“You’re the symbol of hope I could never be,” Batman tells Dent. “Your stand against organized crime is the first legitimate ray of light in Gotham in decades. If anyone saw this, everything would be undone.” The line speaks to the shadowy duality between Batman and Dent, one the so-called “White Knight” in shining armor that Gotham needs, and the other its dark counterpart which the city truly deserves. In Nolan’s more grounded understanding of this mythology, Bruce Wayne became Batman to make the rise of a man like Dent possible.
The strength of the movie then is that like Bruce Wayne and so many other characters in the film, the picture believes in Harvey Dent. A more cynical or slapdash approach to the material would depict Dent as a heel; the golden boy who really was two-faced even before half of his face got burned off. In the film, he’s even dating Bruce’s unrequited love, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). It’d be so easy to make him the villain through and through.
Yet Eckhart’s doomed Harvey is not a villain. Not when he vows on campaign ads to clean up Gotham City’s streets at the beginning of the picture, nor is he one at the end, even when he has a gun pointed at a little boy’s head. In the literal classic sense of ancient Greek dramaturgy, Dent is the tragic hero of the story.
A Tragic Knight
When we meet Eckhart’s Harvey, he has one foot in the heightened world of a comic book movie, hardly raising an eyebrow when during a mobster trial a hostile witness pulls a gun on him. And yet, the other is grounded directly into what was our own in 2008. Within the film’s potent allegorical setting during the last days of the Bush Years, and the height of an endless “War on Terror” which saw greater and greater concessions to “security,” here was a good man trying to keep his city safe from supervillains explicitly and implicitly coded to be “terrorists.” And at least at first, his bending the rules by partnering with the Batman works.
More important to engendering audience sympathy, however, The Dark Knight also reveals Harvey is the Batman’s biggest public booster, defending the film’s titular character from cynics even named Bruce Wayne. It’s in that scene where Bruce and Harvey meet in their “off-hours” where Dent utters the famed “You either die a hero” line. Later in the movie when public opinion turns on the Batman because the Joker threatens to kill more people unless the Dark Knight publicly unmasks himself, Harvey literally protects Bruce from the howls of the mob. During a press conference where Bruce is preparing to turn himself in, Harvey first tries to reason with a skeptical press that “the dawn is coming” and then, when that fails, claims he is the Batman.
He bends the rules again to put his life literally on the line, taking the proverbial bullet for Batman and gambling that by claiming he is the vigilante, the Joker will try to murder him—thereby setting a trap for the actual Batman to instead ensnare the clown.