“To be as good as our fathers we must be better, imitation is not discipleship.”
There are many reoccurring themes in Christopher Nolan’s films, but there’s one theme which I personally find to be his most interesting and personal. That of becoming a better man than your father. This is something which reflects how to improve as a society and as a species we must learn from our mistakes. Many characters throughout Nolan’s films are fathers, from Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Inception (2010) to Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) in Interstellar (2014).
Both fathers are trying to fight issues in their past in order to become reunited with the children they left behind. Both these characters are driven by the responsibilities of being a father, and the idea of being seen as a positive role model for their children. Even in Nolan’s most recent film Dunkirk (2017) the character of Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) decides to travel to the beaches of Dunkirk to save the men – because of his role and responsibilities as a father. Not only is he seen as role model for his son Peter and his friend George, but it is discovered that he feels it’s out of respect for the son he lost.
Even when the main character in the film isn’t a father himself (for example Will Dormer in Insomnia) they still adopt the same responsibilities of the father. In the case of Dormer in Insomnia he becomes a mentor and a father figure for Ellie Burr (Hillary Swank) even up until the point where he tells her not to throw away evidence that will prove he shot his partner. His last words to her are “Don’t lose your way.” which brings us back to the quote by Wendell Phillips: “To be as good as our fathers we must be better.”. This suggests that we must learn from the mistakes of our “fathers” and we must improve on their accomplishments and legacies.
However this ideology of “being better than your father” is most evident in Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) which details how the main character is driven by a need to be like the father he lost as a child. But inevitably discovers that imitation is not sufficient enough to save the city of Gotham. The character of Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), is driven by the need to seek revenge for the murder of his parents.
We are first introduced to how the Bruce’s father is seen as a positive role model for his son, it is Thomas Wayne (Linus Roache) who comes to the rescue when Bruce falls down the well. We see from Thomas coming down through the eyes of Bruce with his father surrounded in white light, which creates this impression of purity, safety and perfection. Bruce idolizes his father and sees him as an almost “Godlike” figure.
As discussed in “The Role of the father” by Michael Lamb and Catherine Tamis-Lemonda, prior to the twentieth century “fathers were primarily responsible for ensuring that their children grew up with an appropriate sense of values.” By presenting Thomas Wayne in this way, and having him descend from light into darkness to rescue his son we are given the impression that Thomas is the moral compass and someone to look up to and aspire to become. Lamb and Tamis-Lemonda go on to discuss how “fathers play a number of significant roles— companions, care providers, spouses, protectors, models, moral guides, teachers, breadwinners.” And this is shown in Nolan’s Batman Begins, as Thomas Wayne is not only the CEO of Wayne Enterprises but he is also a doctor, and a philanthropist.
Nolan’s work is very interesting as it shows how human beings are social animals and we learn by modeling behavior. In fact, all primates learn how to survive and function successfully in the world through social imitation. We see from Batman Begins the symbolic significance of Thomas’ stereoscope which represents his good-hearted nature. Bruce keeps the item up until the point that the Wayne manor is set on fire, he discovers the box in the ashes and sees that most of the stereoscope has melted but the outline is still there. His father’s message of helping those less fortunate has still survived. Just like how Thomas came to Bruce’s aid with the well incident, he comes to the aid here and Bruce must learn to stand on his own two feet now. He must become “the better man.”
Batman Begins is interesting because there are two father figures/role models in the film. Aside from the obvious father in the form of Thomas Wayne, there is a fake father figure in that of Ducard (Liam Neeson). First and most obvious father figure is Alfred (Michael Caine). Alfred even uses Thomas’ own words to build up Bruce’s morale after a fire destroys the Wayne Manor, “Why do we fall sir? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
The role of Alfred is significant as he is Bruce’s contact to his past life and his father, we see how Thomas calls for Alfred’s assistance after rescuing Bruce from the well. Alfred fills the gap left by the death of Bruce’s father, by being his moral compass, providing him with shelter, food and companionship. However their bond isn’t as strong as the bond Bruce had with his father, which often means there’s always a distance between Bruce and Alfred.
Still, Bruce relies on Alfred and knows he has an ally, because Alfred keeps his secret, but very much like a parent Alfred tries to talk Bruce out of the idea of becoming the Batman. It is discovered that Alfred has taken on the responsibilities of being Bruce’s father, as he informs Bruce during a confrontation that “I give a damn, because a good man once made me responsible for what was most precious to him in the whole world.”
Bruce must become a better man than Alfred, in the same way as he must become a better man than his father, because Alfred is only the help and doesn’t have the access to the Wayne business. However it is through Alfred’s help and guidance that Bruce is able to adopt the persona of The Batman, so Alfred sacrifices his own “life” to help Bruce become this better man.
The second father figure that helps Bruce to become the better man, is in the form of Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), who is seen comforting Bruce after the death of his parents. We see from this short scene that Jim steps into the shoes of the father and mother figure, and comforts the child. It is a moment which leaves a lasting impression on Bruce and affects his overall behaviour. It is the act of the kindness of strangers.
When Bruce becomes Batman he seeks out Gordon’s help, and tells him “You’re a good cop, one of the few.” As he sees Gordon as a father figure, he respects him and admires his purity. However, there are laws and a set of rules that Gordon must abide to as an office of the law, the only rule Bruce must adhere to is not to take a life. Therefore, Bruce must be a “better man” than his other father figure, Jim Gordon.
It is the constant presence of positive male role models in Nolan’s films which help steer our main character towards the right direction. And as a result it helps reinforce the idea that to be a decent human being we must become better than our parents whether they be blood related or just a role model. It is a positive message to take away and reflects how the children of tomorrow will learn from our mistakes and strive to make a better difference in the world. Nolan always offers us hope, and a way out of the well.