From a purely cinematic standpoint, director/co-writer Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises” is a genuine masterpiece. Actually, it’s a triumph.
Surpassing the extraordinary hype and expectations surrounding the conclusion to his epic trilogy seemed impossible, and yet somehow Nolan achieved just that. The fact that I’m even debating whether or not “Rises” surpasses its perfect predecessor speaks volumes. Without giving anything away — without telling you if it’s tragic or happy or bitter or sweet — let me just say that the final few minutes of “Rises” represent one of the most intensely satisfying movie moments of my life.
And beyond filmmaking skills that will surely place him among the all-time greats, what kind of crystal ball does Nolan have access to that gives him the prescient power to begin a project years ago that upon delivery would be as timely and relevant as the latest refresh of the Drudge Report? “Rises” is about many things, but it is mostly about a rousing defense of an America under siege by a demagogue disguising his nihilistic rage and thirst for revenge and power as a noble quest for equality.
It’s eight years after Bruce Wayne/Batman (a never better Christian Bale) paid the ultimate price for choosing to be the hero Gotham City deserved instead of the one it wanted. Now a Howard Hughes-like recluse forced to watch from afar as the wicked Harvey Dent is annually and posthumously honored for a lie told by Batman himself, this is a broken man both physically and spiritually. Batman is lost — a warrior without a war who sacrificed everything for a city that in peacetime dismisses those that make peacetime possible. Now smug and soft, Gotham is going about the business of letting down its guard — a weakness that always invites aggression.
Aggression has already arrived in the form of Bane (Thomas Hardy), a hulk of a man burning with resentment against a society whose only provocation is being prosperous, generous, welcoming, and content — instead of miserable like him. In Gotham’s sewers, Bane recruits those like himself — the insecure thumbsuckers raging with a sense of entitlement, desperate to justify their own laziness and failure and to flaunt a false sense of superiority through oppression, violence, terror, and ultimately, total and complete destruction.
No one in Gotham even suspects the cancer of dangerous childish resentment growing beneath their feet, and even those who dare remain vigilant are laughed at as relics of a bygone age. This includes Commissioner Gordon (a wonderful Gary Oldman), the only other man who knows the truth about Harvey Dent. Gordon isn’t hated like Batman or a warrior lost without a war like Wayne, but he’s still an outcast for daring to believe something inconvenient during Gotham’s high times — that evil exists and always returns.
If Gordon has an ally, it’s Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a workaday cop whose own painful life experience gives him an insight and instinct that is the stuff of heroes… and villains. Uncharacteristically, Alfred (The Mighty Michael Caine) has lost some of his perspective over the years. He’s America’s surrogate parent of our wounded warriors and only (and understandably) worried about his child’s happiness and well being. In a world where evil is real, though, touching and noble intentions such as Alfred’s only get in the way of a greater good that frequently requires unspeakable sacrifice.
Finally, there’s Selina Kyle/Catwoman (a perfectly cast and incredibly enchanting Anne Hathaway), the cipher through which Nolan explores the morality of his morality tale.
As expected, “Dark Knight Rises” is a love letter to Gotham City: its flawed but ultimately decent people, its industry and generosity — all of which are by-products of liberty, free markets, and capitalism. In other words, just as “The Dark Knight” was a touching tribute to an embattled George W. Bush who chose to be seen as a villain in order to be the hero, “Rises” is a love letter to an imperfect America that in the end always does the right thing.
And Nolan loves the American people — the wealthy producers who more often than not trickle down their hard-earned winnings, the workaday folks who keep our world turning, a financial system worth saving because it benefits us all, and those everyday warriors who offer their lives for a greater good with every punch of the clock.
But unlike so many who disguise their resentment and hatred for America through the lie that criticism somehow equals patriotism, Nolan’s love for this country is without qualifiers and symbolized in all its unqualified sincerity in the form of a beautiful young child sweetly singing a complete version of “The Star Spangled Banner” — just before “Occupy” attempts to fulfill its horrific vision of what “equality” really means.
Nolan’s genius as a filmmaker is without question. The pacing, editing, performances, and humanity of “Rises” will be talked about for decades. But his real genius is in how he expresses his vision and theme. While all of Hollywood embraces nihilism wrapped in irony, Nolan moves us with an inexpressibly touching faith in humanity. While all of Hollywood embraces CGI, the shaky-cam, and hyper-editing, Nolan sets his story in the real world and allows us to see what’s going on. And as all of Hollywood embraces hollow, artless, left-wing tripe, Nolan delivers crowd-pleasing, thematically-driven classical art that ennobles the human spirit — and while doing so, breaks box office records.
In a Hollywood lost in shallow, narcissistic depravity, Nolan has himself risen as the New Iconoclast — simply for believing in what is good and being able to express it in a universal way that touches us all.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC