Dark Knight works on a deeper level because it is more than a superhero film. It is like a Michael Mann film that has bank heists and car chases. It has intense stand-offs in interrogation rooms. The Joker has a methodical, if inexplicable, plan. It's most of all an unintentional political thriller that wants to say a lot about the modern state of the justice system. There are heroes who make a difference, but it's difficult to keep that clear eye when so much evil is being thrown at you. Harvey was depicted as a saving grace that fell under pressure. Does that make him less of a hero? It's hard to say. Whatever the case may be, there's a reason that Nolan's 2008 film holds up. It's not just an expertly written superhero film. It's a moral and political tale that resonates in ways few superhero films before or after have. It wasn't about being a "gritty reboot." It was about having something deeper to say about what heroes actually are.

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