007: Man of the Left

007: Man of the Left

Changes and progress very rarely are gifts from above

"Changes and progress very rarely are gifts from above," said Noam Chomsky last week. "They come out of struggles from below. And the answer to what's next depends on people like you. Nobody else can answer it."

In Haiti and Bolivia, Chomsky went on to say, popular movement swept unlikely presidents to power in recent decades, and they didn't stop there.

I've already posted my opinion that Obama voters should step up their game rather than relax, and won't belabor the point. But I bring up Chomsky's speech because Haiti and Bolivia both figure heavily in the new James Bond film, Quantum of Solace. And Bond comes down on the side of the political left.

Maybe you have to have loved secret agent 007 and hated what his real-life counterparts do in the world for as long as I have to appreciate the explosiveness of a people's Bond. I went to the film last week after coming across Juan Cole's brilliant essay about it, and walked out exhilarated.

Cole's right, but that doesn't entirely explain the exhilaration. Bond and Bond girls are wrapped up in my childhood sexual awakening: I saw 1979's Moonraker when I was 9. The same year, I saw The War at Home, the documentary about Vietnam War-era protest, and my political adolescence kept pace. Cognitive dissonance isn't the term: In my imagination, cool violence in the name of Western empire is inexplicably sexy, while nonviolence for the people just can't compete.

Bond is sexy for reasons that predate him by millennia: The British intelligence agent is an erotic archetype because sex for its own sake, isolated from love or overwhelming it, is the definition of hot. Righteous killing requires strength and cool detachment, in theory, traits that are masculinity incarnate.

The books used Bond's allure as a way into their author's worldview. Thumb back to 007's debut, in Ian Fleming's 1953 novel Casino Royale, and you find a work of almost intoxicated focus about steeling one's self for the Cold War. Fleming's fetishism in sensual and consumer detail is almost Story of O-like, and as vivid from the famous opening line: "The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning." Much as O passes through the contortions of mental resistance to what she will become, Bond questions his nature and the rightness of his purpose:

"[T]his country-right-or-wrong business is getting a little out of date. Today we are fighting communism. Okay. If I'd been alive fifty years ago, the brand of conservatism we have today would have been damn near called communism, and we should have been told to go and fight that. History is moving pretty quickly these days, and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts."

Bond says these things to Rene Mathis, his trusted friend in the French Deuxieme Bureau, while sitting in bed recovering from torture to his genitals inflicted by a Communist spy. Mathis tells Bond to get himself a family:

"Surround yourself with human beings, my dear James. They are easier to fight for than principles."

[Mathis] laughed. "But don't let me down and become human yourself. We would lose such a wonderful machine."

Bond ignores that last bit of advice, and pays dearly for his lapse of moral certitude. He pays with chunks of his heart, chunks he later decides he's better off without. Coming to his senses, he sees the "Russian machine" as a clear expansionist threat in the last pages: "For them it was always safer to advance than to retreat."

The last line of the book carries the thud of finality: "The bitch is dead now." And Bond's callous misogyny is no accident: Softness on communism coincides in dear James with softness in general, with femininity, and 007 comes to regard this two-way door as one to be shut and bolted forever.

You don't have to be psychotic

You don't have to be psychotic, which Bond surely is, to find an ideal in Fleming's hysteria: Anyone getting up in the morning and dressing for work might enjoy thinking of himself or herself as ruthless or sleek. Bond is the eros of efficiency. And there's nothing in the 20 Bond-series films before 2006's Casino Royale, not even the one where he gets married, to suggest that there's anything wanting in this outlook.

Fleming's Bond, who went to doctors to receive shock therapy, became a harmless, gentlemanly sensualist in the film series, and you can mark our social progress by the subtle shift in Bond's charms from playful condescension to mutual utilitarianism. By 1995's GoldenEye, Bond had a stern female boss (Judi Dench), with whom he now has increasing sexual chemistry, and was enduring barbs about his status as a Cold War relic.

But 2006's Casino Royale is the first true anti-Bond in the series. And to understand Quantum of Solace, take a second look at its superior prequel. The movie Casino Royale pointedly includes the "bitch is dead" line from the book, yet extends a fourth act to undermine it. It's both the most Fleming Bond and the most anti-Fleming one, breaking from all previous continuity to start over, and for once get inside Bond's head. But it's a different head: Director Martin Campbell (who did GoldenEye), working from a script by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (who wrote 1991's Let Him Have It), and a revised version by Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima), seems to understand Fleming for the first time, the better to utterly subvert him. Love in Casino Royale isn't a softening, but a hardening (puns with Bond are inevitable). It's a gamble with higher stakes than any mere playboy, emphasis on boy, would risk.

Bond isn't just a man now, but a working-class man. The Fleming Bond's obsession with the finer things has become modern Bond's amusement at the props and costumes of rich people. Did the filmmakers read Alexander Cockburn in 1987 before casting Daniel Craig in the role?

There was something a bit common... in all this insistence on the very best, as though Bond knew that in the end he was, as the elegant Dr No put it in [Richard] Maibaum's line in the movie, "nothing but a stupid policeman," on hire to the ruling class. Hence the great scene in From Russia With Love, when the class imposter Bond, played by a working-class boy from Edinburgh with a Scots burr in his voice, comes up against the other class impostor and psychopath Red Grant, played by Robert Shaw. "Red wine with fish," says [Sean] Connery, "I should have known." "I may take red wine with fish," Shaw hisses viciously, "But you're the one on your knees now."

Now, when a bartender asks Bond if he prefers his vodka martini shaken or stirred, Daniel Craig's 007 responds, "Do I look like I give a damn?"

This revisionism extends to a new physicality in the parkour-chase opening, empathy for the Third World that Bond always chases through, and a sobered treatment of international relations and law, not to mention fresh verve and texture in the filmmaking itself--who knew Campbell and company had it in them? Even the music dispenses with the Bond theme, John Barry's cherished surf-guitar riff, though there's at least one Bond-theme moment: 007's clean return to the poker table after a near-deadly attempt to keep him away, his smirk showing the pleasure of rivalry for its own sake. Craig's boyish glint registers the kind of liftoff usually achieved, in previous films, with outrageous action.

Bond films had always been about themselves, with each kink of the formula since 1964's Goldfinger replaying against audience expectations--the fetishism of Fleming turned into an international in-joke. Producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman kept the franchise in-house (at EON Productions at Pinewood Studios in England), passing Bond along as a family business to Broccoli's daughter, Barbara, and stepson Michael G. Wilson. Despite corporate concentration above (United Artists folding into MGM folding into Sony, and Pinewood into Shepperton), Bond remained a reliable product: No Bond film is all that much worse than another, though classics and embarrassments emerge. Product sameness offered Casino Royale an opportunity: The film isn't just revisionism, but a comedy of revisionism. It renounces each touchstone with a wink and a checklist.

And nothing in Casino Royale departs more dramatically from previous Bonds than its central love story. There's a lot of humor in the banter here between equals, but also a serious critique of Bondism: Where love and mission come into conflict here, the film sides with love. And Bond rises to the occasion of tenderness. Craig's 007 is a quiet rebuke of how Bond hollowed out the male ideal in the years when many American and British men were taking up the true mission of the Cold War: to repress hope in the Third World.

Not that Bond was ever political in the movies: 007 saved himself for escapist posterity with humor and by staying out of the conflicts people actually worried about. So Fleming's war on the International Communist Conspiracy was abandoned in favor of detente-era missions against private third parties, presaging the War on Terror. As Dr. Evil-style super-villains fell away, Bond stuck with consensus bogies of the post-Cold War era: drug kings, North Koreans, post-Soviet strongmen.

The real 007s, meanwhile, went underground

The real 007s, meanwhile, went underground: John F. Kennedy, who counted 1957's From Russian With Love among his Top Ten favorite books, launched his war on Cuba, including Bond-like attempts at assassination by cigar, in secret. By the time many of these crimes were made public in the 1975 Church Committee hearings, Fleming's worldview was in retreat. Bond kept returning unscathed by reality, and 1977's The Spy Who Loved Me (with Roger Moore relaxing into his handsomeness a bit), is one of the more memorably fun throwaways in the series, particularly the ski-chase opening. Yet Bond had already been eclipsed by anti-spies such as Warren Beatty in 1974's The Parallax View and Robert Redford in 1975's Three Days of the Condor, 007s for an era of CIA defectors.

Quantum of Solace owes a particular debt to The Bourne Identity, less the 1980 Robert Ludlum anti-spy novel than the 2002 film directed by Doug Liman, which dispenses with the book's conceit that Jason Bourne is innocent. Matt Damon's Bourne is a U.S. government assassin whose mind has been wiped clean by amnesia--a deeply evocative premise for Americans. One day he wakes up with only his muscle-memory intact. He's forgotten his mission, his employer, even his name. Without a past, he discovers that he is a conscientious person, albeit one with the apparent ability to kill people with his bare hands.

Bourne has lost his memory as a result of an incident in which he was unwilling to cross the line into utter depravity. In other words, he was already at least human enough that he put heart above mission. And fate rewards his choice, where it punished the 1953 Bond. Bourne gains his innocence. And he meets and falls in love with a woman with whom he has little in common besides the fact that she's obviously a good person. For Jason, that's enough.

Over and over, Bourne tosses away the guns he takes from his attackers. He keeps starting from scratch without violence, a riff that reaches its apex during the classic U.S. embassy sequence. Jason Bourne is the United States every few years, forgetting what we've done, and to whom, awaking once again amazed at our own power to do harm, rattled that anyone would wish harm on us, and yet somehow expecting it. We are edgy and plagued by nightmares, but believe we can use our power to put things right.

Compared to Bourne, even the new emo Bond is a stupid policeman. But then, Bourne loses focus as he beds his good woman like a good Bond, without any hint of curiosity about whether this, too, is programmed muscle memory. Action and revenge propel a final act and two sequels, where The Bourne Identity began with so much more.

In a similar way, Quantum of Solace reminds us of what happened in Casino Royale without exactly reminding us of why it matters. The emotional thread is there for you to notice now and understand on DVD, when you'll want to watch that amazing motorcycle stunt again. There's been carping about Quantum's plot leaps, humorlessness, incomprehensible action, and even the title (from an Ian Fleming short story). But it easily tracks and entertains better than most Bonds, from the scaffolding fight to that short trench coat on Gemma Arterton. If director Marc Forster loses Bond in his Bond film (a mild disaster compared to Monster's Ball), at least there's a character to lose.

Quantum of Solace is the first Bond to doubt his place in the world

Quantum of Solace is the first Bond to doubt his place in the world, as he did in Ian Fleming's book Casino Royale. Bond goes rogue, goes native, goes off the reservation, and goes off the deep end because he wants the bad guys worse than his bosses do. Like Bourne, he's moved by love, then revenge. And yet the lapse this time isn't his, but his bosses': Her Majesty's secret service has been compromised by economic interest, and so have Bond's old allies, the Americans.

In one key scene, the bad guy (Mathieu Amalric of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) boasts of usurping democracy in Haiti for U.S. corporations, who wanted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide out because he raised the minimum wage to a dollar. In another scene, Bond dresses down CIA bro Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright, who once played Martin Luther King) for helping the North carve up Latin America in the name of coke and anticommunism. Look who's talking, says Felix, one policeman to another.

The story, hatched by Bond producer Michael G. Wilson (with a script by the Casino Royale team and Joshua Zetumer), has Bond joining forces with the villain's lover, played by Ukrainian actress Olga Kurylenko, the first Bond girl from the former Soviet Union. As Juan Cole writes,

Kurylenko, who grew up in a poor family headed by her mother, plays a Bolivian girl whose family was destroyed (and her mother and sister raped) by the haughty General Medrano. She is so organically a figure of the left that no distinction can be made between her private quest for vengeance on Medrano and the salvation of the pro-peasantry government of Bolivia.

The premise and players would be pleasure enough without the surprise gift of real-life condemnation from a Russian communist group (calling Kurylenko a traitor) and the more banal dismissal of a National Review provoked to run the following amazing sentence: "[T]he idea--and it is a hoary one--that the CIA is in the business of creating evil, right-wing dictatorships in Latin America is just laughable." (The link is my addition.)

The Bond theme now plays for Bolivians fighting against the privatization of water. It plays for Haiti, New Orleans's badly abused cousin. It plays for Latin America, where people don't laugh about U.S.-backed coups.

Most telling of all, Quantum of Solace treats the subject of rape without the playful overtones of Goldfinger or the erotic ones of 1989's License to Kill. The movie doesn't just crash the corporate-military party: It stands against violence in general, turning what Harry Saltzman called "sadism for the family" on its head. So when Bond turns death-machine at a performance of Tosca, there's no glee, and he soon learns that a British undercover was among his targets. When the big revenge scenes come, the movie doesn't revel in them, and the characters feel just as empty afterward.

So let the movie sell guns to people who'd buy them anyway. This is the first Bond to suggest that there's not much use for them.


A classic scene from the 1966 Bond parody Our Man Flint.

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