Two Genre Movies About Terrorism, A Discussion
"You can't wipe them out... The British Army has been diving about, with shit flying at them from all angles, for the last ten years and you're not impressed? They can take over here any time they want. You won't stop them. To them you're nothing. Nothing. The shit on their shoes!" Derek Thompson as Jeff in The Long Good Friday
"You have nothing, nothing to threaten me with, nothing to do with all your strength." Heath Ledger, as The Joker in The Dark Knight
Batman, the biggest brand in comic books. Batman, a hero drawn on so grand a scale that all film interpretations risk delving into kitsch. And in The Dark Knight we see a Batman movie where he meets, and battles, his most legendary foe. If it couldn't manage to be brilliant, it would be terrible, but brilliant it is. And yet, for the entire length of the movie (minus the sections where the Dolby Digital was crushing all thoughts from my brain) I had a nagging feeling that I'd seen this before, that a bell was ringing in my subconscious.
I've long been a believer that genre-movies, when made by intelligent film makers, can be a far more accurate social and political commentary than their more highbrow brethren. In The Dark Knight the Nolan brothers have drawn The Joker as the ultimate demon of our age — a terrorist with a solid agenda within which random slaughter is just a stepping stone. By presenting us with the most implicitly New York-like interpretation of Gotham City (but then, it always has been New York) that has so far been set to celluloid, the films allusions to 9/11 cannot be avoided. In doing so they have been subject to an intermittent(1) critical(2) drubbing(3), from those who refuse to accept that a genre-movie must have two masters, allegory and genre rules, and in doing so they bleat foolishly "but, but, but, The Joker isn't Bin Laden" (well, duh!).
The film sits in an almost identical cultural space to one I consider among the greatest ever to come out of Britain — The Long Good Friday (1980). Made five years after the 1974-1975 episode of IRA bombing/terrorist activity (often called The Year London Blew Up(4)), there had been just enough time for a commentary on the IRA's campaign to become common-level, TLGF was exempt from the deference required of a recent tragedy. TLGF took the IRA threat and crafted it into a brutally realistic crime epic, a genre that was and remains among those Britain is most successful at pitching to a wide audience.
In terms of narrative arc the parallels between the two films are striking. Both are conducted over a matter of days. In each we are presented with leads (In TLGF Bob Hoskins plays London's biggest criminal kingpin striving to bring his empire above board) whose personal identity has become interwoven with the well-being of an enormous metropolis. At the onset both leads are bent on a city-changing goal (destroying the mob, re-building The London Docklands), which becomes impossible when faced with an opponent willing to use acts of extreme public violence to undermine them. Punctuated by a series of explosions and executions, as each film progresses the lead is required to become ever more base and brutal, until they are stripped of all honour and cover to end the terrorist threat.
The most blatant parallels are in the two "Nothing" scenes quoted above. In each film an interrogation takes place in which the lead, torn by the invisible nature of his enemy's power, faces a voice for his opponent. I won't spoil either, but they hinge on the impotence of these physically powerful men in the face of the enemy within. Both are driven to uncharacteristic, unconscionable acts of rage.
The Long Good Friday is a masterpiece of Greek Tragedy, and when this summer's adrenaline wears off it will likely be remembered as a higher calibre of film than The Dark Knight. TDK has some serious flaws that serve to undermine the whole edifice. Christian Bale's Batman is far less substantial than it was in Batman Begins (he gets comprehensively driven off the screen by Ledger's Joker) and the entire third act of the film is pretty shaky: where the story arc requires a tragic ending the genre requirements need the villain to be defeated. There is both genius and fundamental problems in presenting us with a personification of terrorism who can be defeated. Further, the less said about the heavy-handed mobile phone gizmo/Patriot Act sub-plot the better.
And yet, TDK is intended as the biggest blockbuster of the summer, and thus it is tied far more than the low budget TLGF to the narrative requirements of such... As is so often the case with political genre movies aimed at a wide audience, the politics must take second billing during the barnstorming third-act, and as a genre movie this is superb action and adrenaline.
Are these parallels intentional? TDK is an American film with a very strong English team behind it. In the Nolan Brothers and Christian Bale we have some of Hollywood's favourite Englishmen, and in Michael Caine an actor who has starred in several (Get Carter, The Italian Job, The Harry Palmer movies) of the greatest British crime movies. Even further, Hoskins tried out(5) for a role in the movie. Amongst this team, someone must have noticed the similarities. TLGF is an attempt to use genre conventions to illustrate the reaction of London to the IRA's threat, and this team has attempted the same feat in respect of 9/11 with TDK. It's an approach I respect, and I am surprised that these similarities haven't been commented on elsewhere.
1980 was right in the thick of The Troubles, released to the backdrop of the Dirty Protests that marked the earlier stages of The Hunger Strikes. In the years that followed The Troubles would climax with the Brighton Bombing, when the IRA almost succeeded in assassinating Britain's entire government. The Long Good Friday is one of those classic British films that has somehow been lost in translation to the international market, and I strongly, strongly recommend it... From the first moment of the film, to Hoskins' inevitable descent, this film is a triumph. The Dark Knight is a completely satisfying comic-book epic, and I'm impressed that the Nolan brothers have managed to draw so much political substance into it. To put so much ambition into a Hollywood blockbuster parallels the achievements of Tim Burton's earlier film, this is bound to bring a flawed product — that's almost the point.
Terrorism is a method, and will never go away... That films like this are being made is a sign that some of the burn of post-9/11 hysteria has passed. Unless there is a second surge of terrorist activity (as happened after The Hunger Strikes) then this film is another marker that 2008 was the year we got over worrying about terrorists, and started shitting ourselves about The Economy again.
"What I'm looking for is someone who can contribute to what England has given to the world: culture, sophistication, genius. A little bit more than an 'ot dog, know what I mean?" Bob Hoskins in the last scene of The Long Good Friday