The Dark Knight part 1
all stills swiped from film_stills .
"I wonder if you’re more interested in the structure than the actual content of the script?"
In a screenplay, there is no difference between structure and content, "actual" or otherwise. A screenplay is a collection of scenes devised in a certain way placed in a certain order to achieve a desired dramatic effect. In the same way that "character" is nothing but habitual action, the "actual content" of a screenplay is nothing but the scenes that fill its pages and the order in which they’re placed. To say "I like the screenplay’s structure but I don’t like its content" is to say "I like that guy but I don’t like the things he does."
David Mamet once said that the only question in an audience’s head during a movie should be "What happens next?" The screenwriter’s job is to keep the audience interested in the story. When the screenwriter does his job well, the audience gets sucked into the story and experiences the thrill of drama. When he does his job very well, the thrill of the experience is so powerful that the audience comes back again and again, even though they know how the story turns out. Spectacle may amaze and movie stars may charm, but if the screenwriter has not done his job well, the movie will still turn out bad and the audience will stay home. The Dark Knight engages the audience on a level unseen in movies lately, and does so while employing a number of bold innovations, which I will discuss as we move forward.
ACT I begins with a heist sequence: The Joker has hired a bunch of goons to rob a bank owned by The Mob. We know, although the goons do not, that the Joker is, in fact, part of the masked crew. As the robbery unfolds, we learn that the Joker’s plan involves the goons killing each other as each one completes his job, leaving him to make off with the money. What do we learn from this sequence? Well, we learn that the Joker is meticulous in his planning and duplicitous in his intent. No one is safe when he is around. He lies when it suits his purpose — his goal is not to impress people with his wisdom but to get them to do something. Further, we learn that he is brave enough, or foolish enough, or crazy enough, to steal money from The Mob. Maybe it’s "crazy enough," since we also learn that, under his clown mask, he wears another clown mask. (The Joker’s makeup is one of the boldest design choices made in The Dark Knight — it’s disturbing enough to look at, but it’s even more disturbing to consider the mind of the person who decides to go out in public looking like that.) The robbery also marks a shift in the crime world of Gotham City: whereas once, crime was controlled by "traditional" gangsters, men possessing time-honored notions of respect (they’re running banks, you don’t get much more respectable than that) the Joker represents something new: an amoral, brilliant rogue without respect for anything. (We don’t yet know why the Joker is stealing the Mob’s money, but we will in time.) The force and density of this sequence often leads people to believe that the Joker is actually the protagonist of The Dark Knight, as he seems to set events into motion. We will soon learn that the Joker’s actions are, in fact, a direct result of actions made by protagonist Bruce Wayne. Beginning a narrative in medias res is a good strategy for any movie and The Dark Knight exploits it well, but "the guy you meet first" is not necessarily the protagonist of the movie.
That opening delivers a great deal of narrative for a thrilling six-minute action sequence, and the density of the screenplay does not let up from there. Next, there are a number of brief scenes outlining the current state of crime Gotham City. The mere idea of Batman, we learn, is scaring ordinary criminals off the streets — one could say that Batman is, in his own way, a terrorist, practicing asymmetrical warfare on the Mob, upsetting the status quo of the criminal population, creating a kind of crime vacuum, which allows a costumed freak like the Joker to flourish. The police, we learn, under Jim Gordon’s leadership, encourage Batman’s activities while telling the press otherwise (the Joker is not the sole purveyor of duplicity). We also meet, briefly, detectives Wuertz and Ramirez, who will become important later on.
As street criminals head indoors, the Bat-signal shines over a meeting between a "traditional" gangster, The Chechen, and The Scarecrow, another new costumed freak in the Joker mold. I’m not sure what the point of the meeting between The Chechen and The Scarecrow is, but it seems The Chechen has a beef with The Scarecrow. Again, it comes down to an issue of trust — this new breed of criminals is just not trustworthy. The meeting gets interrupted by a group of imitation Batmen, vigilantes inspired by Batman’s example but lacking his bottomless income. They try to take in Messrs Scarecrow and Chechen, but soon enough the "real" Batman shows up to set things straight. "What’s the difference between you and me?" asks one of the would-be Batmen. "I’m not wearing hockey pads," growls Batman in return — meaning what, exactly? "I spent more money on my suit, therefore I have a greater moral right to be above the law?" Or does Bruce Wayne merely think of himself as "special," because of the physical and mental work he’s done to achieve his Batness? Or is it that Bruce Wayne considers his creation a unique achievement, and disdains his imitators because they aren’t creating their own crazy crime-fighting personae? (Batman, in this scene, also insists that he "works alone," which he does, I guess, if you discount the full support of the entire police force.)
That same night, Jim Gordon checks out the scene of the Joker’s robbery, and soon Batman comes along to horn in on his investigation. Oddly enough, the fact that a costumed freak robbed the bank is of not much concern to Gordon and Batman — they are more excited by the news that the bank belongs to the Mob. That is, thanks to the Joker, Gordon is now able to identify the assets of Gotham’s traditional criminal elite. (The Dark Knight, among its many interesting quirks, is full of unintended alliances.) The Joker gets no more than a cursory glance from Gordon and Batman, who move straight on to discussing how to shut down the Mob banks. For this daring move, they will need the support of the new District Attorney, a man new to both Gordon and Batman, bringing up, again, issues of trust. So it’s not just the criminals who can’t trust each other in Gotham City, it’s the law enforcement officials as well.
It is the next morning. Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler, Alfred, delivers Master Wayne’s breakfast to his penthouse bedroom to find him gone. He then goes to the super-secret Bat-lair to check in with his boss. Bruce is hurting from the previous night’s activities, but his only concern is that he hasn’t spent enough time (and money) on his equipment. "Batman" is, after all, the ultimate "guy project," a project that calls for the most expensive high-tech gadgets and endless obsession over minutiae, a project that cannot be completed, only endlessly enhanced. At the moment, there is no "endgame" for Bruce Wayne, just a never-ending struggle for justice. (He does not comment that the Scarecrow is back on the streets less than a year after Bruce put him away for conspiring to kill everyone in the city.) (UPDATE: my faithful readers remind me that the Scarecrow went uncaught at the end of Batman Begins. Mea culpa. In which case, let me express my admiration for Batman in not getting more excited at having finally cornered the guy who tried to kill everyone in the city.)
Bruce, with his bank of computer monitors, keeps a close eye on Harvey Dent, the new district attorney, and now we add another wrinkle to an already corrugated story — Dent is dating Rachel, the woman Bruce turned his back on so that he could devote himself to dressing up like a bat and driving around town destroying private property. Chagrined, Bruce notes that he and Harvey are both doing the exact same thing, except that Harvey doesn’t have to wear a mask. And that includes both fighting The Mob and bedding Rachel. Harvey is, essentially, what Bruce would like to be in an ideal world. And, in fact, in the same way that Bruce created the crime vacuum that allowed the Joker to flourish, he also inspired Harvey to step forward and be Batman Without A Mask. Now then: up ’til now, Bruce has seen his struggle as lonely and never-ending, but when he sees Harvey (with Rachel) he begins to see 1) an ally, because Harvey can potentially do Batman’s job, and 2) a reason to quit, because he wants to reclaim Rachel for his own, and regain the life he gave up for this lonely painful pursuit.
Later that day, Harvey enters the courtroom for his big day of prosecuting mobster Maroni. We get a little banter between him and Rachel, involving his "lucky coin" (which we will later learn is not "lucky" in any sense of the word — Harvey, the white knight, is not above deceit himself). Harvey, we see, is a brave and dedicated public servant — when a witness pulls a gun on him, Harvey punches the witness and then continues to question him. Clearly, Harvey is Daytime Batman.
After a brief scene between Harvey and Rachel that places Harvey’s actions in context and reinforces what we already suspect regarding their relationship (ie, they’re sleeping together), Harvey meets with Jim about the whole Mob Bank dragnet that Jim wants to trigger. Jim and Harvey (and Bruce) all want to put the Mob away, and Jim’s plan (aided by Bruce) has a shot at accomplishing that — but Jim and Harvey don’t yet know if they can trust each other. There is some talk of "dirty cops" in Jim’s command, which interests me — was Jim "stuck" with dirty cops in the Major Crimes Unit because no one wanted to work with him, or did Jim select cops with dirty histories for some reason that escapes me? In any case, Jim Gordon’s MCU is not The Untouchables, which apparently neither Harvey nor Jim are happy about. Regardless, Harvey, sensing that Jim knows something (because of his relationship with Batman) okays Jim’s Mob Takedown plan.
Later that same day, Bruce Wayne sleeps through a presentation by this HongKong banker, Lau. Bruce’s company is, apparently, negotiating some kind of merger with Lau’s company. This super-brief scene is played for laughs, but Lau will come to dominate the remainder of the act and become a linchpin of the entire plot.
Right after the board meeting, Lucius Fox is buttonholed by an accountant, Coleman Reece, who has some kind of concern about the Lau deal. Lucius tells Reece to check his figures again, a piece of punishing busywork that will have grave repercussions later.
After Bruce wakes up from his nap (assuming he was actually sleeping through the Lau pitch — which, well why not? He’s got to sleep some time) he talks to Lucius about upgrading his suit and mentions the Lau deal in passing. This updates Bruce’s relationship with Lucius and lays some groundwork for the steadily-increasing Lau plot.
That night, Harvey and Rachel are out dining when Bruce shows up with a blond ballerina. (I wonder — does Bruce ever have sex, or is that off-limits for the man who is the Batman? And, if he has sex, do his conquests ever wonder what he’s doing with his body all covered with bruises and scars?) When we learn that Bruce owns the restaurant, we realize that Bruce, of course, planned to spoil Harvey’s date with Rachel, to check Rachel’s temperature vis-a-vis Harvey, and to take the measure of Harvey himself. Harvey shows himself to be both a true-blue public servant and to have a slight autocratic streak, both of which impress Bruce, and he throws himself fully behind Harvey — again, to relieve himself of the role of Batman, and to earn himself a chance with Rachel.
The next day, or a day soon afterward anyway, the three major "traditional" crime lords meet to discuss their problems. Again, their problem is not the Joker robbing their banks but Jim Gordon and his planned takedown of their organization. And look who’s here! It’s that Lau guy, conferencing via a video monitor, warning the mobsters about the impending crisis. Introduced as the butt of a joke, then looked at sideways a couple of times, Lau is suddenly figuring into the story in a much more troubling way. And none of this has been "explained" to us yet — we need to sit forward and pay attention a little to sort out the plot threads of The Dark Knight. So now we know that Lau is The Mob’s banker, and soon we will learn that Bruce Wayne was never interested in a merger with Lau’s company, the merger was a lure to bring Lau into the open, to get him to show Bruce his books. Bruce, we see, can be as duplicitous as the Joker or Harvey, and in broad daylight, in a way that Batman cannot. As Lau calmly explains to the mobsters his plan for protecting their money, the Joker invades the meeting and presents to them a radical new vision of crime in Gotham City. (I note that all the "traditional" gangsters in Gotham City are colorful ethnics, while the costumed freaks are all WASPs.) The gangsters around the table may be wealthy and powerful, but they fear and respect the Batman while the Joker fears and respects nothing. He unveils the next layer of his plan — to "kill the Batman." So right now, the Joker’s plan seems to be: steal money from The Mob in order to get their attention, to get them to take him seriously as a criminal mastermind, then get them to pay him to "kill the Batman," a payment so lucrative and steep that it will surely make the Joker the new criminal kingpin of Gotham City. As we will learn, this is not the final layer, he’s got a few more layers to go before we come to the rather startling conclusion of the Joker’s plan, but it’s the first thing he says that makes any sense.
So Lau goes off to Hong Kong with the Mob’s money, which forces a crisis among Harvey, Jim and Batman. They meet briefly on the roof of Jim’s MCU to discuss a plan, which involves stepping outside the law to bring Lau to justice (or to Gotham, in any case).
At this point, the narrative of The Dark Knight enters a brief moment of relaxation — Bruce has a plan to get Lau, and for the remainder of the act we get to experience the joy and thrill of seeing the plan unfold. It’s like a ten-minute version of Ocean’s 11, as we see Bruce put his plan together, then execute it with wit, flair and high style. Along the way, he gets to relax on his yacht and spoil another of Harvey and Rachel’s dates. The sequence is a day-seminar on writing a caper: the writer should explain enough of the plan so that we know the basic shape of it, but should withold enough information so that there are some surprises in store for us along the way. Caper plotting is all about what the screenplay tells us, what it does not tell us, and when.
While Bruce implements his plan, still no one is taking the Joker seriously. Except for Gambol, the only gangster in Gotham who is at all challenged by the Joker’s brand of craziness. Why Maroni and The Chechen don’t mind the Joker after he robbed one (more than one?) of their banks isn’t clear, but Gambol has put a price on his head. The Joker, of course, takes Gambol’s bounty and turns it on its head, setting up a situation where he can kill Gambol himself.
The act ends with an unmitigated triumph for Bruce: he captures Lau and brings him back to Gotham, where ally Jim Gordon and new Batman-by-day Harvey can pick up the task where Batman must leave off. What Bruce does not know is that his bold extrication of Lau will set a disastrous series of events into motion that will, at the end of Act II, require him to give up being The Batman altogether.