Like so many of our national security institutions, James Bond is an asset that the West hasn’t quite known what to make of since the end of the Cold War. Since the ’90s, he has been taking on rogue ex-communists, megalomaniac news magnates, and the usual assortment of evil geniuses who occasionally emerge from their evil lairs. Of course, Bond has always been something of a trend follower rather than the leading man of our imaginations. The improbable space-age plot of 1979’s Moonraker came two years after the release of Star Wars. Timothy Dalton’s two films in the late ’80s both dealt with the international drug trade. And as Hollywood became increasingly liberal and friendly to the Soviet regime in the ’70s, they found subtle ways to soften Bond’s classic arch-enemies. Throughout the Roger Moore years, the head of the KGB, General Gogol, is committed to peace and often finds himself allied with MI6 to stop rogue Soviet and criminal elements from provoking war. This gave audiences their Cold War hero while letting Hollywood make money without portraying the Kremlin as an Evil Empire.
Daniel Craig’s rebooted Bond is serious, brooding, and damaged. He tries to be to Roger Moore what Christian Bale’s Batman was to Adam West. The filmmakers for No Time to Die even recruited The Dark Knight trilogy’s composer, and one of the final scenes is similar to Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon eulogizing Batman from the end of The Dark Knight Rises. While both franchises feature an almost mythic hero facing fantastical villains, our rebooted Bond has struggled and failed to be as morally serious. Casino Royale delivered classic Bond drama, and Skyfall, with its Turner and Tennyson-laced odes to tradition, came closest to offering a thoughtful Bond. But the other three films of the Craig saga have fallen flat, including the final installment.
No Time To Die tries to redeem Bond. If we are being honest, Bond certainly needs redemption, but all the film’s emotional punches fail to land. Bond has given up his womanizing and fallen in love. He has a child. He’s resigned from the Secret Service, and the number 007 is given to a Black woman (a move that seemed inevitable but, in light of this year’s much-derided CIA recruiting video, seems a little too on the nose). As with most of the Craig saga, Bond is more relaxed. He wears jeans and drinks beer. He is, as Samuel Johnson might say, unclubbable. He still travels the world, but the aesthetics of the adventurer are significantly diminished. In Shanghai and London and Miami, the skyscrapers and airports all look the same. Ultimately, all this paring down leaves us with the realization that Bond doesn’t have much to say on his own. In No Time to Die this is revealed quite literally. In a scene that inverts the usual villain monologue, Bond tries to reason with a captive Blofeld. Watching him, however, can’t help but call to mind the brutal effectiveness of Sean Connery’s aristocratically dismissive retort to Dr. No.
The creators of the Craig saga clearly lack the sort of comprehensive moral vision and conviction that made The Dark Knight trilogy such a success. Christopher Nolan was willing to let Batman lean into the conservative nature of the character. After receiving criticism for The Dark Knight’s obvious parallels to the War on Terror, Nolan made the villain of his next film an explicit left-wing revolutionary. In contrast, the five films of the Craig saga have all failed to explain the exact motivations of the villainous SPECTRE. The filmmakers obviously want Bond to be modern, but are anxious about Bond’s place in the modern world, and shy away from having Bond address real modern evils. Bond, for instance, hasn’t been to the Middle East for the entire duration of the War on Terror. Without a proper villain, it’s difficult to make Bond stand for anything greater than mere entertainment, which is why the only hope for the series is for it to return to its Cold War roots.
Reviewing two of the Bond novels for The Spectator in 1966, Philip Larkin said what many reviewers of the Ian Fleming books have been forced to admit: “With our minds full of Sean Connery in Technicolor,” the books “seem sensitive, civilized, full of shading and nuance.” Larkin saw in the source material a “moralist Bond” who is “quite incompatible with the strip-cartoon superman of the film versions or of popular belief.” Fleming was, of course, not a great thinker, a great writer, or a great man. But it is true that his novels are significantly more serious than anything Hollywood has churned out, and that the context of the Cold War gave his books a certain moral energy.
Unlike John le Carré (who was admittedly the better writer), Fleming saw the Cold War in black and white, and didn’t hesitate to write books that demonstrated the moral superiority of the West. To understand Fleming’s moral vision, you have to understand his aversion to one of the seven deadly sins: acedia. Thomas Aquinas describes acedia “as an oppressive sorrow, which, to wit, so weighs upon man’s mind, that he wants to do nothing.” And Evelyn Waugh explained Aquinas’ view by calling it “sadness in the face of spiritual good.” Fleming in turn described acedia as “a form of spiritual suicide and a refusal of joy.” It was the only one of the seven deadly sins that Fleming wholeheartedly condemned.
In the novels, Bond himself is often tortured by acedia. From Russia with Love introduces us to Bond “disgusted to find that he was thoroughly bored with the prospect of the day ahead. Just as in at least one religion, accidie is the first of cardinal sins, so boredom, and particularly the incredible circumstance of waking up bored, was the only vice Bond utterly condemned.” The novel goes on to show Fleming’s solution to the problem: “Kick oneself out of it.” The capacity to go on kicking, and to enjoy life to the fullest, is what makes one morally admirable. Fleming’s obsession with sex is part of this moral vision, but in the novels it’s far from the most pronounced. He spends far more time, for instance, describing Bond’s meals. It’s all meant to contrast with the evil yet drab Soviets, who live in uniformed box apartments and quell their desires in the name of the state to the point that they are described as asexual. Against this impersonal force, Fleming gives us the underfunded but big-hearted men of the British secret service. In the end, the English win not because they have superior gadgetry or funding (i.e., not because of the more sophisticated material advancements produced by capitalism in contrast to communism), but rather because they simply have a bigger appetite for life and adventure. They are willing to walk into an obvious trap to “see the game through.” Needless to say, Bond is far from the portly, bespectacled, and “hopelessly unassertive” character of George Smiley.
Fleming only introduced SPECTRE in his later novels. He suspected the Cold War would soon end, and that Bond would need a new adversary to stay relevant. This would prove to be one of Fleming’s decisions that ultimately paved the way for the more cartoonishly sensational aspects of Hollywood Bond. The Connery and Craig filmmakers ditched the KGB for SPECTRE across all their films. Not only did this inevitably lead to evil lair extravagance, but it also deprived Bond of a morally serious adversary of the sort that every mythic hero needs. The film version of Casino Royale, for instance, gives us a Le Chiffre who is merely a banker who gambled away his client’s money, while in the novel he is the money man for the French Communist Party (which at the time was a pointed reference to Anglo-American annoyance at the post-war French).
Fleming was a modern man in reaction against modernity, and his morality has all the pitfalls of that inherent contradiction. Craig’s Bond should be admired for trying to work its way out of those contradictions, and even coming around to the classic Christian answer to acedia. You can’t kick yourself out of despair. According to Aquinas, the opposite of extreme slothfulness is love. Love is the virtue that moves all the others. It is the virtue of action, and the virtue that Bond has needed. But without any serious discernible evil, Bond’s sacrifice at the end of No Time to Die still feels rather cheap. He needs just a little something more. With all the source material, it isn’t difficult to imagine a Bond that brought an earnest belief in the virtues of Old England to face off against the soulless onslaught of international communism. That Bond would have a better foundation for thinking seriously about himself and the world. And it could easily be done even if we abandon the more problematic aspects of the character. Bond, shorn of his sexism and casual womanizing, could still make a convincing and enviable mid-century adventurer.
But if Hollywood can’t (and they probably won’t) pull off a serious Cold War Bond, then the next best argument for returning to the past is that at least we’ll once again get some beautiful period pieces out of the series. Between a modern brooding Bond with nothing much to say, and a well-dressed Roger Moore smiling and bantering his way through danger and exotic locales, I’m inclined to take the latter.