Watched Jun 17, 2005
In the months following Sept. 11, as pundits relaxed into their reflexive patterns of disdain, a common question was how long it would take for Hollywood to Hollywoodize that day's tragedies. The answer turns out to be 45 months, as June features two blockbusters — each with the potential to be the season's biggest moneymaker — that recast Sept. 11 with just enough creative distance to pass as mere popcorn accompaniment for the class of viewers who expect so little.
The later of the two blockbusters, War of the Worlds, will remain unseen for a week or so, but the trailer makes plain its intention to dramatically synthesize both the attack on New York and the siege of Fallujah. Its success at interweaving these ideas into a mass-audience movie is yet to be determined, but it is unlikely to surprise in this regard as much as Batman Begins. Directed by Christopher Nolan and written by Nolan and David S. Goyer, the movie shoots the moon in its first 20 minutes, suggesting Bruce Wayne developed the ability to be Batman because he was trained by al Qaeda.
They're not called al Qaeda, of course; they're not even Islamic fundamentalists. They're called the League of Shadows, a secular secret society of assassins that has historically taken it upon itself to demolish decadent cultures that have become too corrupt to administer justice. (At one point, they take credit for plague rats.) Bruce, famously orphaned by street violence and traveling the world to learn how to become the vigilante he thinks Gotham City needs, allows himself to be recruited out of a Bhutanese prison by Ducard (Liam Neeson) and taken to join the league, headed by Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), who looks every bit the classic Asian wrongdoer as much as Osama bin Laden fulfills his stereotype. After a few months practicing ass-kicking, Ra's reveals his master plan: to use Gotham's favorite son as the instrument of its destruction — the Fu Manchurian Candidate. Bruce makes the case for compassion and extends Lot's bargain, assuring the league that there is still good in Gotham; it's this schism that leads him to reject the jihadists.
But that doesn't change the fact that he was on board for the previous 95 percent of his training, and there's the potential for that characterization — which is a screenwriter's invention, not something lifted from the comics — to lead somewhere radical. Truthfully, given the competency of the filmmakers and the excellence of the cast, there's a lot of potential, period. But, in what may be Nolan's signature as a director, everything adds up to be exactly the sum of its parts — no synergy, no transcendence. Batman Begins is quite good but begs to be better.
For instance, for all the philosophical talk traded by Bruce, his father (Linus Roache, shown in flashbacks), his romantic interest (Katie Holmes as an assistant DA), his butler Alfred (Michael Caine), the top Gotham crime boss (Tom Wilkinson), Ducard and Ra's Al Ghul, none of it ever really tells us anything about human experience. It's all just the arithmetic of platitudes — the characters talk about revenge, justice and compassion like they're explaining the rules of rock, paper, scissors. When Batman offers, as the epitome of his bons mot, "I'm not going to kill you. But I don't have to save you" — spoken by the guy with a hang-gliding cape to a villain trapped in a speeding vehicle whose crash Batman has prearranged (and whom Batman does, in fact, not save) — what does that even mean? You can argue that it doesn't have to mean anything, but you also can't argue that it does mean anything. This is the way in which the movie is limited.
These limitations are noticeable in part because the filmmakers' approach is so resolutely un-fantastic. The Batman stories have never traded on paranormal abilities a la Superman or Spider-Man, but at the same time you're confronted with a protagonist who dresses up in a bat costume to single-handedly fight crime. There's an elevated weirdness to the character, and maybe Tim Burton embraced it too much, but Nolan and company bend over backward to make Bruce's conversion to Batman a totally rational one. Bruce is taught the tactical importance of theatricality and the advantage imparted by inducing fear — it's so reasonably presented that it seems a cinch that, had he suffered the same upbringing, Jack Ryan would have taken up the cowl too. Which is why the movie has been so critically embraced, of course — it's square masquerading as angular. (The tactical importance of theatricality!) Aficionados will point out that the stricter realism is in keeping with the putative source, the "Batman: Year One" miniseries by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli, but those same complainants know just how lunatic Miller's conception of the character can be. It seems unlikely that Nolan will demonstrate that range.
Instead, it's all very serious business, assembled in the editing bays with an off-putting ruthlessness — Batman Begins never leaves you breathless but is frequently airless. Plot points crowd against one another for its entire 134-minute length with little elbow room; instead of grace notes, we get inserts of quippy police lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman). When, in training, Bruce assumes martial arts stances, Ducard snaps "This isn't a dance" and proceeds with a beatdown — but in movies, it is a dance, a play of figures and light and shadow, and Nolan demonstrates a greater lack of facility for capturing and cutting action than you would want from a Batman director.
And worse, he fumbles a fundamental rule of drama in the last act, one shorthanded by David Mamet as "I was late because the bus drivers are on strike and my aunt fell downstairs." In Nolan's Insomnia, Al Pacino accidentally shoots Martin Donovan, but on top of that, Pacino wants to silence Donovan because the latter is willing to testify to the former's corruption — and so Pacino's guilt at his unrevealed manslaughter is muddied, not clarified, by his parallel desire to avoid prosecution. Likewise, in Batman Begins, the terrorists, in an attempt to bring Gotham's inherent depravity to a boil and justify their dim view of it, dose the city with a gas that will make the citizenry hysterical — gee, where have we heard that one before? — and simultaneously liberate a clot of the criminally insane in the ghetto where the gassing begins. But the combination of these threats render each meaningless (except in a rote, terrorize-the-heroine way). Why subject the Gothamites to dyed-in-the-wool psychopaths rather than dramatize the effects of the panic gas and prove or disprove the terrorists' assumptions?
What's most perverse about Batman Begins is that, for all the missteps, you don't really mind. It's an efficient bit of entertainment buoyed by a top-drawer cast giving engaging performances. (Casting is a critical part of directing, it's true, but given that five of the eight most recognizable names are recent Oscar nominees or winners, it's hard to be as impressed with Nolan's taste and acumen as with Warner Bros.' pocketbooks.) But it's all just a little too slick. At the end of the movie, there's a scene featuring the amped-up explosion of a weapon of mass destruction from within a hurtling passenger vehicle in a parking garage. One could fairly surmise that this parking garage was beneath tallest-skyscraper-around Wayne Tower, and that this emotional purpose of this blurred recreation of both of the major terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center would have been to show that Batman succeeded in thwarting the terrorists, that Gotham's WTC analog is still standing. Controversial or not, it would have at least been hot-blooded. But the explosion is contextless — because of the way the scene is cut, we don't know that it is in fact beneath Wayne Tower as opposed to just being in any other parking garage, and we don't see the intact skyline afterward, so the explosion just seems like an expensive, drawn-out big bang for its own sake. I'm not saying that a Batman movie has some moral obligation to be about Sept. 11, but it's a little cheap to raise the specter and then deny us catharsis. Rather than send us out of the theater buzzing, Batman Begins simply ends — the climax is not particularly exciting and the denouement is not particularly moving. It's just more of the same — and, along those lines, a perfect set-up for a sequel.
June 24, 2005