Fourth Way Perspectives

Film Review:
W, The Dark Knight &
Man on Wire

“How would you feel if your life was put on screen for everyone to see? Could you bear the weight of the world's judgment? George W. Bush probably can, but seeing him portrayed near the end of Oliver Stone's film W, where the soon-to-be ex-president is sitting alone, slouched in a chair, peering into the boob tube, a bottle of O'Douls in hand, makes one wonder.

In Plato's The Republic, the disincarnate souls are asked what life they would like to live upon their return to Earth. Imagine yourself seeing a life where you are born into a wealthy, aristocratic family, with your father becoming president, and you being given the best education possible, and all the chances in life, but blowing it by becoming an alcoholic; then, after being born again and finding religion and drying out, owning a major league baseball team, becoming governor of Texas and then twice elected president of the United States. Would you turn that down?

For starters, being born to a wealthy family makes you different from all but a small part of humanity. Maybe 1 percent of the people you meet can understand that burden. (This is well-depicted in the documentary Born Rich by Jamie Johnson, an heir to the Johnson & Johnson family fortune.) At one point in Stone's film, W (Josh Brolin) remarks on this. His idea of dealing with it was to try to be like everyone else, living a down-home, no-account life, drinking and drugging (not shown in the film) and screwing around. But bigger than wealth was the weight of W's younger brother, Jeb (Jason Ritter, pictured in the film only once but a constant presence). The younger brother, the apple of his father's eye, the taller, Phi Beta Kappa son—compared to W's C average— who could do no wrong (and probably didn't), Jeb is always there standing between George Herbert Walker Bush (how the father always introduced himself) and the black sheep W. So when W has a conversion experience one morning while out running off the previous night's boozing with his daily three-mile jog, the skies open and light falls upon him. He joins an evangelical prayer group and kicks the booze through giving his life to Christ. We don't know that Christ wants him to become governor of Texas, but, once he wins, W tells people he's "gotten the call" to be president. Christ doesn't seem to have much to do with it, but Karl Rove (Toby Jones) does. In an interview not shown in the film, the real Rove says that W "has more charisma than anyone I've ever met." Exactly what Rove means by that we don't know, but it's plain that W can connect with the common man, the Joe Six Pack voter, and that, along with his supreme confidence, wealth and connections, put him with his cowboy boots and silver belt buckle right where "Poppy" once sat, the Oval Office.

The Decider

From a Work point of view, what do we see in W? He clearly is a Man Number One. W is an instinctive-moving-sexual type with a short attention span and an even shorter temper. By denying his body drink he becomes Man Number Five, a man of will. He is the self-described "Decider," a man who lives in and decides by his gut; his instincts and feelings trump everything. He has no tolerance for nuance and complexity and no historical perspective. Not a bad or malevolent person, he's someone with a neurotic need to be liked and loved and to justify himself. When the reborn W looks into Putin's eyes, he sees what he takes to be a soul in the former KGB colonel, but more likely it's Putin's pain and emptiness, which, of course, is his own. His obsession with the classic father-younger brother triangle he's lived perhaps blinded him to "Pootie-Poot"'s stone-cold killer."

Images of Phillipe Petit, George Bush, The Joker and Batman

Phillipe Petit (himself), George W. Bush (Josh Brolin), The Joker (Heath Ledger) Batman (Christian Bale) in Man on Wire, W, and The Dark Knight

Stone's film depicts the lead-up to the disastrous Iraq invasion that has Cheney (Richard Dreyfuss) and Rumsfield (Scott Glenn) vigorously pushing W to take Saddam out, liberate Iraq, and bring democracy to the world, while Powell (Jeffrey Wright) argues for restraint. W's answer is to have everyone pray together; it's a pitiful look at how easily outsized hubris and myopia can be manipulated. That some believe W's deeper impulse for invasion was to outdo his father, who had refused to liberate Iraq during the first Iraq war, gives a sense of Greek tragedy."

Stone's final scene of father Bush and older son Bush having a go at it in the Oval Office is an inspired and incisive cameo of the essential conflict each had to live out. Too bad in Plato's afterlife scenario W-to-be didn't see that part of what his life on Earth would be like. It's too bad for all of us, too, for W's tragedy is our own.

Archetype of Nihilism

Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight is not concerned with the past but the future and its worst fear—nihilism. Taking up where the 2005 Batman Begins ends, Nolan has the Joker (Heath Ledger) without prelude simply burst onto Gotham, a soulless and anonymous megalopolis, wreaking havoc on citizens, cops and even criminals. The Joker takes no sides. He's against it all—civilized and uncivilized society. A weird creature from the depths of the societal subconscious, he sneer-snickers at dogooders and criminals alike. From where he's looking, everyone is in an unconscious masquerade, their values and identities simply consensual makebelieve amounting to nothing. The Joker, his face painted a clownish white, a grotesque reflection of society itself, simply joins in the party.

Ledger's Joker isn't Jack Nicholson's jaunty Joker with fixed grin, but a hunched and frowsy, high-voltage figure, ever licking and chewing his smeared red lips, the tongue darting in and out of his mouth like a snake, and all while speaking in a measured, Middle American accent, the words so carefully enunciated he could tell bedtime stories in hell. This is a Joker that goes to the depth of the cartoonist Bob Kane's character that first appeared in May 1939. It embodies the very archetype of Nietzsche's idea of nihilism—a time of the revaluation of all values. The Joker isn't in it for the money; he isn't a terrorist or messianic world changer—he is simply hell-bent to destroy it all. As Batman's solicitous butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), drolly puts it, "Some men just want to see the world burn."

Identified with the Idea of Justice

The figure of Batman (Christian Bale), which Kane took in part from a sketch of a winged man by Leonardo da Vinci, is the Joker's opposite: society brands one as a vigilante, the other a psychopathic criminal. They are both masked and exist outside societal law. They are figures on the edge; but Batman, humorless and driven, is totally identified with his self-belief, while the Joker seems to be awake to himself and their situation, for he tells Batman, "I won't kill you, because you're just too much fun!" Every Joker needs his Batman. He relishes his role as evil incarnate, while Batman is lost in the idea of himself as a lone upholder of justice.

From the Joker's perspective, all of society is asleep in itself, a mass hypnosis of dissociation in which lies, greed, thieving and killing prevail, with everyone believing they are on God's side. To make them see themselves as they really are and not as they think they are, the Joker creates one social experiment (his term) after another in which people have to do the one thing they always evade—choosing to intentionally act or not act.

In one truly devilish experiment the Joker plants explosives on board two boats loaded with passengers. Ordinary citizens are on one boat, convicts on the other, with each having detonators that can explode the other's boat. The Joker tells them he will blow both boats up by midnight if the citizens or convicts don't blow up the other's boat—the classic damned if you do, damned if you don't societal vise. (In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna found himself stuck in just such a place until Krishna let him know the truth, that he was neither the slayer nor the slain.)

Among many memorable shots in The Dark Knight, there is one in particular that crystallizes everything that Ledger and Nolan (known previously for Memento, Insomnia and The Prestige) were working for. With earth-and-ear-shattering explosions going off in the background, the Joker walks straight toward the camera, playing with a bomb detonator, happy as a toddler with a new toy. The message is pure id. Chaos, conflict is at the heart of existence. Of course not all existence, only unconscious existence.

Space Walker

James Marsh's documentary Man on Wire revisits Phillipe Petit's now legendary walk in space at the World Trade Center on August 7, 1974."

It was preceded by years of meticulous planning by Petit and his friends, casing the towers, measuring, building models, making false ID cards, then talking their way onto a freight elevator, hauling up nearly a ton of equipment, shooting a fishing line by bow from the south tower to the north, and stringing a 450-pound metal cable between them. And then there it all is—Petit, an animated, elfin figure, stands a quartermile high and looks out onto a 135-foot void of sheer space that separates the brand-new towers, the people below looking like ants.

Director James Marsh and Phillipe Petit
answer questions at the NYC premiere of Man on Wire

Director James Marsh and Phillipe Petit answer questions at the NYC premiere of Man on Wire

Petit knows that the cable in space, as taut and secure as it is, is not stationary. It can move in all directions, up and down, sideways, sometimes even twist. He has been walking on wire since his early years, but he never just "walked" on a wire. He lay down, knelt, juggled, even ran. In rehearsing for this moment, Petit and his friends had built a wire the same distance in the French countryside. To simulate the winds, the movements of the buildings and the torsion of the wire, his friends had jiggled the wire, trying to toss him off. As tune-ups, he had already walked on wire between the two bell towers of Notre Dame, and then did the same between the towers of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia. But this was different….

To Walk or Not to Walk?

The defining moment had arrived—life or death. As his friends watch, Petit puts one foot out on the wire. "If I fall, I fall into another life," he tells himself, and steps out into space. For the first 10 feet or so you can see it—his face is taut with concentration; he is still in question. But then it happens. Suddenly there is the knowing and confidence, the supreme balance of a Man Number One. Now, consummately relaxed in the face of certain death, with total acceptance of the situation, he walks back and forth between the towers. And not only does Petit walk, long balancing pole in hand, he kneels, lies down, stands up, lifts one leg, then the other! It will be 45 minutes later when he finally steps off the wire. "He danced out there," said an amazed policeman who watched from the roof of one tower, and with whom Petit occasionally talked.

His friends, who had feared they could be arrested for trespassing, manslaughter or assisting a suicide, looked on with relief and awe as the curlyhaired space walker—a beguiling combination of wire-walker, magician, street performer, showboat, idealist and con man—smiled his appreciation at his lover, Annie Allix, and his faithful friend, Jean-Louis Blondeau, and several others. Petit was immediately arrested and charged with disturbing the peace, found guilty, and let go. Blondeau, a sensitive and cerebral foil to his impish friend, chokes up when he recalls watching Petit step out over the abyss. "The important thing is that we did it," he says.

Yes, body, heart and mind had conquered. The towers may have fallen, but Phillipe Petit did not, and in his own way he paid them an everlasting human tribute.

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