Great Britain, license to kill: The geopolitics of James Bond

Posted on November 30, 2012

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‘Skyfall’. Photograph: Francois Duhamel.

What role should a post-imperial Britain play in the world? This question has dogged us since at least 1962, when the former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson made his infamous remark. Arguably, though, the new Bond film has an answer: Our role is to kill bad guys competently and with style.

Throughout Skyfall, it is repeatedly emphasised that the world is threatened by all kinds of sinister chaps and it’s Britain’s job to foil their fiendish plans. It is a message that is conveyed explicitly – such as in the testimony that ‘M’ gives to a panel of sceptical politicians and later, in the final scene, when ‘M’ forcefully reminds Bond that there is work to be done – but it is also subliminal. For example, in that last scene, there is a painting of ‘a long line of Trafalgar era fighting vessels, primed and ready for action, looking magnificent in formation.’ As David Costelloe points out, this is meant as a riposte to Q’s comparison of Bond with Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, but it can also be seen as a statement of intent from Britain. (Indeed, the contrast between the two paintings may be the filmmakers’ way of telling Acheson to go fuck himself…).

Yet who are the bad guys? A criticism that my friend and ‘blogeague’ Adam Elkus has about Skyfall and other recent films in the franchise is that the villains Bond and MI6 do battle with don’t reflect the real world threats to the United Kingdom and its allies. Rather than foiling an attempt to control 60% of Bolivia’s water supply, maybe Bond should have tracked down Osama bin Laden to Abbottabad and put a bullet in his brain – followed by a quip about having already banged his forty virgins…

There are two points I’d make in response to Adam’s criticism. First, I can’t think of a villain who actually reflected a real world threat – even in the 1960s ‘golden age’ of Sean Connery. Soviet Russia was more an opponent with whom MI6 would occasionally cooperate to foil mutual threats (e.g. in The Living Daylights). In From Russia With Love, Moscow seemed to have a wary relationship with SPECTRE, reminiscent of Pakistan’s with the Taliban. Second, we don’t know what the ‘real’ threats are in the Bond universe. Perhaps British policymakers have a completely skewed threat perception and Bolivian public utilities are considered a vital national interest – something that MI6 just has to deal with as best they can. This doesn’t require a leap of the imagination given the ‘internationalisation’ of the national interest over the last decade and a half.

David has compared Bond’s battle with Silva in Skyfall to the one between Batman and the Joker in The Dark Knight – something that has been pointed out elsewhere. Yet there is a difference. Unlike most recent actions films, and, indeed, unlike previous films in the franchise, Bond is depicted as being rooted in an institution – the British espionage bureaucracy. He isn’t a superhero or a ‘fascistic’ strongman who operates outside the law for the (perceived) good of the community – Bond is an instrument of this country’s foreign policy. (Given our license to kill, I think his next mission should be the pre-emptive liquidation of the Avengers due to the fascistic thinking they displayed at the end of Avengers Assemble…).

A couple of weeks ago, the United Kingdom was declared ‘the most powerful nation on Earth‘ – at least as far as soft power is concerned. Skyfall, and the 50th anniverary of the Bond franchise, are explicitly marketed as part of it. Yet they are essentially a justification of hard power and the British punching above their weight in world affairs – not because we necessarily want to, but because there’s just work to be done.