Politics at the Movies

Politics at the Movies

The myth of great men: “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Total Recall”

By Malcolm Maclachlan

Writer Salman Rushdie once famously won a word game at a dinner party where the goal was to come up with the titles of Shakespeare’s plays as if they were written by over-the-top spy novelist Robert Ludlum. Rushie’s quip was this new name for Hamlet: “The Elsinore Vacillation.”

Which could have been a working title for “The Dark Knight Rises.” Because said knight rises only reluctantly…and very, very slowly. A haggard-looking Christian Bale spends far more of the film brooding instead of bashing in the title role. For an action movie, it’s a talker: a moral debate between the Dark Knight’s raspy Gavin Newsom growl and Tom Hardy’s helium-voiced nihilism in the role of the villain, Bane. Its low art dressed up in the gravitas of a high-art concept—and vacillates itself on which it wants to be.

When the two finally punch it out, I was reminded of two keys ways that movies differ from real life. 1. The real world is focused on real power, the ability to actually move resources and humans directly just by making decisions. In movies, power is often symbolic: the ability to inspire and serve as an example. This is part of how we can tell that political campaigns consist largely of fiction—all that talk of the (mostly false) power of symbolism. 2. In movies, powerful men put themselves in danger. In real life, they’re safe behind the front lines.

To back up, “Rises” opens on a Gotham where Batman has been in a grief and injury prompted retirement for the last eight years, but where crime has been kept down by the symbolic power of Harvey Dent, aka Two-Face, who allegedly died fighting organized crime. The truth, carefully hidden by Commissioner Gordon, is that he was really on a crime spree when he died. The peace, apparently, is so fragile that it could be destroyed by any dent in Dent’s image.

Never mind that criminals don’t sit around thinking such things. They’re prompted by opportunity, economic need and the perceived likelihood of success (or mostly by booze and bad childhoods). This is a Great Man world, where a headshot of Aaron Eckhart can prevent crime the same way a crucifix can stop a vampire. And to think, we didn’t even need to do realignment.

The stage is set for what turns out to be a rather paternalistic moral allegory. Bane makes the argument from biology, that those who can dominate will naturally do so. He ends up being little more than a reminder that evil also needs a point in order to be entertaining. If he was a true sociopath—say, Chigurh from “No Country for Old Men,” who stood in for the brutal indifference of nature—that might have worked. But we’re eventually asked to redeem this sadist, and after two hours I wasn’t buying it.

Eventually, the 1 percenter superhero must rise and redeem us all. Because, for the most part, we can’t do it for ourselves. In a Gotham where the power of the police has been destroyed and the city isolated, the populace soon turns into Occupy Movement meets Reign of Terror, with stockbrokers sent to walk the thin ice of the Hudson River. It’s the profoundly undemocratic message that hides behind the Great Man concept. In the end, “The Dark Knight Ponders” turns out to be an overlong meditation on moral questions of little relevance to anything we’ll encounter in our own unsoundtracked world.

“Total Recall,” on the other hand, succeeds largely through low (art) expectations. It knows exactly what it wants to be, and pretty much succeeds. This time the great man is Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston), the president of a world so badly damaged by chemical warfare that only England and Australia are still inhabitable. Refreshingly, his genocidal evil comes from a straightforward desire to dominate limited resources.

While Cranston is amazing as Walter White in “Breaking Bad,” here he sometimes seems to be phoning it in. Which is exactly what Cohaagen should have done instead of pursuing hero Colin Farrell himself. As it is, he’s the micromanaging king of a space-age world where he really ought to consider doing a little more videoconferencing.

What “Recall” delivers is some really nice set-pieces—take a chase/fight in a factory where horizontal elevators constantly threaten to take out the combatants. While the look is the same depressing drab as “Minority Report” and “The Matrix,” “Recall” creates a richly-textured future world where the vertical cityscapes take center stage. Its H.R. Giger meets Ikea. When a murderous Kate Beckinsale chases Farrell through it, I found myself distracted by all the neat little urban design touches.

My main complaint was that at times I found myself wanting less of the Hollywood crescendo and more of the quirky, 80s-hued excess of the Arnold Schwarzenegger original. When he discovers that the life he thought he’d been leading is just a lie implanted into his brain, Farrell seems like he kind of saw it coming. Schwarzenegger actually looked freaked out. Maybe he hadn’t read the script before that. Or maybe my own recall has faded to nostalgia.   

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