Is James Bond more moral than a drone?
One of the hallmarks of the last two James Bond movies, "Skyfall," released in 2012, and "Spectre," which arrived in theaters last weekend, has been the way director Sam Mendes has tried to reckon with who 007 might be and how the agency that employs him might operate in the context of the war on terror, mass surveillance, drone strikes and increasing government oversight on these issues.
It's always an open question whether action movies, which depend on lots of cheerful mayhem for their appeal, can actually mount coherent critiques of national security. But though "Spectre" badly wants to have something to say, the swipes it takes at mass surveillance and drone programs contribute to the film's overall hollowness.
In "Skyfall," the oversight question was whether individual agents, with all their idiosyncrasies and potential for failure, were more trouble than they were worth in a modern era. "We can't keep working in the shadows. There are no more shadows," Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) lectured M (Judi Dench), insisting that she submit to oversight after James Bond (Daniel Craig) failed to stop the theft of a list of agents and their cover identities, followed swiftly by the bombing of M's offices.
"It's as if you insist on pretending that we live in a golden age of espionage, where human intelligence was the only resource available," sniffs a priggish MP (Helen McCrory) at the resulting hearing, calling M's worldview "old-fashioned" and "reckless."
M's response is that you need individuals and human intelligence to capture the individuals who present threats to world security. "I suppose I see a different world than you do, and the truth is that what I see frightens me," she tells the committee. "I'm frightened because our enemies are no longer known to us. They don't exist on a map, they're not nations. They're individuals. Look around you. Who do you fear? Can you see a face? A uniform? A flag? No. Our world is not more transparent now, it's more opaque."
Her point is made for her when Silva (Javier Bardem), a former MI6 agent with a murderous grudge, crashes the hearing and starts shooting. It's an event that also absolves "Skyfall" from having to reckon with the ways that office workers rather than field agents might be able to track and analyze a hacker like Silva.
The Bond franchise's engagement with present debates about national security occupies more of "Spectre," though to less -- and less coherent -- effect. Mallory has taken over for the deceased M and finds himself in a bureaucratic battle with C (Andrew Scott, the Moriarty of "Sherlock," used to less effect than he might have been), who wants to create a multinational surveillance system and end the double-0 program.
"My door is always open, 007, for my employees," C tells Bond with great condescension toward the beginning of "Spectre," echoing the rhetoric Mallory, who took over M's job, has since abandoned. "This is the beginning of a new age in British intelligence. We're going to bring things out of the dark ages and into the light."
The discussion of security policy proceeds from there along two tracks. In the first, "Spectre" suggests that government reliance on surveillance plays into the hands of potentially evil data-hoarding corporations. And in the second, the film suggests that someone like James Bond is ultimately more moral than a drone program because he can exercise moral authority and is closer to the facts on the ground. Neither amounts to much.
"Spectre" doesn't really have thoughts on privacy or the unnerving ends to which a more benign government could put large stores of data. Instead, the movie's ideas mostly come down to a sentiment M voices early in the movie.
"I know surveillance is a fact of life. It's how you use it and who's using it that concerns me," he tells C. Surveillance technology is bad when bad people use it. It's dandy when it means Q (Ben Whishaw) can put nanobots in Bond's blood to track him in ways with satisfying operational implications, or when it means that M can outflank C (who, of course, turns out to be working for the bad guys) and tell him smugly, "Not a good feeling being watched, is it?"
The argument that James Bond himself is a more morally sophisticated tool of the British government than drone strikes doesn't advance further. "To pull that trigger, you have to be sure," M argues. "A license to kill is also a license not to kill." He suggests that double-0 agents have to look the people they kill in the eye, which is true, but, perhaps wisely given Bond's body count, doesn't argue that 007 can avoid collateral damage that drone strikes cannot.
All of this adds up to a sequence in which Bond decides not to kill Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), a friend of his boyhood who has since grown into the antagonist in "Spectre" and the architect of C's surveillance plan. I suppose it might be a morally powerful moment if Bond hadn't been under the impression earlier in the film that he'd blown up Oberhauser, his spy facility and a large number of Oberhauser's associates. And it's sapped further by the fact that as Bond stands over Oberhauser on a bridge, rafts of British armed servicemen are closing in on the wounded villain.
This isn't a hard choice Bond is facing here, where he might have to kill Oberhauser or risk his escape. If Bond shot Oberhauser under these circumstances, he'd just be a murderer.
"Why can't you just face it, M? You don't matter anymore," C taunts M when M comes to arrest him. "Maybe not," M acknowledges. "But something has to." Agreed. But for all its pretensions to possessing ideas, "Spectre" doesn't have much of an idea of what's actually important.