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The (rare) spy who took on the establishment

The (rare) spy who took on the establishment
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First Published: Thu, Dec 20 2007. 11 57 PM IST

Left, right: Bourne (left) and Bond have a very different political agendas.
Left, right: Bourne (left) and Bond have a very different political agendas.
Updated: Thu, Dec 20 2007. 11 57 PM IST
What do you suppose James Bond’s politics is? I think it is safe to say he is not terribly left wing, given that he spent half a decade fighting the “communist menace”, till there were no communists left. I doubt also that he’s big on human rights or civil liberties. He functions without warrants, ignores the protections afforded to his victims by the law and his claim to fame is a licence to kill, allowing him to terminate anybody he regards as a threat to British interests.
Left, right: Bourne (left) and Bond have a very different political agendas.
We know that Ian Fleming, Bond’s creator, was right wing and a bit of a snob. His Bond was an Old Etonian, Oxbridge sort of chap who approved of the working classes only when they obligingly tugged at their forelocks. We suspect also that, in keeping with many Englishmen of his generation and background, he was probably a bit of an anti-Semite (Jewish organizations insist that his books are peopled by evil Jews including, perhaps, Auric Goldfinger), liked no foreigners except Americans (the Japanese in You Only Live Twice are pathetic caricatures), and loathed homosexuals (for some reason he believed that gay people could not whistle—see The Man with the Golden Gun).
In the movies, they softened Bond’s right-wing, upper-class views somewhat, but the whole series is dotted with political incorrectness, including that gratuitous scene where Daniel Craig—in his first outing as Bond—destroys an African embassy, single-handedly despatching dozens of Black diplomats with an unlikely lethality reminiscent of Dharmendra’s 1970s heyday, when he would knock out 20 villains in three minutes.
In the old days, all spy movies and books were committed to a right-wing view of the world because they were predicated on the Cold War conflict between capitalism and communism. It was hard for, say, John Le Carré to speak up for the workers’ struggle when George Smiley was battling Karla and the evil Soviet empire. For a spy story to be easily accessible, the commies had to be the bad guys while the Brits/ Americans were faithful servants of their governments, battling the forces of global communism.
But what’s funny is that even when there is no Cold War subtext, spy fiction (in books and in the movies) still tends to epitomize right-wing rather than liberal values. After the producers of the Bond films tired of Russian villains and invented Spectre as a league of international baddies, Bond remained as unmindful of civil liberties or the rule of law. To this day, the motto is: The end justifies the means (and the fight sequences, and the killings, and the chases, etc.)
In The Spy Who Loved Me, Bond joins forces with a Russian agent (the lovely Barbara Bach), but though communist and capitalist fight side by side, the overall political attitudes remain the same.
Or take the case of Frederick Forsyth who, by the end of the 1980s, had become so resolutely right wing that he took to adding needless sections in his novels portraying British trade unions and the Labour Party as Russian stooges. Even now, with all the Commie-bashing sadly dated, Forsyth has remained as committed to violating human rights to fight the so-called war on terror (his recent The Afghan, for instance).
On TV, the politics is much the same. In each episode of 24, Jack Bauer murders, tortures and assaults people in a manner that would be seriously unconstitutional if it were at all realistic. Though 24 has been widely criticized for endorsing torture, its producers remain unreconstructed right-wingers who act as though it is quite all right to send electric shocks to a suspect’s testicles. As with Forsyth and the later Bond films, it is no longer about fighting the commies. Now, it is about the fight itself—dirty, brutal and without sense of legality.
But if you think about it, you’ll realize why this politics makes little sense. In 24, for instance, the ultimate villains only appear around episode 14, and are nearly always shadowy rich men, presidential aides, or even the president himself. The only protection against a system that has been taken over by the bad guys is to institutionalize civil liberties and human freedoms so you can limit the damage that powerful men who have subverted the system can do. And yet, the message of 24 is the opposite: Those charged with protecting the US (Jack Bauer, for instance) can trample over every human right if they choose to.
One reason why Paul Greengrass’ Bourne Ultimatum, the last film in the Bourne trilogy, was so grotesquely over-praised by liberal critics when it came out (it’s an okay movie, but hardly great) was because it was a left-wing thriller. The villain in the movie is the Central Intelligence Agency, which has used the excuse of the war on terror to illegally kidnap people, to train assassins, and to shoot anybody it likes without bothering to look for any sanction.
Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne is a victim of this rogue organization, and the tone of the film is the opposite of the normal spy movie: It suggests that we should make governments accountable to ordinary citizens.
Not since Three Days of the Condor in the 1970s has a big-budget commercial movie (and Condor rode the Watergate backlash) dared to take such a stand. And yet, The Bourne Ultimatum’s huge box office grosses suggest audiences are finally buying this line.
It’s part of a wider trend fuelled, I suspect, by revulsion over the Iraq war. Reese Witherspoon (hardly the Jane Fonda of her generation) played the traumatized wife of an Egyptian-American who came under suspicion during the war on terror in Rendition. And a slew of anti-Iraq war movies are hitting theatres around now.
If this trend catches on, then we may finally have to rewrite the rules of the genre. Perhaps the next Bond film will have Daniel Craig taking on the US state department. And perhaps the next series of 24 will feature Jack Bauer saying the unlikely lines…“I could torture him to get the info, but it would be wrong to do so.”
Unlikely? Yeah, I guess so. But a change is coming, nevertheless. And we’ll see it in the next lot of spy movies.
Write to Vir at pursuits@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Dec 20 2007. 11 57 PM IST