The new Batman film “The Dark Knight” had its World Premiere at Navy Pier in Chicago on Wednesday, July 16th, and I was there. The screaming fans in front of the entrance got to see Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and the film’s director and writer, Christopher Nolan (“Memento”) who wrote the script once again with Jonathan Nolan (as they did for “Memento”) and whose soaring vision displays Chicago to good effect.
Much has been said about the memorable performance by Heath Ledger as the Joker, and he may well earn that posthumous nomination and Oscar for Best Actor. Certainly the film is as much about the Joker as it is about Batman, and it also has an added allegorical layer of meaning as it displays Chicago filming sites like the (still under construction) Trump Tower, the Sears Tower, the former Brach’s Candy factory at 401 N. Cicero Ave, which doubles as Gotham City Hospital and is blown up. The fancy party that the Joker crashes was inside the Illinois Center Buildings, Building 2 at 111 E. Wacker Drive. The aerial shots of Batman’s secret underground lair are 1500 S. Lumber St. The old (abandoned) Chicago Post Office at 404 W. Harrison St. doubled for the Gotham City Bank in opening heist sequences, and, in addition to the funeral procession down LaSalle Street and the chase scenes on lower Wacker Drive, there were various location shots at 330 N. Wabash Avenue, which was once known as the IBM Building. These included the Mayor’s office, District Attorney Harvey Dent’s office and the boardroom of Wayne Enterprises.
The movie created about 4,500 jobs in Chicago last year, which meant $17 million to the city. There were more than 300 Illinois vendors involved, from security providers to cleaning and catering services ($22 million in sales).
The political subtext of the script is there for anyone to see and hear. There is the issue of the invasion of privacy, which causes the character played by Morgan Freeman to tender his resignation rather than unethically use a sonar device he has created to spy on the public. (Shades of recent legislation involving amnesty for the telecommunications industry!) Lucius says, “This is too much power for one person. Spying on 30 million people isn’t part of my job description.”
Here are just a few of the politically charged lines: “Do I really look like a man with a plan? I’m like a dog chasing a car. I wouldn’t know what to do about it if I caught it.” This line (spoken by Ledger’s Joker character) certainly smacks of “W’s eight years in office. Ledger goes on to say, “I’m an agent of chaos, and you know the thing about chaos, it’s fear.” (Orange alert, anyone?) Another line that resonated, for me, was: “You should have thought of that before you let the clown out of the box.” Indeed, we, as a nation, should have. The Joker also says, “It’s not about money; it’s about sending a message” and “I’m not a monster; I’m just ahead of the curve.”
Batman (Christian Bale) says, “I was meant to inspire good. Not madness. Not death” as we learn that, in the inevitable sequel, he will have a “bad” reputation, since he is taking the fall for the mayhem another character has created.
Harvey Dent, the crusading District Attorney, is played by Aaron Eckhart (“Thank You For Not Smoking”), who says, “In their desperation, they turned to a man they don’t fully understand.” Harvey is in love with Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), but so is Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale).
Repeated more than once is the line, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to be a villain,” and that seems to be the script key for the next installment of the Christopher Nolan-directed series. Nolan has single-handedly taken the franchise to new heights, aided by truly wonderful special effects, gorgeous aerial photography of both Chicago and Hong Kong (some shooting, also, in London and Cardington in the UK).
Here’s another politically charged message: “I told you my compound would take you places. I never said it would be places you’d want to go.” (The Joker). Another good one: “Know your limits. What’s gonna’ happen on the day that you find out?” How about this one that could well have been uttered by the “Decider:” “I don’t get political points for being an idealist. I have to do the best with what I have.”
There are a few clunky lines that will sound familiar (“The night is darkest just before the dawn, but I promise you, the dawn is coming,” as articulated by D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). There is also, “I know the truth. There is no going back. You’ve changed things forever.” (Ain’t it the truth?) Harvey Dent declares, “The Joker’s just a mad dog. I want whoever let him off his leash.” (That would be Dick Cheney, for openers, and Rumsfield aiding and abetting.) With talk of “a misplaced sense of self-righteousness” and “decent men in an indecent time” where “the only morality is chance” a plot is woven that combines terrific action sequences with great special effects and wonderful music (James Newton Howard).
Again and again, the critics have pointed to the fine acting by one and all. Christian Bale as “the Batman” is set to continue this series and even to take on another sacrosanct movie of yesteryear, playing John Connor in “Terminator Salvation.” Michael Caine, as the Butler Alfred, turns in his always-competent support, and Gary Oldman as the Lieutenant who becomes Police Commissioner is good. But the best is Heath Ledger’s Joker, matching Jack Nicholson’s demented work that preceded this portrayal.
“The Dark Knight” made a record $18.5 million from 3,040 theaters, according to Warner Brothers (distributors of the film), as of Friday, July 18th. That bests the 2005 “Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith” ($16.9 on 2,915 screens) and puts it on pace to clear more than $100 million on a non-holiday weekend, placing it in the top ten.
The movie is beautifully made, finely crafted, well-written, has great music, is well-acted and plotted and…most interestingly for me…makes some strong social commentary, as when we hear lines like, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” You can hear that simply as dialogue from a Super Hero movie, or you can really pay attention to the messages this movie is sending out, loud and clear in this, a political year unlike any other. When supporting players like Eric Roberts (“King of the Gypsies”), Maggie Gyllenhaal (“Stranger than Fiction,” “Sherry Baby”), William Fichtner (“Prison Break,” “Invasion” on television) and the leads mentioned above add their expert thespian talents to the mix, you’re watching one of the best movies of the summer and the year.