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Christopher Nolan's Useful Lies

Christopher Nolan doesn't have time for small ideas. From the nature of objectivity and memory in Memento, to the power of symbols in Batman Begins, Nolan is attracted to the Big Idea. He favors personal stories that illustrate greater truths, and the plots work like puzzles whose image becomes clear only after the last piece is in place.

When a director makes such deliberate films, it inevitably raises the question: What does that director believe? He can't merely be a vessel, filled for years at a time with some new, unanswerable question only to pour himself out onto the screen and start all over again. To think that a man who makes such thoughtful films doesn't have thoughts of his own is, well, unthinkable.

Whatever he thinks, Nolan isn't telling. Most blockbusters provide us with a steady stream of set photos, spoilers and trailers that telegraph every twist, so that we know what we think of a movie long before we see it. Nolan's films defy this trend and keep their stories under wraps, a fact that dovetails elegantly with their puzzle-like plots. But as withholding as he is, Nolan is still a passionate filmmaker, and passion is the enemy of restraint. One would expect that his beliefs occasionally smuggle themselves onto the celluloid. We may not know what's in Nolan's head, but we can look more closely at what comes out of it. And when we analyze his filmography, a pattern emerges.

You can't create a film that grosses $1 billion without generating some speculation as to its sequel. The Dark Knight was a cultural and box office phenomenon, the result of a resurrected cultural icon, a preceding film that caught many moviegoers off-guard, and an inspired performance by a fallen actor. It was also open-ended, lending itself to speculation about what might happen next.

With any other director, we'd wait for the details to start rolling in, but details have been scarce, and the combination of the film's outrageous success with Nolan's steadfast silence has created a powder keg of curiosity. Though information about casting and characters has started to trickle out, initially the vacuum of information was filled with absurd rumors concerning everything from the recasting of the Joker, to Robin Williams or Eddie Murphy playing the Riddler. Nobody knew anything, and they couldn't stop talking about it.

Thankfully, Nolan's filmography has matured to the point at which recurring themes have become evident. We're starting to discern what kinds of things Nolan thinks about and, consequently, what kinds of things he wants us to think about. And these things may provide a clue as to what's in store for Bruce Wayne. Spoilers, naturally, will follow.

"Art is a lie that tells the truth." — Pablo Picasso

It would be impossible to produce a single through-line that connects all of Nolan's films perfectly. But the closest thing we have, the idea that shows up the most, is a simple question: Is a useful lie preferable to a painful truth? From this question others about the nature of truth, memory and ideas inevitably follow, but that one question is at the emotional core of three of his six most recent features, and prominently featured in two of the others. Let's run through them:

In Memento (2000), Guy Pearce plays Leonard Shelby, a man intent on avenging the rape and murder of his wife during an attack that also destroyed his ability to form new memories. The film is told in reverse chronological order; it "begins" with Leonard shooting his friend Jimmy and "ends" with the revelation that he knowingly gave himself a false clue that would eventually cause him to do this. He plants this false clue to give his life continued purpose after learning that he's already avenged his wife, but simply doesn't remember it. Leonard chooses this useful lie over the painful truth.

In 2002's Insomnia, Al Pacino plays Will Dormer, a detective called to Alaska to investigate a murder. In the process of the investigation, Dormer accidentally shoots his partner, who was to play a key role in an evidence planting investigation back home that may have led to Dormer's prosecution. The audience knows that the shooting is a genuine accident, but the circumstances give Dormer a clear motive, so he tells a useful lie—that the suspect killed his partner—to avoid the painful truth of his mistake. The resulting guilt plagues him throughout the entire film, and he uses his dying breath to convince a younger officer not to cover up his misdeeds, but to tell the painful truth.

In 2006's The Prestige, Christian Bale plays a magician named Alfred Borden. Borden is so dedicated to his craft that he hides the fact that he has an identical twin in the service of a grand trick called "The Transported Man." The two trade places throughout their adult lives and keep their dark secret even from Borden's eventual wife. Borden maintains the ruse even after this emotional confusion causes his wife to hang herself, opting to continue living his useful lie even as it destroys his life, first figuratively, and then literally. Similarly, Borden's nemesis Robert Angier attempts to match his trick by obtaining a device which allows him to clone himself. The catch is that, in order to keep his secret under wraps, he has to kill each clone. He lies to his mentor, the theater owner, his audience, and himself, by covering up the painful truth that every performance he gives results in another murder. Both men opt to maintain their useful lies rather than face the painful truth of their obsessions and the lives they have destroyed.

In The Dark Knight (2008), Gotham has elected an ardent reformer in District Attorney Harvey Dent and, keeping with the themes of the first film, what he represents is more important than the reality of the man. The Joker, therefore, seeks not to kill Dent but to break him, and with him the city's hope. He succeeds, turning Dent into a disfigured psychopath who (apparently) dies at the end of the film. Batman and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) decide that the people of Gotham can never know of Dent's downfall, so Batman takes the blame for Dent's crimes so that the public can continue to idealize him. Or, in his own raspy words:

"Sometimes the truth isn't good enough; sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded."

Thus, Batman tells a useful lie to hide a painful truth; not to himself, but to others. This makes his lie a bit nobler than Leonard Shelby's, perhaps, but it is a lie nonetheless. Batman makes a unilateral decision about the truth for the entire city of Gotham, much in the way he has opted to take the law into his own hands by creating his caped persona.

In Nolan's most recent effort, Inception, we follow Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fugitive who makes his living breaking into the minds of corporate moguls to steal business secrets. Cobb is offered a challenging job—planting an idea, instead of stealing one—in exchange for the expunging of his criminal record. Cobb's desire to be reunited with his children and the slow revelation of what trauma lies in his past are the driving force of the entire film. The demons in Cobb's subconscious try to persuade him to retreat into his own mind, where he can live in blissful ignorance with shallow projections of his children and his late wife, but Cobb refuses. He rejects this useful lie in favor of the painful truth.

Socrates and the "Noble Lie"

As is often the case with any grand idea of great import, the idea of a useful lie isn't a new one. It originates in Plato's The Republic, a Socratic dialogue that starts, appropriately enough, with Socrates attempting to define "justice." This proves to be exceptionally difficult. Socrates eventually suggests that they expand the scope of the discussion, asking not what makes for a just man, but what makes for a just state.

Socrates then proceeds to construct a hypothetical, ideal state, which he suggests would do well to tell a "noble lie" ("gennaion pseudos") in order to keep society in order. The lie is that people are born with different "metals" inside them, and that their metal foretells their mettle. People with gold inside them are to become rulers, and presumably fed grapes and fanned with palm fronds; people with silver inside them are to become soldiers; people with bronze, iron, or some other cubic zirconia equivalent inside them are to be farmers. Some people, in other words, are just made of better stuff, and that fact alone means they get to abide by different rules. Convincing people of this, the theory goes, stabilizes society and ensures that things get done. Basically, The Republic takes 100,000 words to say "the world needs ditch diggers, too."

Now, observe one of the very first scenes in The Dark Knight, where a group of Batman wannabes try to break up a drug deal with limited success until the real thing shows up and puts everyone in their place. He ties up the bad guys and the Batman Lites, and tells them "don't let me find you out here again." The imitator responds:

Imitator: "What gives you the right? What's the difference between you and me?"
Batman: "I'm not wearing hockey pads."

In other words, Batman gets to be Batman not because he has been democratically imbued with authority, but because he's just better. He's got gold in him, and the poseurs should go back to their plebeian farms. Batman claims the right to lie to Gotham not through some vested power from its population, but simply because he's Batman.

This may make for stimulating analysis, but it's all backward-looking; what can it tell us about the future? Specifically, about the highly anticipated conclusion to Nolan's Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises? Though almost all of his films deal in the useful lie, only three make it the centerpiece of their story: Memento, The Dark Knight, and Inception.

As is the case with most thought-provoking films, the wisdom of each character's choice is not explicitly stated in any of Nolan's. But most films subtly convey their endorsement through a number of standard cinematic conventions. They can do this with an inspiring swell of music, a poignant silence, or a particularly articulate line that encapsulates their struggle. Most well-made films have no problem using these sorts of cues to create a clear impression in the mind of the viewer as to which characters and choices are correct, without ever actually telling them. Using these sorts of things as a guide, it becomes clear that Leonard Shelby's useful lie in Memento is meant to be condemned, and that Dom Cobb's rejection of the useful lie in Inception is meant to be lauded.

Things get a bit more complicated with The Dark Knight. On the surface, it seems that Batman's useful lie is considered praiseworthy, thanks largely to the lofty voiceover narration, pulsating music, and the fact that he is, after all, the good guy. But there are a few mitigating circumstances to consider.

Firstly, we can probably slip our thumb onto the scale and give Inception a little more weight, as it's the first studio film Nolan has ever done that is almost entirely his own creation. Memento was based on a short story written by his brother, Jonathan Nolan. Jonathan and David Goyer also contributed heavily to his Batman films. Both Insomnia and The Prestige are adaptations (of a foreign film and book, respectively). But Inception is an idea Nolan says he's been nursing for a very long time, crafting the screenplay here and there for roughly a decade.

Secondly, The Dark Knight may give Batman the last word, but it also dedicates a fair amount of time earlier in the film to opposition arguments about maintaining the integrity of the justice system.

Thirdly (and most importantly), Nolan's Batman saga isn't over. Taken alone, The Dark Knight does seem to endorse the useful lie that Batman tells, but we've yet to see its actual consequences. The film is part of a larger, as-of-yet unrevealed whole. Which means of the three films of Nolan's that are explicitly centered around the idea of a useful lie, we have two where it is clearly regarded as unjustified (one of which is probably his most personal film), and the only example to the contrary is part of a story that has yet to be completed. If one uses Nolan's other films as a road map, it seems likely that Batman's lie will backfire on him in some fashion. Perhaps it will be exposed, or perhaps Batman will find out that he's underestimated just how fervently law enforcement will be able to impede his actions.

It is, of course, entirely possible that Nolan is simply intrigued by the idea of the useful lie and is merely exploring its consequences. It may be that he's wrestling with the question himself, and doesn't have a firm position on it. Or maybe asking the question is merely a means to an end: an intriguing frame to string fantastic narratives 'round. Perhaps, to Nolan, it's simply useful.

Chris Bowyer can be found on Twitter (@chrisabowyer), or on his website.

Discuss this Essay (35 comments)

Cobpyth
Originally Posted by Cobpyth There's one clear example of the "useful/noble lie" in Dunkirk as well. To think of it, the whole film... Read Comment
Cobpyth
There's one clear example of the "useful/noble lie" in Dunkirk as well.... Read Comment
Yoda
Thanks. Yeah, there's a handful of others in the Essays section. Not all thematic analysis', but I think they have a similar feel, in that they all try to extrapolate the big picture stuff.... Read Comment

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