Lincoln (2012)

 

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Lincoln, the long-awaited feature by director Steven Spielberg about the efforts of Abraham Lincoln (and his cabinet) to ensure the passage of a constitutional amendment making slavery illegal in the United States.  Starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th American president, with a host of high caliber actors in supporting roles and a screenplay by Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner, it was the culmination of more than ten years of development and production; released in the wake of a divisive election in a polarized nation, its timing has no doubt contributed significantly to the general acclaim it has so far received from both the critics and the public, helping to make it Spielberg’s best-received film in over a decade.

Inspired by and partly based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the film’s plot confines itself to the last four months of Lincoln’s life, when he undertook to force the passage of the 13th Amendment in the House of Representatives before the end of the Civil War.  With the opposition party firmly against the proposed law, and his own side sharply divided, it’s a seemingly uphill battle, and his cabinet, staff, and advisors urge him to wait until the start of the new term, when the congressional numbers will be in his favor; but the savvy Lincoln knows that once the war is ended, support for the cause will diminish.  Therefore he sets his administration to the task of securing the necessary votes- by whatever political means necessary- to approve the amendment in congress before the window of opportunity is closed.  With his attention focused on this objective, he must also cope with pressures in his private life- the ongoing grief over the death of his middle son, his strained relationship with his eldest son Robert, and the emotional fragility and possible mental instability of his wife Mary.  These various situations play out against the backdrop of a volatile and still-rustic Washington D.C., where murky back-room deals, political maneuvering, and ethical compromises are clearly seen to have been as much a daily routine as they are in the modern world.  It won’t be giving anything away to say that the amendment passes, in the end; but the road to that political victory is a fascinating and enlightening one, and thanks to Spielberg’s masterful direction and Kushner’s highly intelligent script, the journey keeps us as engaged and invested as if we didn’t know where it was taking us.  The film ends, predictably enough, with the death of the president on the morning after he is shot at Ford’s Theatre, but it serves more as a tragic coda than as the culmination of the story- which is less about the man himself than it is about the road to what is arguably his greatest achievement.

The fact that Lincoln is an important American film is self-evident (if you’ll pardon the expression).  It is the first serious big screen attempt to focus on any part of the great man’s life in over 70 years (since Abe Lincoln in Illinois, a 1940 adaptation of Robert E. Sherwood’s biographical Broadway play of the same name, with Raymond Massey reprising his stage role), and therefore the first film to address the key subject of his abolition of slavery from a post-Civil-Rights-Era perspective; additionally, it focuses on political and social issues with distinct reverberations in the modern U.S., in particular evoking parallels with contemporary congressional partisanship as well as with the currently ongoing struggle towards recognition of equal rights for the gay and lesbian community.  The brilliance of Tony Kushner’s screenplay lies in its ability to strike these chords without forcing them on the viewer; he devotes himself entirely to the factual circumstances of his subject, focusing on the historical battle over the passage of abolition and allowing the material to raise present-day associations on its own.  He never loses sight of his primary objective, to present a fictionalized representation of historical events, but through the choices he makes about which themes to highlight and which concerns to bring to the forefront, he makes clear the connections between those events and their modern-day counterparts, as well as inviting reflection on the modern state of race relations in America- both how far we’ve come, and how far we have still to go.  Likewise, he brings his dramatist’s sense of practical storytelling to the daunting task of painting a portrait of the title character, a towering and near-mythic figure not just in American political history but in the cultural imagination of the entire world; working from contemporaneous accounts of Lincoln, the man, Kushner endeavors to give us a human being instead of a larger-than-life icon, avoiding the temptation to include recreations of famous speeches or historic moments and offering a vision of a man striving to measure up to his role in a larger history of which he is all too aware.  We see Lincoln’s confidence, determination, and ethical fiber, but we also see his self-doubt, his insecurity, and his difficulty overcoming the strains on his relationship with his family; if at times he seems idealized, or too good to be true, it is perhaps because our jaded modern sensibilities place his real-life actions outside of our capacity to believe in a man whose motivations seem so noble- but Kushner places strategic curtains over Lincoln’s private feelings, leaving us to speculate whether there is a gap between his personal beliefs and his political convictions, and to ponder his possible struggle to reconcile such differences.  In the end, whether idealized or not, the movie’s vision of Lincoln feels like flesh and blood, and if there is any trace of the super-human about him, it lies in his ability to see beyond the personal and short-term needs of the present in order to exert the sheer force of will needed to push the world forward towards a greater ideal.

If Kushner’s vision of Lincoln works- and it does- an equal share of credit must go to the actor whose intimidating task it is to play him.  There could be no better choice than Daniel Day-Lewis, unquestionably one of the finest actors of his generation, whose ability to completely immerse himself in a role is legendary and whose unwavering dedication to finding the human truth of a character is the one absolutely necessary quality to personifying Lincoln.  With it, he is able to maneuver past the pitfalls inherent in playing such a revered figure, concentrating on the immediacy of each moment and capturing the emotional realities that help us reach across a century and a half to connect with a man who exists for most if us only as an exalted image in our cultural consciousness.  Day-Lewis plays Lincoln close to the chest, governing his emotions the way a president must, even in his intimate domestic exchanges, but still letting us see the flickers of true feeling as they rise and fall; he inhabits the character so completely that we cannot help but feel we are watching the man himself, even capturing an uncanny physical resemblance to Lincoln seemingly without the use of elaborate make-up.  Perhaps best of all, he avoids the trap of dwelling in the iconic leader’s somber aspects, instead making him a charming and delightful personality, undercutting his seriousness with an obvious fondness for spinning yarns and making jokes- even off-color ones.  This trait, well-documented and deliberately written into the film, becomes Day-Lewis’ avenue into finding the lightness and the joy in his character, and allows us to like this national hero as much as we respect him.  It is a breathtakingly good performance, so much so that we almost forget it is a performance, and the actor himself disappears into the lifelike authenticity if his creation; rest assured, though, Day-Lewis is there, fully invested in yet another consummate performance that is fully worthy of the subject he portrays and making himself a strong contender for a record-breaking third Oscar for Best Leading Actor.

Though the film belongs (as it should) squarely to its star, the ensemble cast provides uniformly excellent support; every player breathes absolute life into his or her role, no matter how small, giving the entire film an authenticity as rich as the one provided by the performance at its center, and all deserve equal praise- but there are, of course, a few standouts.  Most obviously, by virtue of placement, is Sally Field, another consummate and fiercely honest performer, who is no less fully invested than her co-star, as Mary Todd Lincoln; Field is heartbreakingly real in her portrayal of the high-strung First Lady, still consumed by grief and guilt over the loss of her child, frustrated at the loss of connection in her marriage, and painfully aware- and terrified- of her own precarious mental health.   Her scenes with Day-Lewis exude both a desperate tenderness and a palpable ache, heightening the awareness of inevitable tragedy, both past and yet-to-come, that pervades the relationship, but we never get the sense the two have anything less than undying love for each other, no matter what recriminations or conflicts may arise, for better or for worse.  The film’s other primary co-star is perhaps more of a surprise; as Thaddeus Stevens, the Radical Republican congressman whose extreme stance on abolition makes him both its greatest champion and its greatest obstacle, Tommy Lee Jones is so eminently watchable he threatens to steal the movie from its star.  Bristling with intelligence, humor and passion, armed with a barbed wit and a ready vocabulary, and exuding the masterful, confident presence of a weathered veteran of the political circus, he commands his every scene and catches us unexpectedly at every turn with his thorny blend of effortless bravado and deft understatement; it is Jones, ultimately, that provides the true heart of the film, giving contemporary audiences an access point through his character’s sensibly modern moral viewpoint- which permits him to give voice to some of the movie’s most satisfying dialogue- and thereby bringing home its most emotionally resonant moments through the personal identification we make with him.  It’s a sublime performance, every bit as impressive in its way as Day-Lewis’ work, and proof once more that this solid, likable actor deserves perhaps more recognition than he has traditionally received- Academy Award notwithstanding.

There are others: David Strathairn as Lincoln’s Secretary of State- and close friend- William Seward, James Spader as rough-edged proto-lobbyist William Bilbo, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln, Lee Pace as flamboyant pro-slavery Congressman Fernando Wood, Jackie Earle Haley as Confederate Vice President- and peace emissary- Alexander Stevens, Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant, and a fine child performance by Gulliver McGrath as the precocious 12-year-old Tad Lincoln.  The list goes on and on, but special mention should be reserved for the great Hal Holbrook (who won an Emmy for playing Lincoln himself, back in the ’70s), adding his own particular brand of dignity to the role of Francis Preston Blair, an elderly and influential statesman- one of the founders of the Republican Party- who agrees to help Lincoln by endorsing the amendment in exchange for being allowed to attempt the brokering of a peace deal with the Confederacy.

Aside from its stellar cast, Lincoln benefits from all the blessings that come with being a first-string prestige project.  The period costumes and sets are exquisitely executed, with the patina of genuine, lived-in use that makes every frame look like a real historical photo from 1865.  This effect is aided by the extensive use of location shooting in several key areas of Virginia, where many historical buildings have been preserved and maintained, and by the muted tones achieved by cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, a long-time Spielberg collaborator; watching the film, one can almost smell the mustiness and imbedded cigar smoke pervading the air.  Another familiar Spielberg associate, veteran composer John Williams, provides an appropriately majestic Copland-esque score which conjures an aura of deep-rooted Americana, adding to the sense that we are watching a definitive vision of this chapter of national history.  In short, Lincoln is an example of top-notch, A-list production, containing all the exemplary elements necessary to make a fine film, contributed by seasoned professionals and awaiting the sure hand of a master director to assemble them into a finished product.

That director, of course, is Steven Spielberg, the one-time wunderkind who is now one of the most powerful and influential filmmakers in the industry, the head of his own entertainment empire, and perhaps the most publicly recognizable face of the Hollywood establishment to which he once seemed to represent the fresh alternative.  He has earned that place, without question, with several genuine classics under his belt, from the career-and-genre-defining visceral thrills of Jaws to the iconic adventure of Raiders of the Lost Ark to the haunting humanity of Schindler’s List.  No one would deny his supreme gift as a technical filmmaker; he has molded the textbook styles of influences like Ford, Lean and Kurosawa together with the up-to-the-minute edgy techniques of modern cinema to create his own distinctive brand of visual storytelling, and his best work stands with that of the masters from whom he has drawn so much inspiration.  However, since his 1982 sci-fi/family film mash-up, E.T., The Extraterrestrial,” there have been many critics and audiences that have noted a tendency towards heavy-handed sentimentality in his work, not to mention a penchant for shaping his films around a personal, socio-political agenda.  To be sure, using cinematic trickery to manipulate an audience’s hearts and minds is nothing to be criticized- after all, it is the foundation upon which the art form is based- but it’s a delicate process, and when handled without careful restraint the results can be characterized as disingenuous at best, and as outright propaganda at their worst.  It can’t be denied that Spielberg sometimes gives in to the urge to turn the dial one notch too high in his effort to make an emotional point in his films, and from time to time his methods could be described as “a sledgehammer approach.”  Even his best films have been occasionally marred by this quality, though in his earlier work, admittedly, it is a tactic that served him well; in his more “serious” projects, however, it has the effect, for some, of undermining the feeling of sincerity.  Such a criticism is a matter of taste, of course, but with only a few exceptions, it applies to most of Spielberg’s post-1982 work.

Lincoln, happily, is one of those exceptions.  As if the deep integrity of his subject demanded the use of restraint, Spielberg pulls back on the emotional throttle, allowing the honest power of the script and the actors to take us where he wants us to go, and using his considerable skills to reinforce rather than to assert.  He fills the screen with a rich display of light and shadow, contrasting the somber weight of the 19th-Century environment with delicate and luminous infusions of sunshine and candlelight, using the windows with their lacy curtains to great advantage during interior scenes which evoke the powerful silent film images of such directors as Murnau and Griffith.  There are a minimum of scenes depicting the brutal horrors of the Civil War, but these brief episodes are more than sufficient to convey the nightmare that raged beneath Lincoln’s fatal presidency, constructed with the same unflinching, terrifying realism with which the director filled his WWII drama, Saving Private Ryan; and though the majority of the story unfolds through dialogue, he creates a sense of action throughout with his constantly mobile camera, and- with the help of editor Michael Kahn, yet another frequent collaborator- he keeps a tight pace which drives the movie forward and makes it feel shorter than its two-and-a-half-hour running time.  Most cinematic of all, he conveys volumes of subtext and a wealth of vital plot information through his masterful visual sense, composing eloquent shots and creating powerful montages that fill in the blanks without the need for gratuitous exposition or unwieldy language.  There are a few- just a few- moments when the “Spielberg touch” threatens to emerge; but for the most part, Lincoln is the work of a mature and self-assured director with nothing to prove- a subtle, layered, and thoughtful meditation on history, politics, and morality that never insults its audience by forcing a perspective.

There are those, undoubtedly, that will object to Lincoln for reasons of their own- personal politics, a revisionist view of history, an iconoclastic desire to deconstruct this mythic hero and expose his less attractive qualities.  If you are looking for a film that treats Abe Lincoln as anything less than a national saint, you will not find it in Spielberg’s opus.  Such a film might well have its place, and personally, I would be very interested in seeing it, but Lincoln, ultimately, is as respectful a portrait of the man as you are likely to find, despite its concerted- and largely successful- effort to humanize him.  This does not, however, mean it is somehow sugar-coated, or less than truthful; nor is it one of those “Important” Hollywood epics that reeks of smug self-satisfaction in its pious pretentiousness.  I must confess, this latter quality is what I fully expected, though I also anticipated a transcendent performance from Daniel Day-Lewis; instead, I got the pleasant surprise of experiencing a piece of elegant filmmaking that is as honest and heartfelt as it is significant- a rarity in today’s high-stakes movie industry, to say the least.  Though it may not be the greatest film ever made about American history, or even be Spielberg’s greatest film, it is a far better film than most people likely expected it to be; more importantly, it offers a cultural touchstone, a sort of celluloid monument at which we may pause to reflect upon our national identity- to which this president certainly contributed an enormous share in shaping- and connect with each other through its portrayal of a man whose achievements stand to validate our belief in the very best qualities within us all.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0443272/

 

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Dark Knight Rises, the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, which once again uses a realistic and politically charged approach in bringing the DC Comics hero to life, and puts him into a decisive battle which will determine the very fate of Gotham City.  Continuing in the dark and violent vein that characterized The Dark Knight, Nolan creates an apocalyptic finale for his exploration of the Batman universe, one designed to provoke and challenge even as it entertains; in the process he continues to develop the characters and relationships introduced in the previous chapters, as well as offering up new twists on other familiar figures making their appearances here for the first time.

In this new chapter (with the screenplay written again by Nolan and his brother, Jonathan, based on a story developed by Batman Begins co-writer David S. Goyer), eight years have passed since the “murder” of D.A. Harvey Dent, whose supposed martyrdom in the fight against crime (a fabrication created to cover up the ignoble circumstances of his death) has resulted in legislation that has all but eliminated the criminal underworld of Gotham City.  During the intervening years, billionaire Bruce Wayne has become a mysterious recluse and his financial empire has fallen into disarray, while his alter-ego, Batman, has disappeared, having become a wanted fugitive after taking the blame for Dent’s death.  The city has grown soft and complacent, and economic imbalance has led to a new kind of cynicism in its population; but its greatest threat is building beneath its streets, as Bane, a powerful urban warlord with a mysterious past and a cataclysmic agenda, prepares to enact a master plan designed to plunge it into hellish torment as a prelude to its final annihilation.  Drawn from his seclusion, Wayne must resurrect his Batman persona in order to combat the new danger; but, like the city he protects, his long stagnation has weakened him and created new conflicts within, leaving him vulnerable to defeat by this titanic enemy.  In order to triumph, he must not only regain his former strength and his faith in himself, he must also place his trust in allies- some old and reliable, some new and untested- and be prepared to face the ultimate sacrifice.

Picking up the thematic threads left hanging at the end of The Dark Knight, the Nolans show us that the uneasy compromise of image over truth has provided a temporary victory in the battle against chaos- but the consequences of the choice have taken their toll on our champions of justice, and the complacency of peace has led to its own form of disorder.  A widening gap between wealth and poverty breeds anger among the citizens, while the prosperous civic authorities seem too interested in self-congratulation and self-promotion to pay attention to the signs of danger approaching from without and within; but nevertheless, despite this uncomfortably topical political situation, when disaster strikes it is the result of a long-forgotten threat which has been festering unnoticed all along.  Bane and his plot represent the shadows of the past, deferred but not defeated, a pattern of destruction that has risen repeatedly throughout history; Gotham’s blissfully false sense of security and its unheeded civil unrest have merely provided a smokescreen for the incursion.  The only chance for averting the impending doom lies in facing the truth, taking responsibility, and working together for a common good which outweighs all considerations of ideology or principle.  Contrary to the commentary of some who have seen The Dark Knight Rises as a conservative polemic against the “Occupy” movement (due to the fact that Bane disguises his takeover of Gotham and subsequent reign of terror as a “people’s revolution”), the film in fact hinges, like its predecessor, on the idea that blind pursuit of self-interest is the real root of the problem, and that it is only through a desire to help each other that we can reclaim the power to conquer the enemies that threaten all of us together; the arrogance of the wealthy and the anger of the poor are both used by Bane as the instruments of his rise to dominion, and his defeat can only be brought about by the protagonists’ willingness to sacrifice everything they hold dear for the sake of others.  It’s also worth taking note of another factor which contributes significantly to the threat to Gotham’s future- the seeking of revenge for old wrongs, and worse yet, revenge against an entire population for the actions of a single man.  This is a powerful reminder of a principle very much at work in the world today, and one which has perpetuated the cycle of bloodshed from the most ancient of times.  Further than that, the film suggests through the telling parallels it draws that by ignoring the lessons of the past we are doomed to re-enact a historical cycle that has brought down one civilization after another; in other words, if we don’t learn from history, we can only become history.  To paraphrase an echo from the film which began the trilogy, we fall in order to learn how to get back up; but once we are on our feet again, we must always remember how we fell in the first place- after all, as more than one important character realizes before the end of The Dark Knight Rises, a fresh start is no good at all if you’re not willing to change the way you do things.

Once more, in writing about Nolan’s Batman cycle, I find myself reveling in the complexities of its themes and making new realizations as I ponder how to express them here.  In the end, however, these films- each one of them, in their own distinctive way- speak for themselves.  With his final chapter, this gifted director has once again created a movie which stands firmly on its own merits, building an epic structure on its own individual themes, while maintaining and bringing to fruition the elements of the entire trilogy.  He does it in his characteristically detailed style, full of arresting visuals, fluid camera work, spectacular action sequences, and intimate moments of unexpected emotional power.  He gives full deference to the importance of character while simultaneously driving the complex plot at full speed, juggles themes within themes while devoting every moment of screen time to the progression of the story, and manages a sweeping social and political allegory in the midst of an explosive action fantasy.  There may be those who quibble about his motives, or who take exception to his re-interpretation of the iconic characters and conceits of the Batman premise, but such concerns are, quite frankly, moot in the scope of what he has accomplished here.  The Dark Knight Rises is the final proof, if more were needed, that Christopher Nolan has done what no other director has done before him: transcended the “comic book” genre to create an intelligent, mature and wholly sophisticated series of films that is worthy to stand with the great socially significant films of our time- more worthy, in fact, than most of the self-consciously highbrow self-styled “art” films that Hollywood tries to pass off around awards season.  For this (though he is not likely to win any of those awards himself- the stigma against this kind of fantasy content still seems too strong for that), he deserves all the accolades he has received so far, as well as the satisfaction of his phenomenal box office success.

Part of Nolan’s success with all of these films, of course, lies in the work of the people he has chosen to work with him, and the names in the credits that roll at the end of this one show more or less the same list of usual suspects.  Once again, the design team is headed by Nathan Crowley (this time co-credited with Kevin Kavanaugh as production designers), and once again they have provided us with new and exciting gadgets to go with the old favorites, as well as giving Gotham yet another new look- it’s still a spectacular city, but somehow not so new and shiny, a little worn down and lived-in, and with a dirtier, more East-Coast-urban feel to it.  The locations, as always, have something to do with this, with recognizable landmarks from New York, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles underlining the sense that this is truly meant to be a microcosmic world representing an entire culture; but the look of its skyline, clearly created with some impressive digital cutting-and-pasting, conveys the feeling of a place with a soul all its own.  Wally Pfister’s cinematography continues with the gritty-but-slick style of The Dark Knight while also echoing the sepia-infused tone of Batman Begins, a highly appropriate approach for a film that draws its life from both; he complements the worn-down look of the city with a style that evokes bleakness, particularly in the visually striking scenes of Gotham in winter which come late in the film.  Hans Zimmer, working solo this time, gives us another driving score, incorporating more vocal instrumentation than usual but still, for the most part, focusing on mood and subliminal effect than overtly recognizable melodic sounds.  In short, The Dark Knight Rises gives us more of the same outstanding, exemplary work that made the first two entries in this trilogy so effective.

The same holds true of its cast, comprised again of heavy-hitters; most of them are, of course, returnees to already-established roles, and without exception they live up to their previous work, bringing new flavors to their continued development of these familiar characters and closure to the arcs they began in the first film.  Christian Bale once again proves what a brilliant actor he is with his portrayal of Bruce Wayne; he gives us a new vision of this billionaire vigilante, grown physically and psychologically dissolute through his self-imposed isolation, but seemingly marked more by a sense of disorientation than by underlying bitterness over the events that have led to it.  He also gives his character, which has always fitted him like a tailor-made glove, a deeply personal feeling of emotional connection, building on the previous revelations of his psyche to create a complete picture of this man and the needs that drive him- showing us, ultimately, the good heart that lies beneath the darkness of his sometimes-morally-questionable actions.  We have never questioned it, of course, but he has- and his final evolution into a complete hero, with a clarity of purpose and a full understanding of his motivations, shines through in a way that makes him both admirable and infinitely likable.  It’s the first time I can honestly say I loved an onscreen “super” hero because of who he showed me he was and not because he was, well, a hero.  Michael Caine, as Alfred, has been quietly superb all along, lending his calm, assured dignity to the proceedings and serving as the key grounding influence for Bale’s Batman- but in this entry, he gets the chance to remind us all of why he has been one of the hardest-working actors in the business for fifty years.  His scenes are fewer, this time around, but they stick with you, and the dimension he has given this usually-perfunctory character pays off with some key moments that give the entire series its deepest emotional resonance, proving once more that it is the depth and honesty underlying these films that have elevated them to the level of higher art.  Gary Oldman shines once more as now-Commissioner Gordon, wearied by the chafing of his conscience over his part in the Dent cover-up, and bored by eight years of peacetime- but dedicated as always to his mission to protect Gotham and revived by the chance to jump into action once more.  Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox is also wearier, but with characteristically subdued optimism he gives us a refreshing energy that reminds us it is possible to gracefully endure the changing of fortune without losing one’s belief in the future.  There are a few other returning faces, but many of them are likely to be surprises so I won’t go into them here; suffice it to say that they, along with the rest of the cast, provide uniformly superb contributions.

As for the new blood, obviously there are a few that deserve mention.  Topping that list is Anne Hathaway, portraying Selina Kyle, an audacious cat burgler whose gear and manner make it clear that she represents another iconic Batman personality- though the name “Catwoman” is never used.  She nails the character, with just the right blend of saucy seductiveness and dangerous unpredictability, matching Bale’s Bruce Wayne in a way that no previous female character has done- a significant point, and one which highlights the importance of her key role in the film, as well as the timing of her appearance in his life.  It would be improper to give anything away, but it’s safe to say that she- and Nolan- bring a number of surprises to the table in their re-interpretation of this feisty, feline female.  Tom Hardy, the English heartthrob who gained 30 lbs. to portray the hulking Bane, provides an awe-inspiring physical presence and clearly conveys the disarming intelligence of his character- the trilogy’s closest thing to a “super-villain.”  He manages to give the character depth and even a degree of sympathy with his performance- not just through his voice, but in his physicality and, most importantly, with his eyes, which are left visible by the cruelly sadomasochistic mask he wears in all but one key scene of the film.  Marion Cotillard brings an elegant nobility to the proceedings as Miranda Tate, a wealthy board member of Wayne Enterprises whose dedication to an environmentally-friendly project plays an important role in the developments of the plot, and leads to a relationship with Wayne that becomes closer than he expects.  Finally, Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrays John Blake, an earnest young policeman whose personal belief in Batman leads him to deduce Wayne’s true identity and helps provide the impetus for him to return to the fight against evil; it’s a character that could very easily be too-good-to-be-true, but thanks to Gordon-Levitt he is more than believable, a welcome addition to the collection of loosely-affiliated heroes that aid Batman in his quest for law and order.  A number of other actors make their first- and, presumably, last- appearance in Nolan’s vision of the Batman legend, including Matthew Modine as Gordon’s ambivalent second-in-command, and Willam Devane as the President of the United States; as with the old-timers, the new cast does a universally stellar job.

The Dark Knight Rises, though already one of the most successful movies of all time, has generated a great deal of controversy over its supposed political leanings, one way or the other, and for a violent tone which has sadly been thrown into stark relief by tragic real-life events.  There is no denying the important influence of movies over our real-world culture, and unquestionably, an artist has a responsibility to consider this in deciding the nature of the content they wish to present.  It must be remembered, however, that Nolan’s film is, first and foremost, an action/adventure-fantasy.  Though it may be laden with recognizably current political and social issues, and though it explores questions of morality and social responsibility, these things are ultimately merely the background for a story that depicts a realistic, contemporary world- a tale in which the ongoing conflicts of society are exploited by an outside evil who is an enemy to all sides.  Likewise, by its very nature, it’s a movie filled with the kind of disturbing images of mayhem and tragedy that have been blamed by many for the casual attitude towards violence in our collective contemporary psyche; but Batman is a modern myth, and like all myth it deals in symbolism drawn from everyday experience in order to convey its true purpose.  For all its scenes of brutal combat, exploding football stadiums, and collapsing bridges, The Dark Knight Rises carries a positive message that emphasizes the importance of compassion and the value of human life; it’s a principle repeated throughout the movie, and the intense battle action is a metaphor for the difficulty of the struggle required to preserve these things.  Those who see only the overt content of this film, or indeed of any film, are likely to get the opposite meaning of the one intended; and whichever side they represent in the ongoing debate, they, like the citizens of Gotham who ignore the real menace while they seek to place blame for their troubles and justify it with sweeping generalizations, would do well to look deeper than the surface- as would those who glorify the violence they see there without recognizing the consequences it is shown to breed.  After all, cinema, like all art, holds up a mirror to society, and what we see in it depends on how closely we are willing to look at ourselves.  In the world of The Dark Knight Rises, the ability to candidly face the reality of our problems is our only hope for saving our way of life from destruction; I strongly suspect that this is also a reflection of real life, and that unless we heed the warning that is implicit in Nolan’s film, we may find that out all too soon.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1345836/