James Bond: A hero for (what remains) of Bush era?

By Robert F. Moss

While Ian Fleming insisted that the James Bond thrillers were nothing more than “fairy tales for adults,” the critics have steadfastly refused to believe him. At the height of the Bond craze in the 1960s, anthropologists of popular culture used 007 as evidence of everything that was vital — or vile — about Western society, whether it was pugnacious anti-Communism, primal male fantasies, gun fetishism or runaway consumerism.

But 40 years have done little to dim the fascination with Bond, who has survived the Cold War period that spawned him and, arguably, mutated into a paladin for our own times. Immediately after 9/11, Fleming’s world of white knights and dark ones seemed to converge dramatically with George Bush’s, as the worldwide manhunt for terrorists was launched. That was one of the conclusions of a 2003 Indiana University conference on Fleming (“Ian Fleming and James Bond: The Cultural Politics of 007”), in which more than a dozen scholars presented papers on Bond’s unending relevance.

Like all 13 other Bond books, Fleming wrote “Casino Royale” at Goldeneye, his whitewashed, modestly appointed villa on Jamaica’s north coast, sprinting through his slim, tautly paced narrative in only eight weeks. Although it made little impact upon its appearance in 1953, it established the basic conventions for the series: a cruel, reptilian master-criminal; a beautiful but aloof heroine, whom only Bond can arouse; the capture and subsequent torture of 007; a suitably spectacular demise for the villain, and, along the way, all those sleek cars and exquisitely blended cocktails.

“Casino Royale” tries to be as faithful to Fleming as possible, while retrofitting some parts of the story. Bond’s nemesis, Le Chiffre, has been transposed from a Soviet operative to a kind of C.F.O. for an international terrorist organization, the baccarat duel between Bond and Le Chiffre is now a session of “Texas Hold ’em” poker, and the casino-battleground has been shifted from France to Montenegro. The torture sequence, in which Bond is nearly castrated, has been faithfully reproduced.

In every interview, Daniel Craig — the latest 007 — has sought to differentiate his Bond from all the others by claiming that for the first time we will learn how Bond became Bond.

The closest Fleming himself got to such depths is a chapter entitled “The Nature of Evil.” Recovering from his horrendous beating by Le Chiffre, Bond questions his calling’s legitimacy — “this country-right-or-wrong business” — at surprising length. He even considers resigning from the Secret Service. Rene Mathis, 007’s fellow spook from Paris’s Deuxieme Bureau, dispels his friend’s self-doubt (now that Bond has “seen a really evil man” he will spot and “destroy” all such others), and he’s good to go. Never again will he waver in exercising his license to kill. The words “Bond felt no remorse,” or some variant thereof, would subsequently become the agent’s leitmotif.

In the film, the hero’s moral quandary is preserved in an altered, abbreviated form. When Bond falls in love with his partner, the ravishing Vesper Lynd, he has a shattering moral crisis. His surrender to passion is presented as his first — and last — attempt to salvage whatever spiritual residue remains. But, veering back to Fleming’s text, the film permits Bond only a brief idyl with Vesper on the Adriatic coast before he discovers that she too is a double agent, and he reverts to his former identity with murderous resolve.

The trajectory from the 1953 book to the 2006 movie carries us from the Cold War’s early days to year five of our current war on terror, and both works confirm that Bond is as solid a candidate for pop hero stature during the Bush presidency as he was in his own time. In the days after 9/11, the president often denounced Osama bin Laden as the “evil one” or the “evildoer,” making him sound less like the leader of a sophisticated international terrorist network than Ming the Merciless, from the old “Flash Gordon” serial (“Earthlings, nothing can save you now!”), Ming himself being a byproduct of Fu Manchu, one of Fleming’s most cherished models for villainhood. Is the president’s simplistic and tacky moral absolutism what conservatives like Sean Hannity have in mind when they laud his “moral clarity”?

Despite the Democratic sweep of Congress on Nov. 7 and his lame duck standing, President Bush has reiterated his my-way-or-the-highway approach to global terrorism. While he has backed away from some of his more colorful frontier lingo, his attitude still appears to be “Smoke ’em out.” That’s pretty much Bond’s philosophy, isn’t it? The resonant moral certitudes of the war on terror, the neat binary division of good and evil, the concept of the “enemy within” (this time sleeper cells rather than Communist cells), the knowledge of who should and shouldn’t be killed or perhaps incarcerated indefinitely — these are all quintessentially Bondian ideas with applicability to our contemporary political culture.

In the film of “Casino Royale,” as in the book, Bond is ably assisted by Felix Leiter, his C.I.A. counterpart. Fleming makes Leiter a native of Texas, observing that the best Americans seem to come from that state. Seeking politically neutral ground, the movie does not incorporate either reference to the Lone Star state. A pity, as they would have harmonized nicely with the film’s Texas-style poker marathon, perhaps even evoking the image of the most renowned and powerful living Texan. If Fleming were alive, the president’s Military Commissions Act, which permits the suspension of habeas corpus for terrorism suspects who are not U.S. citizens, might make him feel even more affinity for Texas and Texans. In “Live and Let Die,” he has Bond lament the handcuffing of American law enforcement by “habeas corpus and human rights and all the rest.”

On the other hand, the provisions in the new statute for coercive interrogation, which is bound to entail some low-intensity prisoner abuse, would scarcely meet with Fleming’s approval. In his novels, torture is a tactic Bond and his allies in the Free World are often subjected to but never employ themselves; the practice is, in itself, proof that 007’s adversaries are monsters who flagrantly violate all norms of civilized conduct. Fleming’s observations on the subject — again from “Live and Let Die” — are remarkably consistent with what we often hear from interrogation experts today: “Torture is messy and inconclusive. People tell you what will ease the pain.”

At the Indiana symposium, one participant, Stephen Watt, went so far as to describe Fleming as prophetic, a writer whose fiction “uncannily” prefigures our own circumstances by replacing the Kremlin-run SMERSH of the early novels with SPECTRE, a stateless terrorist organization introduced in “Thunderball” and headed by the flamboyant archfiend Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Watt draws intriguing analogies with al-Qaeda and bin Laden, as well as citing Blofeld’s startlingly modern willingness to use biological and chemical weapons against England.

There seems to be general agreement that the war on terror is the Bush administration’s raison d’etre, that it has recast the Cold War with new enemies and old anxieties, capitalizing on our renewed fears of mass murder. Since threats to our national security require the highest level of for-your-eyes-only secrecy, lest a source be compromised, the war on terror remains almost as shadowy as a Bond yarn, and we might as well have 007 — at least on our movie screens — out there protecting us.