This week, I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb. As a Film and Media Studies and Writing Seminars double major, I’m supposed to say that The Godfather, Citizen Kane, or Raging Bull (or some film of that critical caliber) is the greatest film of all time. However, I’ve watched those films and almost every other film that can hold claim to that title. While I feel that all of those movies have the right to make their arguments for that title, another, somewhat less heralded film deserves to be mentioned in the pantheon of American cinema — The Dark Knight.
Before you scoff like many of my fellow Film students, let me make my case. This film has slowly been getting the critical recognition it deserves, as the years have passed. Of course, it was a massive box office hit, becoming only the fourth film ever to surpass the $1 billion mark in ticket sales. It was the best-reviewed film of 2008 according to Rotten Tomatoes (the leading site for aggregate critical reactions to movies), with many critics hailing it as a modern-day masterpiece. Eight major film critics placed the movie as their number one of the year, 25 placed it in their top five, and at least 32 placed it in their top ten lists. Roger Ebert himself, of the Chicago Sun-Times described The Dark Knight as a “haunted film that leaps beyond its origins and becomes an engrossing tragedy.” Empire magazine, in a list compiled and ranked by the weighted opinions of 50 key film critics, 150 prominent film directors, and 10,000 readers, named the film the 15th greatest of all time only a year following its release.
Perhaps if the movie hadn’t had the classic superhero flick stigma attached to it, the outpouring of praise would have been even greater than the already overwhelmingly positive response. Many critics picked it as their favorite to take home Best Picture that year at the Oscars, and a nomination at the very least was already in the bag. When the nominations came out, it had eight — the most of any film that year — but none of them were for Best Picture. The movie was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Cinematography, Best Supporting Actor (posthumously for Heath Ledger for his portrayal of the Joker), Best Film Editing and Best Art Direction — awards which, when standing alone would even denote the probability of a Best Picture nomination, but when combined, would almost assure it.
Needless to say, the backlash against this perceived travesty was swift and brutal. The Academy reportedly received tens of thousands of angry emails demanding why the best movie of the decade wasn’t even spotted a nomination for best of the year. This response was the main reason why the Academy switched the Best Picture nomination count from 5 to 10, the year after The Dark Knight was snubbed.
But enough about the film’s reaction. What about the film itself?
It is an artistic masterpiece — a dark, multifaceted and gripping crime saga that pits a city’s triumvirate of sorts (the district attorney, the chief of police, and of course, Batman) against a truly fiendish and insane adversary, the Joker, who, as Batman’s trusty butler Alfred puts it, “just wants to watch the world burn.”
The cinematography is haunting and employs numerous canted angles and panning shots to both capture the corrupt nature of the city as well as the grand scale the film hopes to achieve. Lighting is key throughout the film as an artistic token denoting a certain person’s characterization in the film — if they are half-bathed in light, half in shadow (as district attorney Harvey Dent, soon to become Two Face, often is), their character’s moral proclivities are up-in-the-air, so to speak.
The music crescendos at the exact right moment, and helps build tension throughout the film, until it is released in what is nearly a half-hour long climactic sequence. The story involves complicated political intrigue, a love triangle, and the excruciatingly difficult decision between giving in to a terrorist’s demands and potentially costing thousands of people their lives.
The ending monologue is perhaps the most awe-inspiring, spine-tingling minute of cinema I’ve ever watched. If you’ve lived under a rock for the past five years and haven’t seen this movie, I’ll give you the Cliff’s Notes. It involves a man talking about the nature of heroes and how recognition isn’t important to truly heroic people (in basic terms), overlaid with a perfect montage of various main players performing actions that apply to what the man is saying. It ends as the man says, “he is a Dark Knight.” As we hear this, we see Batman’s black silhouette against the light of the city, his iconic cape billowing behind him as he disappears into the night.
Pretty breathtaking, to say the least. The way I see it, the film will only get better with time and hopefully be better recognized for the genius behind it.