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the film criticism aspect of cyber | by maryann johanson

Bourne vs. Bond: no contest

(Looking for my review? It’s here.)

So Matt Damon thinks James Bond is a pig, does he?

Bond is “an imperialist and he’s a misogynist. He kills people and laughs and sips martinis and wisecracks about it,” Damon, 36, told The Associated Press in an interview….

“Bourne is this paranoid guy. He’s on the run. He’s not the government. The government is after him. He’s a serial monogamist who’s in love with his dead girlfriend and can’t stop thinking about her,” Damon said. “He’s the opposite of James Bond.”

No disrespect to Matt, but c’mon: this is no newsflash. Any lingering doubts about whether James Bond was a relic of decades past was surely put to rest with the arrival of 2002’s The Bourne Identity and a new kind of superspy: the one disenchanted with his work, his methods, and the philosophy of his superiors, instead of one perfectly happy with it all.

There can be no doubt, too, that last year’s Casino Royale, with its dramatic reimagining of Bond, was a response to the wild success of Identity and 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy. This new Bond was real in a way that he had never been before: he bled, he hurt, his heart got broken.

But for all the grim brass tacks and the dispensing of the cartoonishness of the previous Bonds in Royale, Daniel Craig’s 007 remains a weapon of the establishment at a time when the establishment is under fire and under suspicion more than it has been in living memory. When your prime minister gets pushed out of office by a citizenry who can no longer stand the sight of him or endure his policies, well, do you really want a hero who is — ostensibly — carrying out those policies? But who better to cheer on than a guy who suddenly wakes up one day and realizes that he’s on the wrong side, that what he’s been fighting for a lie? Jason Bourne is evidence of how screwed up the establishment is.

Film.com’s Cargill says, “So what if James Bond is a pig? It’s not like he’s meant to be a role model or anything.” (I’m paraphrasing a bit.) But it’s not about Bond being a role model, or whether he should be. Hell, Bourne is no role model either — and he’s just as fantastical, in his own way, as Bond, with his almost superhuman speed and reflexes.

What it’s about is this: How far do we trust our governments? Bond is an unquestioning agent of his government, right or wrong. That’s an outmoded attitude in today’s political environment in which the perfidy of self-serving leaderships is undeniable and increasingly dangerous on a global scale. Patriotism cannot be unquestioning … when it is, it is open to abuse by that leadership. What makes Bourne a hero for the 21st century is that he comes to realize that his patriotism has been abused — this is the central theme of The Bourne Ultimatum. Bourne doesn’t just feel more than Bond, he thinks more.

Cargill says, “Bourne is an amnesiac. He doesn’t have to feel guilty about what he’s done because he can’t remember it.” Right. Bourne doesn’t remember, doesn’t have to feel guilty — but he does anyway, because his sense of right and wrong doesn’t come in a memo from his bosses.

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  • MBI

    ***Bond is an unquestioning agent of his government, right or wrong. That’s an outmoded attitude in today’s political environment in which the perfidy of self-serving leaderships is undeniable and increasingly dangerous on a global scale.***

    I’m not sure I agree. James Bond is a wholly fictional character who works for a wholly fictional agency in a wholly fictional government in, in my opinion, a wholly fictional country. I guess Bourne is, too, but Bond doesn’t make any bones about it, they are complete fantasy pictures. Bond has nothing – nothing at all – to do with modern politics. If you can believe in good guys and bad guys, in the very possibility of a government which doesn’t completely suck, I don’t see why you can’t believe in Bond. I mean, governments weren’t any more or less trustworthy in ’64.

  • MBI

    That said, as fantasy pictures, they are often simplistic and boring (cough cough Die Another Day), so maybe I do agree with you somewhat.

  • Moe

    *Gives MaryAnne a standing ovation*

    Are you ever wrong?

    I eagerly await your review of Ultimatum. Why isn’t it up now? Why do we have to wait until Friday?

  • Grant

    I’m with MBI here (which is kind of odd in and of it self ~_^). I don’t know that Bourne “thinks” more about anything. If the story had been written differently and Bourne had been brought in after his amnesia, and _then_ decided he didn’t like the way the CIA did things, then yes, one could say he is anti-establishment. But that’s not how the story goes. The CIA is gunning for him from the get go. The flight from death is the driving impetus of the plot. That’s not thought or feeling, but survival instinct.

    Bond, on the very completely other hand, really is an idealized super secret agent of an idealized British government. His enemies are clearly evil, so the good or bad motivations of his employers are irrelevant. Most of the Bond films involve him being told to find the bad guy and stop him (wink wink nudge nudge license to kill) before he takes over the world (ominous look). The identity and motivation of said bad guy is never a mystery. Bond doesn’t have to think. He has to save the day.
    I know Bourne and Bond both fall into the spy genre, but can you really compare the motivations of the characters. Or, at least, to call Bourne more thoughtful and relevant because he’s against the spy agency really says nothing about Bond since his plotlines are so different.

    Also… you’re messing with one of my childhood heroes MaryAnn! /cry ^.^

  • Signal 30

    The posters sum it up fairly well: Bond vs. The Mouthbreather.

  • Bond is an unquestioning agent of his government, right or wrong. That’s an outmoded attitude in today’s political environment in which the perfidy of self-serving leaderships is undeniable and increasingly dangerous on a global scale.

    But don’t we, on occasion, need those unquestioning agents? I freely admit that I am a cynical, cynical man, and you won’t find too many people more mistrusting of government than me. That said, I do recognize that government needs to EXIST, and since we do need government, and that government should be one of laws and systems, not men, it’s absolutely imperative that we have people willing to do its work, no questions asked, or else the entire structure of government becomes subject to the whims of its civil servants.

  • t6

    Bond is fictional…but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a political agent. He was a tool for the British to pretend that their crumbling empire…wasn’t. It was a fantasy allowing to still believe that they were a relevant imperial superpower in a postwar period when they lost then entire empire and the economy was terrible. Bond was the agent of imperialism and establishment, but the not establishment of the time–he was a conservative reactionary (remember his anti-Beatles comments)–that was in line with Flemming and others desire to be in a mythical conservative reactionary Britain…a Britain in which all of the British espionage failures and scandals (Profuro affair, Kim Philby, etc).

    Yes it is fiction and yes it is fantasy…but it is complely political. I just finished teaching a class looking at the cultural politics underlying fictional spied in 1960s TV, Film and Music…and it was amazingly fascinating. There are ways in which it makes sense to compare Bond and Bourne (both agents in the fantastic genre vs. the more realist genre)…but their are other ways in which Bourne being American and Bond being British make them very different birds completely. Coming out of WW2 the British and the Americans had very different cultural and political issues and standings in the world–which means their spies with be mediating very different cultural needs.

    Anyway, some books on Bond if you are all interested in Bond as part of culture:

    James Chapman, License to Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films
    also good, though not Bond is Chapman’s, Saints and Avengers: British Aventure Series of the 1960s

    I’m not a big fan of Wesley Britton’s work on the genre…he’s a bit of an apologist that doesn’t make really compelling arguments for his apologia.

    On the American side, I’m a fan of Michael Kackman’s Citizen Spy: Television, Espionage, and Cold War Culture

    All of those are very academic, then there is:

    Simon Winder, The Man Whe Saved Britain: A Personal Jouney into the Disturbing World of James Bond This is very journalistic and makes no pretense as a veneer of objectivity…and it is really harsh…if you don’t want people to point out some hard truths about 60s Britain and Bond…then don’t read this book…but I found it very fascinating.

  • MaryAnn

    I mean, governments weren’t any more or less trustworthy in ’64.

    Of course not. But our attitudes about trust in government have changed. I’m talking about what we bring into the theater with us, less than I am about the small details about what’s on the screen, or how the films and characters differ. So sure, you can argue that it’s okay for Bond to be an unquestioning agent of his government because his government is doing the right thing, and no fair comparing this to Bourne who has no idea whether he is for or against what he was told to do because he can’t even remember it. When you’re talking purely about this films existing in their own isolated fictional universes, that’s fine.

    But what I’m talking about here is how we approach these characters. Bond is outdated in part because it’s almost impossible for many people today to accept that everything a government does is necessary and noble, *regardless of whether Bond himself may be correct in his assumption that he is doing the right thing.* Bourne is more a man for today because his paranoia and mistrust mirrors our own, *regardless of whether he is actually justified to be in the grip of such emotions.*

    All that said, I love the most recent Bond movie. And I love the Bourne movies. But I think it’s interesting to look at them brought together, taken out of their vacuum.

  • MaryAnn

    I eagerly await your review of Ultimatum. Why isn’t it up now? Why do we have to wait until Friday?

    Because it’s not written yet. Forgive me, all of you who have heard this before, but alas, I don’t make my living entirely from film criticism. I’m constantly juggling non-movie-related work (I do freelance writing and editing) with the film stuff, and sometimes the other work has to take priority. Sorry. I wish this weren’t the case, but it is.

  • Moe

    Oh, sorry for coming of as an inconsiderate jerk.

    I guess i always had this thought in my head of you writing down your review immediately after watching the flicks so as they stay fresh in your mind but aren’t allowed to post them until the day of their release as per some critic-screening agreement.

    I guess that’s just what i’d do if i were you.

  • I think the crucial bit is the person who said “It’s not like James Bond is supposed to be a role model.” I mean, he IS a role model for some people, but that doesn’t mean he should be. Of course, one can admire traits in a certain character while not endorsing everything he does. Who wouldn’t want to have all the best consumer products, drive the best cars, seduce any woman who caught his eye, and save the world on a regular basis without getting your hair ruffled?

    But of course the genius of Casino Royale–the only Bond film I’ve truly loved–is that it leans very heavily on the fact that Bond is a bastard, and indeed, shows us how he got that way. While many of the Bond flicks are entertaining in a “howlingly ridiculous and campy” kind of way, any truly good Bond film is measured by the degree to which it’s aware of its protagonist’s antihero status. So moral criticisms of Bond, in that context, are totally worthwhile for the terrible Roger Moore and (except for Goldeneye) Pierce Brosnan flicks, they’re beside the point for Casino Royale, and to a lesser degree some of the Connery flicks. He’s SUPPOSED to be a morally ambiguous guy. That’s the point.

  • MaryAnn

    Oh, sorry for coming of as an inconsiderate jerk.

    You didn’t.

    I guess i always had this thought in my head of you writing down your review immediately after watching the flicks so as they stay fresh in your mind but aren’t allowed to post them until the day of their release as per some critic-screening agreement.

    No, I hardly ever write a review right after a screening. I hate having to do that. I need to let a film percolate for a while before I really understand my own reaction to it.

  • Fuggle

    “I need to let a film percolate for a while before I really understand my own reaction to it.”

    How much do your opinions of a movie change during this process? Do you tend to keep the feelings you walked out with, or do they change over time?

    (to elaborate, I tend to be fairly easy to please when I’m immediately in the theater. When the lights go down, somehow I become extremely forgiving, and I can walk out of the theater speaking well of a movie that, in hindsight, wasn’t that good, and I won’t like it on second watch.

    I wouldn’t want to watch a review in that state, because after a while – minutes, hours, a day – my brain catches up with the rest of me, sometimes yelling “what were you /thinking/! that was /horrid/!”)

    I’m wondering if that’s something that other people – you – go through, or if you let it percolate for completely different reasons?

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