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The Dark Knight Rises Review

July 24, 2012

Note: Of all the reviews I’ve written, this is one of the hardest it’s been for me to write. I was, and still am, truly sickened by what happened early last Friday morning in Aurora, and to paraphrase William Goldman, I don’t know if I could have written something about The Dark Knight Rises were it not for the fact the movie does, in some small way, happen to talk about the way we live now (if that sounds pretentious, I apologize, but I am what I am). I hope I’ll be writing a review and not a tract, but you never know.

Producer/executive Samuel Goldwyn was known for many things in his life; his malapropisms (“a verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on”), his battles with directors and other film people over his penchant for reworking their films, even with his most frequent collaborator, director William Wyler, and the independent studio that still bears his name today. But he’s probably best known for his saying about movies, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” If that seems ironic coming from the man who not only produced The Best Years of Our Lives (arguably the first movie to deal with the problems soldiers faced when they returned home from war), but also promoted it by saying Hollywood needed to find “stories with something important to say, stories that reflect these disturbing times in which we live”, that was Goldwyn. But even today, the sentiment still remains. Obviously, so-called “message” movies can be heavy-handed, more interested in delivering the message than making an actual movie, and come off as smug, not to mention the fact the message often has been diluted so it couldn’t possibly offend anyone. Still, it seems we’re in a time when any hint of an idea that movies (or other art forms, for that matter) should try and say something, or at least reflect, these disturbing times we live in, gets shouted down by the idea movies (and other art forms) should only entertain. “People don’t want to be preached at,” we’re constantly told. “They only want something that’s going to take their minds off their troubles.” Meanwhile, many movies that purport just to entertain are flops, at least in this country (Adam Sandler’s latest), while independent movies that try either to challenge us, or at least reflect the times we live in, are doing well in small releases (I haven’t seen Beasts of the Southern Wild yet, but it’s garnering great reviews and good feedback). So I think the question is a bit more complicated than pundits often make it out to be. Christopher Nolan seems to be one of the few mainstream directors out there who makes movies that not only try to entertain (and succeed), but also try to do a little more than that. Mostly, it’s been to ask questions that have been with us throughout history – must you destroy society in order to save it, is the purpose of art to entertain or to push the limits – yet still affect us today. The Dark Knight Rises, the third (and, he promises, final) Batman film he’s done, is no different, and for the most part, is a satisfying end to his trilogy.

Nolan’s last Batman film, The Dark Knight, came out four years ago, but in this film, it’s been eight years since Batman (Christian Bale) chose to sacrifice his career as a crime fighter to preserve the reputation of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) – who, when he became Two Face, killed several people and almost killed Batman himself, as well as the son of now-police commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) – as the hero he started out as rather than the villain he became. Gordon helped with the cover-up (the beginning of the movie shows him giving a speech about Dent that was alluded to at the end of the last movie), and since then, Gotham has been, outwardly at least, a model of stability. The “Dent Act” has allowed all the criminals Dent arrested, and others, to stay in jail. Everything sounds rosy, right? Well, not quite. For one thing, Bruce Wayne is now living as a recluse in the now-rebuilt Wayne Manor (with rumors he’s become like Howard Hughes), and the physical (when we first see him, he’s walking around with a cane; don’t know if this was in the comics or just in the animated series Batman Beyond, but it’s a nice tip of the hat nonetheless considering what’s to come) and emotional strain (he still misses Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal), as evidenced by the picture he keeps of her next to his parents) he’s endured both as Bruce Wayne and Batman has taken its toll. Gordon, outwardly, has worn the years better than Wayne, even though he now has mostly a desk job, but the fact he’s been protecting the reputation of the man who tried to kill his son is eating at him (his wife and children have left him). Not only that, while he is exalted publicly, there are those like Foley (Matthew Modine), the deputy commissioner, who think Gordon should go (he calls Gordon “a war hero in peacetime”).

And, of course, what neither of them know is they have even bigger troubles on the horizon. For Wayne, at first, the trouble seems to be more interesting than threatening; Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) comes to a rare party held at Wayne Manor disguised as one of the help, and makes off with his mother’s necklace (she also takes Bruce’s fingerprints off the safe, which will become important later), tripping him up in the process. Later, he’s able to spot her at a party, and she warns him, “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches.” Of course, even she underestimates this storm, which is in the form of Bane (Tom Hardy), one of the followers of Ra’s Al Ghul. He intends to finish what Ra’s Al Ghul and the League of Shadows intended in Batman Begins, which is destroy Gotham. To that end, first, with the help of Roland Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn), a crooked businessman on the board of Wayne Enterprises, he bankrupts Wayne. Then, when Gordon tracks some of Bane’s men to the sewer system underground, Gordon gets shot and thrown into the water, though he survives (unfortunately, a speech in his pocket that was going to tell the truth about Harvey Dent ends up in Bane’s hands). Finally, though Wayne finally returns to fighting as Batman, and his first fight goes well (even though the police are now after him), thanks to a new copter (known simply as “the Bat”) built for him by Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) – who now heads Wayne Enterprises – his first fight with Bane doesn’t go well at all.  Matter of fact, Bane ends up crippling and imprisoning him, just so Batman/Wayne can watch what happens next. Bane then ends up destroying a stadium at a football game (as seen in the trailer), and promises a new day in Gotham, where the haves and the have-nots will no longer be as divided. Of course, he has a different agenda in mind.

This is not to say Batman/Wayne is entirely alone. Gordon, of course, still wants him to come back (he even says so when Wayne, in disguise, comes into his hospital room). John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a police officer who grew up in one of the orphanages Wayne Enterprises used to fund (before Daggett cut off the funding), still believes in Batman and wants him to help. Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), a board member of Wayne Enterprises who had been helping Wayne build a fusion reactor to power Gotham, wants to work with Lucius to keep Bane from using that as a weapon. And, of course, while Kyle (she’s never called Catwoman, but she dresses up as her, of course) professes not to care (and in fact betrays Wayne and Batman), she of course is drawn to him, and even if she doesn’t believe Gotham is owed anything, she wants to at least help Batman/Wayne. The question is, is all of that enough?

I should acknowledge at this point when I saw this movie at a midnight screening in Brooklyn, the movie actually was delayed for about half an hour (this, of course, all happened before the horror in Aurora occurred), so my perception was clouded, but it seemed Nolan got off to a rocky start with the movie. After Gordon’s speech in the very beginning, we cut to an airplane in an unnamed country where a CIA agent (Aidan Gillen) is interrogating prisoners he thinks work for Bane, only to find out too late one of them is in fact Bane. Nolan has talked in interviews about how much of a fan he is of James Bond movies, and this whole sequence reminded me a little too much of that, not just because of the action (there’s another plane that swoops down on it), but because the dialogue, unusually for Nolan, was somewhat risible (the CIA agent keeps screaming at Bane, “Is this your master plan?”). Obviously, as I’ve said before in reviewing other movies in general and Nolan’s in particular, I’d rather have a movie bite off more than it could chew than not try to bite anything at all, but in getting to his themes (more on them below), Nolan seems, at first glance, to elide over certain plot points and character connections, making the movie confusing at times (Daggett’s relationship with Bane, for example, or the “clean slate” Kyle is looking for). Finally, while what Bane represents is important (again, more on that below), and his backstory in this movie (which I won’t reveal) is compelling, he simply suffers in comparison to the Joker as a dynamic villain character, not least of which because, with the mask he wears over his mouth (in the comics and the animated series, he has a machine to give him super-strength; the mask in this film, in keeping with Nolan’s grittier approach, helps him survive), he’s hard to understand, especially at first (it does get better as the film goes on). Still, overall, while it isn’t as good as The Dark Knight, I do think this is quite a good film.

Much has been made, in press coverage and reviews, of the film’s tie-in to current events (especially when Nolan planned to shoot scenes on Wall Street – the rest of the city scenes were shot in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Newark, and near Chicago – when the Occupy movement was in full force), particularly a certain idiotic commentator trying to equate Bane with a company Mitt Romney used to own named Bain (never mind the fact the comic book character was created well before the business company was). However, as it turns out, Nolan was using something older as a template, and that’s Dickens’ classic novel “A Tale of Two Cities”, about the French Revolution. While Dickens has been criticized for presenting the Revolution in simplistic terms, and with two-dimensional characters, he also won praise not only for his language (it’s no accident both the first lines – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” – and the last – “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done” – have entered the popular parlance) but for the way he treated both sides of the conflict evenhandedly. Nolan does the same thing in this movie. Obviously, the rich, and many of the authority figures, are shown in their arrogance (when Batman is chasing Bane, Foley wants the cops to chase Batman, even when Blake points out that means they lose Bane). But while Bane, when he takes over, talks about the rich getting theirs, it’s really an excuse for the criminals to take over and set up a kangaroo court (there’s another hidden agenda here, which I won’t reveal). You could say this is Nolan’s way of demonizing the Occupy movement, but I think it’s his way of showing it can be co-opted or taken too far by extremist elements, just as the rich have been. And Nolan shows us the cost of what happens when society breaks down as Wayne, and his father before him, was trying to prevent.

Along with the macro level of what happens to Gotham (and Bane also wants to see this taken worldwide), we also see, as I alluded to before, how everything has affected the main characters on a personal level. Particularly, of course, this applies to Wayne. In many senses, he’s still the scarred child who saw his parents get killed, and Bale does a great job of showing how the guilt of that event (as well as all the carnage he wasn’t able to prevent) and the loneliness have eaten away at him (particularly since, in the latter case, he feels like he has no other choice, especially after what happened to Rachel). Nolan raises those stakes with his relationship with Alfred (Michael Caine); Alfred wanted Wayne to be able to move on from his parents’ death and from Rachel’s (he even burned Rachel’s letter to him saying she chose Harvey), and is heartbroken he hasn’t been able to convince Wayne to do that. As a way of illustrating that, Nolan shows us how the connections he makes to other characters matter to them – Blake recognized in Wayne the mask he put on as an orphan, which is why he was able to figure out Wayne was Batman, while Gordon wishes for Batman to come back because he knows he’s the real hero of Gotham – and, by extension, how they grow to matter to Wayne.

Bale, of course, is the soul of the three films, and he’s very good showing Wayne’s fall and rise here, but he’s not the only one who triumphs here. Oldman, of course, plays the other symbol of good in the movies (though a somewhat tarnished one after Bane reads that speech, Blake, who berates him for it, comes to believe in him again), and is as good here as in the previous two movies, especially in his final scene with Batman. Caine doesn’t get as much to do here, but his scenes are generally heartbreaking (though a scene where he breaks down would have been more powerful without the speech he gives). Freeman doesn’t get as much to do either, but remains dependable, and still dryly humorous (as when he shows Wayne “The Bat” and comments, “And yes, it comes in black”). And there are good actors in small roles, like Modine as the deputy (who redeems himself as the movie goes on), Tom Conti as a prisoner with Wayne, William Devane as the U.S. President, and a few I won’t spoil.

But, as with any sequel with new major characters added, the question becomes whether they overwhelm the new movie, are overwhelmed themselves, or fit right in, and all four major characters fit right in. As I said before, Hardy is under the disadvantage of not only being compared to the Joker, a more dynamic character, but also because, with the mask, he can be difficult to understand. Still, he’s able to carve out his own identity as a villain, and is both fearsome (especially during that beatdown of Batman) and intelligent. I’ve deliberately avoided mentioning a lot about the other three characters because there are plot twists involving them I don’t want to give away, so let me just say this. Miranda Tate might seem like an overly passive character at first, but Cotillard makes her intelligent and believable as a business exec, and she has good chemistry with Bale. Gordon-Levitt has normally played on film characters more conflicted than Blake, but he makes Blake’s good nature believable and innate, while letting us see the scarred youth he hides from everyone else so well. Hathaway, of course, has the toughest job, not just because Catwoman is such an iconic character, but because of all the indelible performances in that role before her (my favorites being Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt on the TV show, Pfeiffer in Burton’s movie, and Adrienne Barbeau in the animated series). Nolan’s conception brings her closer to the comics of the 70’s and 80’s and of the series, that of a thief who nevertheless has standards and feelings for Batman. Hathaway may look small for the role, but she brings sexiness, humor (as when she does to Batman what he does to everyone else – leave quickly and mysteriously without saying goodbye – and he says, “So that’s what it feels like”), and even believable toughness to the role (as when she fights off Daggett’s goons). She even sells the emotional speech she has near the end, considering how much of her character Nolan has to cram in with the rest of the story.

Of course, many people come to the movie for the action scenes, and that’s something that’s been brought up again with the shootings at Aurora; have violent movies like this caused the violence that’s exploded in our culture? I do get upset or impatient with movies that use violence so people can get off on it, as with most vigilante movies, or are cartoonish to the point of pounding us in the head with it, like most Michael Bay movies. However, I think movies (and culture in general) for the most part reflect culture more than dictate it, and I think anyone who shoots up a theater is seriously disturbed to begin with, and didn’t become disturbed by watching too many movies (we’ve seen reports the shooter actually liked Disney movies. Also, as I’ve said before, it’s like saying Hitler became what he was from listening to too much Wagner. I’m also concerned with how the shooter in Aurora got all the weapons he used in the first place, but that’s a whole different argument). More to the specific point here, Nolan isn’t trying to get us off; he shows both the physical and emotional cost of that violence (without lingering on it), and indeed of becoming a vigilante in the first place. And, isolated from this discussion, it should be said Nolan stages the action in a more straightforward manner than in the previous movies, so it isn’t as confusing. I hope to watch The Dark Knight Rises with a better state of mind next time, but from this viewing here, as I said, this movie shows once again Nolan’s talent for great popular movies that nonetheless speak (if only a little) to our world today.

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