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'Dark Knight' as Dark Horse

Why Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman deserves a Best Picture nod

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'Dark Knight' as Dark Horse

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'Dark Knight': Oscar-worthy?

Over the course of its run, this column has never made an official endorsement, but with interest so exceptionally high in one of the candidates, and the vote approaching, it's time to take a stand: I would like The Dark Knight to get a Best Picture Oscar nomination.

Best Picture. Seriously. I write this knowing that as we enter a season crammed with Oscar-bait movies, the arrival of five richer, more resonant films could change my mind. But this just doesn't look like that kind of year.

As a Dark Knight advocate, I must first address a couple of bad arguments in its favor that have been floated. The idea that Academy members should prove they're not cultural elitists by selecting a box office smash is one of the worst pretexts for nominating a film I've ever heard, exceeded in irrelevance only by the case that honoring the movie would boost the telecast's waning ratings. Overruled! Silly though the Academy may often be, it's under no obligation to represent the tastes of fanboys, the moviegoing public, or anyone except its 6,000 or so voters.

My support is simpler. The Dark Knight does what almost all really good movies do: It reflects reality back to us, using a flight of imagination to make our world newly recognizable. And, unusually for an Oscar contender, Christopher Nolan's film takes place in the here and now, even if it's an alternate-reality ''now'' in which people assume outsize identities to commit crimes, or combat them, or blur the line between the two.

As reimagined by Nolan, Gotham City isn't in a galaxy far, far away; it's basically contempo Chicago with better skyscraper lighting. The subjects Nolan explores are equally grounded in reality — The Dark Knight examines the way fear can change the mood of an urban population, the way politicians and outlaws can stoke and exploit that terror, and the way leaders, either self-appointed or elected, can lose their moral bearings when they grant themselves unlimited authority. That sounds serious enough to me to qualify as Best Pic material. And the fact that Nolan's woven those ideas into a thoughtful new take on one of the most durable fictional characters of the last 75 years, only makes his movie more impressive.

In the Oscar-verse, however, The Dark Knight faces an uphill fight. Only 16 of the last 50 Best Picture nominees have taken place in the present. There's a reason for that imbalance. Plunging into the past, as in Brokeback Mountain, Gangs of New York, Saving Private Ryan, or There Will Be Blood, allows viewers to rethink history in contemporary terms, or to understand today's world in historical terms. Used well, this technique is smart, artful, and effective. And, looking ahead to some of the most ambitious-sounding films of 2008 — Che, Doubt, Frost/ Nixon, Milk, Revolutionary Road — it appears that the 1960s and '70s are about to get a powerful double-vision treatment. If those movies work, we’ll be thinking about then and now as the closing credits roll.

When filmmakers like Nolan go another route — and try to hit the ball straight at The Way We Live Now — the risks are huge. Some of the most love-'em-or-hate-'em Best Picture contenders of the last decade have taken this approach: American Beauty, Crash, Babel. Almost always, what follows are charges of pretension, overreaching, statement-making (something that's apparently forbidden, though I'm not sure why), or, worst of all, getting everything wrong — because the present is a subject on which we all think we're experts. I don't always love the results, but I respect the difficulty involved. The Dark Knight uses the modern comic-book movie to hold a funhouse mirror up to present-day realities that other filmmakers have either avoided or (remember all those Iraq movies?) bungled.

You want to knock Dark Knight? Go ahead. Let's fight about whether the whole Two-Face plotline should have been either more fully developed or cut completely, about whether the action scenes are intentionally disorienting or just patchily edited, and about Christian Bale's laryngitic rasp. Let's argue — as we'll argue over all the Best Picture contenders — about what the film has to say, and whether it's said with coherence, intelligence, and artistry. But don't dismiss it just because it's a comic-book movie. True, the genre lacks Oscar experience. But this comic-book movie has shown judgment and maturity in a year when many veteran genres have felt erratic. Why not make some history? Even within the Academy, there's a first time for everything.

Originally posted Oct 31, 2008 Published in issue #1019 Nov 07, 2008 Order article reprints
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