For me, it has been a given that Christopher Nolan is a terrible filmmaker. Any list I might compile of the 25 worst films ever made would include two of his, Memento (2000) and Insomnia (2002). In both these films Nolan is soulless, afflicted by an utter disregard for the human condition.
Batman Begins, the fifth Batman film since 1989, which Nolan directed from a script by David S. Goyer and himself, strikes me as a much better film than either Memento or Insomnia. It isn’t as violent, manipulative, or heartless. It may be, at a cost of $150 million, needlessly upholstered and fretted upon; but it is technically accomplished and, if not soul-stirring, more or less agreeable. It is also blessed by a lovely, touching lead performance by Christian Bale, who is back to looking robustly healthy after his weight-drop for last year’s El Maquinista (The Machinist, Brad Anderson, 2004), a so-so film from Spain immeasurably enriched by Bale’s electrifying acting. To be sure, Batman Begins is seriously flawed (as we shall see), but Bale is triumphant in a role that stressed both Michael Keaton and Val Kilmer and, I understand, utterly defeated George Clooney. (What doesn’t?)
Bob Kane created Batman as a comic book character in 1939, at a time when evil was rampantly on the march in the world. In the 1980s Frank Miller updated the figure, shifting the focus from millionaire faux-playboy Bruce Wayne’s confrontations with evil in a world out of joint to Wayne’s psychology—his motives for fighting crime under the mask and cape of his alter ego, Batman. The principal way in which Batman differs from other comic book “superheroes” such as Superman is that he isn’t endowed with superhuman or supernatural abilities. Rather, he relies on resourcefulness, including high-tech gadgetry, and, of course, his seething passion owing to the street murders of his father and mother, which he witnessed as a child while accompanying them on their way home from a show one night in deteriorating downtown Gotham City. Following Tim Burton’s lead in the 1989 Batman and the subsequent sequels by Burton or Joel Schumacher, Nolan lays on sweeping, continuous camera movements to show Batman in action, seemingly soaring through the dark. None of this fits the concept of Batman as Bruce Wayne in disguise; instead, it screams superhuman, supernatural, and thus muddies the theme which should naturally arise from Wayne’s example: that opposing and confronting evil is our own responsibility, not something that can be left to comic book versions of the ancient Greek deus ex machina. Nolan should have rethought the mistakes made by Burton and Schumacher in this regard. He should have shot and cut the crime-fighting material to stress the effort that Bruce Wayne is bringing to his seeming effortlessness as Batman. Elsewhere, the film does note, for instance, the bruising that Wayne sustains; but without an emphasis on Wayne’s humanity as Batman in the action sequences, the right impression is overwhelmed in favor of a wrong one. Before they shoot, filmmakers might ask themselves: What do I want this shot to accomplish, in terms of not only its immediate context but also the film’s premises and themes, and how can I best make the shot help realize these local and larger purposes? Nolan too often just doesn’t think. Instead, he strives for visual effects when he should be attending to the development of his thematic material.
Another muddle is the murder scene of Bruce Wayne’s parents—a pivotal moment, since it allegedly sets into motion the boy’s spirit of revenge, which is subsequently transformed or tempered into a spirit of justice, the righting of wrongs. His parents leave the opera early because Bruce wishes to go home. In the street they are mugged, and the mugger shoots, first, the father dead and then the mother. The second murder so quickly follows the first that we think of both as a combinate event, a single act of brutal homicide. All the more so this begs the question of why the assailant allows Bruce to live. Why not kill him, too? There are any number of possibilities, and each theoretically, in the abstract, that is, might make some sort of a contribution to an explanation. Perhaps the assailant draws the line at killing children. This won’t wash, because the agitated state from which the first two murders emerge precludes the possibility of such a principled distinction. Nor is the time factor relevant; three as well as two murders would as easily and quickly constitute a combinate act. Is the assailant being compassionate by permitting Bruce’s survival? Well, he simply departs the scene; whatever compassion may be motivating him is something we would have to read into the visual data. Is the assailant being sadistic, consigning the one family survivor to a cruelly orphaned existence? Again, this would be an interpretation we would be making without specific reference to the visual data; in other words, it is not an interpretation that Nolan appears to be providing. Indeed, all these “explanations” seem farfetched. There is one other—an interpretation not of the assailant’s motivation but of the cosmos in which his two murders and one non-murder play out. Bruce Wayne is possibly being spared precisely so he can evolve into Batman. In other words, he must live in order to realize his destiny. However, this explanation won’t wash either, because for it to be true would require the imprint of Providence, whether in the form of fate or God, as an ongoing participant in the film’s imagery or dramatic action. But it nowhere exists in Nolan’s film. We are left with a conundrum: in a version of Batman that purports to be more naturalistic and psychologically probing than previous incarnations, no explanation whatsoever is reasonably possible for a singularly important and weighty (non-)action. Of course, if the assailant had (logically) dispatched Bruce along with his parents, we would not have a story, we would not have a film. And because the assailant did kill the parents, Bruce is spared some of the negative feelings for the boy some of us might have felt because he is so rich and spoiled.
Bruce feels guilty over the death of his parents because it is his request to leave the theater and go home that brings about the confrontation between the Waynes and the mugger-assailant in a dark alley. This conforms to a child’s (il)logic, and it probably refers to the fact that, no matter what the particular circumstance, any loving child in such a state of bereavement would probably feel somewhat responsible for such losses. The child would feel, to whatever degree, he or she was being punished by these parental deaths. The position is illogical because, among other things, it presumes that a change in circumstance—here, if the Waynes had left the theater later, say, having watched the entire performance of the opera—nevertheless keeps all other variables fixed. The assailant would by the later time have already left the scene of the murders, having been there at the same time that the Waynes would have been there had they left the theater at the earlier time. But life doesn’t work that way. It isn’t normally the case that the change of one participatory element leaves all the others as they were, intact. We cannot possibly know what would have happened or would not have happened if Bruce hadn’t convinced his parents to depart the theater prematurely. The only thing we can say for certain is this: it is less likely that the tragedies would have occurred if the Waynes hadn’t been alone in the alley when the mugger confronted them. Yet Nolan’s film seems to accept the child’s (il)logic even while having comforting figures assure the boy and the grown Bruce that he wasn’t responsible for his parents’ deaths. When the family valet, Alfred, thus comforts the boy, he insists that the murderer was responsible for the murders—a ludicrous statement because it fails to distinguish between objective reality and the boy’s feelings. It apparently never crosses Nolan’s mind that there is such a thing as survival burden—the guilt that survivors feel over the deaths of those, especially their loved ones, who do not survive some ordeal they have all shared. Again, all this ignorance of everyday, simple human knowledge exists in a film version of Batman that purports to be more psychologically probing than past versions. It is most worth noting this particular lapse in Nolan’s judgment because of two circumstances unfolding in the U.S. today: the issue of the mental health of survivors of the current brace of hurricanes in the Southeast; the returning home of veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq.
At least two other things restrict the film’s level of accomplishment. A probably unnecessary back-story that introduces Bruce to the main villain of the piece, Henri Ducard, drones on and on, slowing the first movement of the film to a snail’s pace. (The past story, with Bruce as a child, intrudes as shafts of memory—flashbacks.) Perhaps Nolan and Company just couldn’t resist taking a swipe at the French, but all this adds a rather pointless half-hour to the film. The other major weakness is the acting. This is a horribly acted film, one in which, in fact, most of the actors do not seem to have been given any direction at all. Bale, yes, is marvelous (or should I say D.C.-ous?), as is Gary Oldman, on the right side of the law for a change, as police sergeant Jim Gordon, who is nearly as eccentric a character as Mark Twain’s Pudd’n’head Wilson. But Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes and the rest are variously dreadful. Even the redoubtable Morgan Freeman is a bit dubious on this occasion.
Still, this isn’t a bad film, and it is certainly heads and shoulders—well, Batman would be—above Nolan’s previous work. It doesn’t manipulate us shamelessly the way Memento does, and it isn’t loud, cruel and in-our-face the way Insomnia is. Despite the exorbitant budget, the film can even be described as being relatively modest. It is coolly distanced, not pushy, taking its cue, perhaps, from Bale’s cool and poise. One thing more: some of the color cinematography by Simon Margetts and Wally Pfister is exquisite—sheer pleasure. Since it is not consistently so, I suspect that the really good work, especially in the area of lighting, was done by one or the other, Margetts or Pfister, but not both. I cannot say, though, who did what.
Batman Begins only begins to entertain, and it never enlightens. But, regarding Nolan, it is at least something. Or the shadow of something.