The Dark Night - Art in the Age of George W. Bush

Jeff Alworth

About halfway through Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, I was pretty sure I was going to write a post about what a creepily close allegory it was to the state of the world in 2008.  Dark_knight_2 Consider the set-up: a lunatic (the Joker) is on the loose and he's bent on upsetting established order on both sides of the law.  His strength is that he only wishes to create chaos and sew fear; power and money mean nothing to him.  Sound like any bearded cave-dweller you know?  The allegory grows richer.  As the forces of good try to contain the Joker's mayhem, a familiar debate emerges: is it permissible to bend the rules just a bit to contain this evil, or must good always be good?  Batman stands as rule-bending America, prepared to put the hurt on terrorists to re-establish order.  But he recognizes that darkness may beget only darkness.  The dark knight isn't sure how to turn on the lights.

Turns out it's not finally allegorical.  The plot of Gotham's war on the Joker deviates about three-quarters of the way through from the US's war on terror.  But the resonances are profound.  I don't want to give away major plot points--the movie's the most satisfying blockbuster since T2, and even liberal elites should put down their offensive New Yorker's long enough to catch a matinee--but the movie is a meditation on the effort of a population to save its collective soul in the midst of chaos and war.

Art always reflects society, intentionally or not.  In the past few years, we've seen a number of documentaries about the war on terror and Iraq, and even a couple movies that overtly addressed it.  But sometimes, it's the movies that don't even intend to comment on these themes that offer the sharpest critiques.  Torture is now a part our our consciousness.  Our society has passed from the pre-Bush naivete of thinking Americans couldn't torture, to a morally-unconflicted embrace of anything that would keep us safe, to 2008, when we're not sure that what we lose by torturing is worth what we get.  Torture has slid into that uncomfortable, murky place politicians fear.  Art, on the other hand, lives in those dark corners and keeps making us think.

This is not a movie about easy choices.  Contrast that with the administration of George W. Bush, which has been built on the fools-gold of easy choices.  Bush said heroism was easy, war was easy.  He said any action is better than the inaction of consideration. The consequences of this childish view have delivered us to our present murkiness.  Like Batman, we're no longer so certain if we're the hero or the villian. But outcome of the Dark Knight is simultaneously darker, more knowing, and weirdly, more hopeful than where the US has ended up.  I won't give it away, but go have a look.  It's a fascinating comment on our current predicament.  If our leaders won't have us consider these disturbing things, leave it to the artists.

  • Brian Langeman (unverified)

    Just came across this article. It's funny how two different people can come out of the same movie with completely different takes on the themes. I've seen The Dark Knight 3 times now, so I am quite familiar with the whole story by now.

    One Of my favourite scenes is just before Bruce is going to turn himself in and is talking with Alfred. Alfred is telling Bruce how Batman can be the one who makes the hard decisions. He tells him how he shouldn't turn himself in, how he shouldn't give up, how he should endure the pain and suffering. Alfred tells him how people will hate him, but he should endure and make the hard decisions, the right decisions.

    I'm not even American. I'm a Canadian. It definitely seems though that a lot of the world, and a lot of the US hates that the Bush administration went into Iraq. I don't think going to war and losing tons of soldiers, people, is an easy choice. It seems to me like one that no one else is willing to make.

    I'm not saying that things have been fixed in Iraq, but I think it's better off without Sadam in charge over there. I see the similarities in The Dark Knight as sympathizing towards the "war on terror" rather than criticizing it. But that just shows you how art can mean lots of different things to different people depending on their perspectives.

  • Miles (unverified)

    I haven't seen the movie so can't comment with first-hand knowledge. However, yesterday on Fresh Air (NPR), they interviewed Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale and specifically asked if it was intended to loosely parallel the American experience in Iraq. Nolan responded that they consciously try not to insert parallels when making/editing the film, because it would be a violation of the genre and would generally not be well-received. He said instead, they were trying to tap into a much broader human fear, the fear of anarchy and the collapse of the systems we live by. He admitted, however, that afterwards, from an "objective" viewpoint, he could see the parallels, but that they were accidental.

    I only heard the last six or seven minutes of the interview, but it's worth a listen.

  • (Show?)

    Brian, I wasn't suggesting that the movie was necessarily taking one position or another. But this seems very clearly like a post-Iraq movie. I can't imagine it's the movie Nolan would have made ten years ago. Our experience is so informed by everything that's happened since 2001.

    Miles, I'll definitely check that out. My sense in watching the movie wasn't that it was an intential allegory. It's just so steeped in the current stuff. It was in some ways not escapism at all. Nolan hasn't made a comic book movie, he's made a graphic novel movie. He dealt neatly with the antiquated sense of the Joker--his mask-like face isn't cartoonish here, it's realistic, a believable manifestation of insanity.

    Really a nice piece of work.

  • Paolo (unverified)

    Brian says:

    I see the similarities in The Dark Knight as sympathizing towards the "war on terror" rather than criticizing it. But that just shows you how art can mean lots of different things to different people depending on their perspectives.



    But Jeff has distorted glasses and sees only what others can"t see.


    Obama knows best. Run away. Quit. Pull the troops out. Hurry, quit before we win.

    Post Iraq world view.

    Blah blah blahhhhhhh.


  • (Show?)

    Miles, I was about to post that but then read your comment. I haven't seen the movie either but the interview was interesting regardless.

  • (Show?)

    I saw this film yesterday. Its really quite amazing.

    I'm not sure I agree with Jeff's allegorical analysis of the piece..but I'm not sure that matters. Good filmaking makes us think. And because we all bring our own ideas and experiences to it, great films (like this one) can engender different outcomes for the moviegoer.

    I will say this: Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker is a triumph. You absolutely cannot take your eyes off of him whenever he appears on screen.

  • Just me (unverified)

    Excellent observations, Jeff. I agree with you.

    I was really intrigued by the concept that good and evil need each other, that neither can bring itself to destroy the other. That is a concept that many other cultures have embraced, but in our culture, which is so heavily influenced by the Judeo-Christian traditions of good ultimately conquering evil and the establishment of a perfect paradise, this is a novel perspective for many.

    The danger of this perspective is a point I saw in the film. When good becomes too powerful, then evil must also ramp up its efforts in order to maintain balance. The extremes of both are terribly unsettling.

  • sleepneat (unverified)

    Why does everything have to do with Bush?

    Oh my God, the U.S. is in chaos and lost her standing in the world, no one is coming here anymore. We are so hated that even the Illegals are going to Nigeria instead of crossing our borders. No enlightened person even admits an American identity, instead they claim Canada as their home.

    Are you Blue's for real? An easy choice to go to war and put our military in harm's way? Take something now for that Bush Derangement Syndrome, Jeff, it will eat you alive if you let it.

  • b (unverified)

    the movie capitalized on people's fears by tapping into todays political climate. everyone seems hesitant to acknowledge that the movie drew parallels to, and justified bush's unlawful and deceitful policies. Batman used wiretapping and torture to find the joker and the filmmakers seemed to be saying "in times of stress you need to break the law and deceive people to get the job done". It's a bad message to send and I'm frankly surprised that people are so dismissive of the awful ramifications of this subtle brainwashing technique. I wanted to enjoy the movie, but the political angle it took ruined the film.

  • nitsua (unverified)

    b - Sure, and the 'conservative' media is out to get Obama too.

    The political angle certainly ruined the movie. The terrorists on the boat were more moral than the business man on the other boat. Yeah, that was realistic.

  • Michael T. (unverified)

    The point to "Batman/The Dark Knight" was not to herald George W. Bush but rather to illustrate a principal character who suffers from inherent flaws. Don't mistake this full length feature as an endorsement of an administration for its "combat" of terrorists who originate from the Middle East. Why? Because although "The Dark Knight" may elicit praise as compelling cinema- the most astute who occupy the audience will recognize that the "hero" himself shares several similar aspects to the villian. In addition- Batman is in part responsible for victimization of those he intends to protect. If a direct parallel can be drawn between the fictional Batman and "W"- he is then the hero we deserve (due to more than fifty million votes cast on the latter's behalf in both previous presidential elections) instead of one that we need (i.e. the candidates who were once his opponents). By the way- can the Batman claim a legitimate victory at the conclusion of "The Dark Knight" anymore than this administration can in Iraq?

  • George (unverified)

    Michael T:

    From what I understand, you think that "The Dark Knight" might possibly contain the Bush/Batman parallel, but that parallel would be limited to saying Bush is the hero we deserve. I think the main point of your post is that you don't see Batman/Bush heralded as the hero, because he is protrayed as having "similar aspects to the villain". Please correct me if I'm wrong. I would like to comment on why I disagree with you on several points.

    Batman is portrayed as Bush through the use of wiretapping, torture, kidnapping of foreign nationals without due process, and falsifying the circumstances of Harvey's death, as ways to catch the Joker. The Joker is portrayed as a terrorist through his actions including videotaping his hostages, never explaining a motive except for his hatred of Batman, and blowing up buildings in a manner that is reminiscent of 9/11. There are also full scenes in the movie that can be seen as allegories including the ferry scene (pre-emptive strike) and the people demanding Batman's unmasking (Americans demanding an end to the war in Iraq). The bad side to all this is that it does in fact "herald" Batman/Bush as a hero because the writers imply that his actions were a necessary evil to catch the Joker. Their allegory tries to justify Bush's unlawful and deceitful policies by painting a false picture of his administration. Through recent findings of the Senate Intelligence Commitee, we now know Bush lied about Iraq to start a war, that he has created secret off-shore prisons to torture people, and that he has broken the law by wiretapping American citizens without a warrant. He is not a president to be praised, if anything he should be tried in a court of law. "The Dark Knight" is part of the propaganda that saturates our media today, but it is especially bad because it tries to justify actions that have cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Please respond back, as I would enjoy talking about this more with you.

  • EAS (unverified)

    So many points have been made....but I'll stick to only one perhaps worth noting: Batman's treatment of the Joker in the "interogation" room.

    As evil/manical as the Joker is...does he deserve that type of treatment? (abuse by Batman)

    Did the harsh treatment of the Joker in the interogation room result in valuable information being revealed?

    And does it bother us that Batman physically abused the Joker? Was it acceptable and/or is it something we should turn a "blind eye" to?

    In many ways, the Joker interrogation scene may partly parallel the treatment of high-level terrorists in U.S captivity. We can accept the treatment in a movie...but not in real life. After all, we saw the Jokers evil acts and can therefore justify the abuse whereas we are unsure if current captive terrorist are just that, "terrorists," (since we don't have a cinescope view of their activities). Then again, our government agencies just might have that "cinescope" view of terrorist activities...and perhaps that should be enough to assuage our "guilt."

    No easy answers and perhaps no absolutes...but inaction is rarely a way to get results.

  • tcat (unverified)


    Not that you are a person to reason with....but what lie did Bush tell to go to war? WMD? He had the same intelligence as Britain, Spain, Russia, etc. Did they lie too? He made a decision based on the info he had at the time. Turns out the info was wrong, but that doesn't mean he lied. Bush also gave all the reasons for going to war....mainly bringing democracy to a major player in the Middle East....changing the face of the ME and the attitudes they have of the West. People living in freedom are less likely to work at destroying you. Just because the media focused on WMD, doesn't mean Bush did. Go back and read his speeches he gave leading up to the war...wmd was a point, but not a main focus. I wouldn't want you to go to top much trouble researching the Is best you let the NYT tell you what to think.

    The secret off shore torture chambers? Should he draw a map and publish it in the NYT? Make it easier for the terrorist so they be sure to blow it up? And what is torture? Waterboarding? Hooking electrical cables to genitals? Pulling out fingernails? If making someone stand in the cold for hours gets them to cough up info, so be it. I'm pretty sure if I asked you if waterboarding a terrorist got them to give up info that could have prevented 9-11, you would say it's not worth it. Allowing 3000 innocent people die is ok so long as we don't discomfort the poor little terrorist. That would make us bad....and Europeans might not like us....or better yet, the Muslims trying to kill us all. We should be holding tea parties, talking and "understanding" them. Maybe hold hands and sing some songs about peace and love. After all, they seem like people you can reason with.....they're just like you and me.

    What American citizen did he wiretap without a warrant? Do you have a name? No you don't....because it didn't happen. Bush has gotten the warrants needed and was granted the by the court. He asked for a provision to overide the warrant in time sensitive cases. That's how that whole thing came to light. And he is not listening in on your call to dominos pizza. They are suspected terrorist hiding in plain sight in this country. Should he ask their permission to listen in on their calls as they plan the next terrorist attack against us? You think they will give? Golly, I hope so....keeping my fingers crossed.

    Bush may be hated now...but he will go down in history as one of the best presidents. Once time has passed and people are no longer emotional about these issues and study the facts, Bush will be seen in a different light. Lincoln was hated, vilified and not popular during his presidency (you do know your history, right?) was FDR, and Reagan. It was only years later, when the facts were reviewed and these men turned out to be correct, that we hold them in high regard. The same will be true for Bush.

    I have 2 questions for you:

    1. How many terrorist attacks have we had since 9-11? Shouldn't that be the mesurement we use to determine if we are beating the terrorist?

    2. Whose side are you on?

  • George (unverified)

    EAS- I would agree with you about calling torture into question, both in the movie and real life. I think forums like these are excellent ways to discuss current events.

    Tcat- Thank you for your post, I would like to comment on some of the issues you raised. Bush lied about the threat of Iraq in order to get us into the war. The 2002 NIE report from the CIA was given sent to the Bush administration and the Senate on October 1. It stated that Iraq would only attack us if we attacked them. A few days later, Bush went on TV and told us that an attack from Iraq was an imminent threat. This contradicts the information he was given by his own intelligence agency. That is only one of the lies he told. Check out Vincent Bugliosi’s book “The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder”. That goes into detail on many of the lies President Bush told.

    You also say that a valid reason for going to war is to bring “democracy to a major player in the Middle East”. I would like to qoute from Bugliosi: “In Bush’s report to Congress on March 19, 2003, the day the war began, he spoke of nothing else but Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and our national security. There wasn’t even a hint or mention of any other motive for war.” For you to say that “wmd was a point, but not a main focus,” shows me that you have not researched this subject thoroughly. Your tone is quite laughable when you say “I wouldn't want you to go to top much trouble researching the Is best you let the NYT tell you what to think”. For you to label me as someone who relies on the NYT for my news shows me that you think in strict liberal/conservative terms. I’m not trying to tear down the republican party or conservative ideals. I just think that Bush is a bad president because of the lies and crimes he has engaged in.

    In your second paragraph, I see you try to justify the secret torture prisons. Your reasoning is that to talk about them in public would reveal their location to the enemy. Actually, I think they had to keep them secret because these camps violate international human rights laws. Simulated drowning is not the only thing they do to these people. They humiliate them through desecration of the Koran and they force the inmates to watch and participate in humiliating sexual scenarios that are in direct contrast to their strict religious beliefs. Then you make some sarcastic comments that imply the only alternative is to have “tea parties” and sing-a-longs with the inmates. I would like to know what news media you get your current events from. I’m not sure if you were being sarcastic at the end of the paragraph, but I truly do think that they are people you can reason with, just like you and me.

    Next is your justification for the illegal wiretaps where you claim it just “didn’t happen”. There is indeed a scandal about illegal wiretaps. Bush claims it was necessary to keep the program secret in order to find terrorists. Bottom line is, he should have gone through the courts. You sarcastically suggest that the alternative is to call up the people being spied on to ask their permission. Do you really see the debate in such stark terms? It’s obvious to me that Bush should have gotten warrants through FISA and used wiretaps legally, instead of breaking the law by doing it secretly.

    I doubt Bush will “go down in history as one of the best presidents”. His presidency has quietly taken away many of our civil liberties. You claim Reagan is a misunderstood president and is actually really great. You should read a little about Iran-Contra and the lies Reagan told to America during that whole scandal. (If you didn’t already know, Iran-Contra was about trading weapons to Iran in exchange for hostages). As for your direct questions:

    1) No, I don’t think the lack of terrorist attacks since 9/11 is a measurement we use to determine if we are “beating the terrorist”. Beating the terrorist is such a nebulous concept that I don’t think the lack of attacks can be used as a rubric for success. We have to understand why people are resorting to terrorism in order to counter it. It goes beyond the old “they hate our freedoms” argument. I think there is a lot of hostility towards the U.S. and Israel because we are seen as western invaders who persecute the Arab population of the Middle East. To beat the terrorist state of mind, we have to examine the root causes of this conflict and work on a compromise to reconcile these two states of mind.

    2) I am on God’s side, whose side are you on?

  • SLH (unverified)

    My husband & I just saw this yesterday...and first and foremost it's just really well done movie in terms of writing and acting. While it may not be the deliberate political allegory that (for example) The Wizard of Oz was, it does reflect current moral issues, with writing and directing solid enough (great parallel structures, great set-ups/pay-offs, continuity, etc.) that it is very easy to draw an allegorical picture of current politics.

    Since two of the major themes in the story are the duality of human nature and what defines good versus evil, it stands to reason that one character can reflect both the negative and positive things happening today, and that readers and viewers who are pro current policy and anti current policy can see support for their beliefs in these characters (and in the same character).

  • George (unverified)

    To SLH, in your post you state that the movie may not be a "deliberate political allegory" but it "does reflect current moral issues." I believe that the film was in fact a direct political allegory for these reasons: First, Batman uses wiretapping, torture, and lying to the public about someone's death in order to win the war on crime. These are direct allegories to the lies and crimes of the Bush presidency. Next we have the Joker who is descibed as a terrorist within the movie. He has no motive other than hatred of Batman. He also blows up buildings and videotapes his hostages, much like an Islamic fundamentalist. There are many other direct parallels to the war on terror. I would like to know your opinion on why these themes were so prevalent. My view is that the producers of "The Dark Knight" used these allegories to justify the unlawful policies of Bush, and to protray these crimes as necessary evils to win the war on terror. I think it's more than a film on "the duality of human nature." I have shown that there is a direct Batman/Bush, Joker/terrorist allegory being used in a very specific way, but if you would like to talk more about this, I would be happy to discuss it.

  • Wilbur (unverified)

    George & All:

    Batman is not a hero in this movies. I believe the movie challenges you to think for yourself and stop believing in the false idol (Batman). I think he truly becomes an evil or "dark knight."

    The allegories are presented, but not to justify them.

  • RKP (unverified)


    Never heard Bush say "...heroism is easy. War is easy."

    I've heard him talk about the dying and wounded heroes (easy? hmmm...); how sending our young men into war was the hardest thing any President could do. And many have done it before Bush for far less convincing reasons than toppling a tyrant.

    Your article boils with political partisanship.

    But,'s YOUR article. That's what you can do when you have freedom of speech and of the press. Gee...dontcha wish everyone did?

  • Matt Love (unverified)

    Doesn't anybody get it? The Joker is Bush, the biggest terrorist, the most extreme force of chaos in the world.

    Omar Khadr is Batman. His situation is exactly like a superhero origin story. He's being tortured by maniacal bad men, just like Tony Stark. His tormentors were commies. Khadr's tormentor is Bush.

    The despicable and repugnant Stephen Harper is Two Face.

    Go see it again. It will all make sense. It will still be bloated, stupid, and loud, but it will be understandable.

    BTW, "characters you can care about?" C'mon, who besides me cheered when Lois Lane or whatever they called her got blown up? The only thing that would have been better is if they did it sooner, so Mrs. Cruise was the one getting so bent out of shape.


connect with blueoregon