British film star Daniel Craig earns his living playing parts, but who knew he had such a flair for the dramatic? The current face of the James Bond franchise recently told Time Out London he’d rather “slash his wrists” than resume the role of the world-famous British spy for a sixth time.
Craig’s impending departure has fueled much speculation over who might be his successor. Personally, I’d love to see Idris Elba take up the Bond mantle for a movie or two. Having such a quintessentially British role, exclusively held by white men, go to a person of color sends a powerful message while also reflecting the very real demographic changes ongoing in the United Kingdom and across Western Europe.
But after that? I say pack it in. The world doesn’t need more casually misogynistic, unquestioningly imperialistic Bond films. And beyond the politics, there simply isn’t much left for James Bond to do. He’s kicked down every door from Montenegro to Hong Kong, and bedded every woman from Rio to Moscow. Switching up M’s gender was a fun move; but that said, the franchise has basically dried up. Of course, lack of original material has never stopped Hollywood from keeping a franchise on indefinite life support. Particularly when box office earnings top $1 billion worldwide, as they did for 2012’s Skyfall.
What’s more, in the post-Snowden era, we deserve spy thrillers with a little more nuance. In real-world spycraft, the “good guys” aren’t always all that distinguishable from “the bad guys”—and neither side is willing to admit to any moral ambiguity. There is certainly less cackling on the part of the evil doers, none of whom stroke Persian cats or sport conveniently grotesque scars.
I get it—Bond films are fun. I’ve loved them since I was a child. I grew up reading Sir Ian Fleming. But I matured, and so did my tastes. The blatant sexism and gross geopolitical simplifications that were easy to overlook as a 14-year-old are hard to look past today. Suspension of disbelief can only do so much—particularly when plot lines grow repetitive and predictable.
I never much got the impression that James Bond ever viewed anyone—enemy or paramour—as particularly human; other than M, maybe. He kills with ease and without second thought. He discards women like tissue paper, though perhaps that’s more a consequence of screenwriters’ seeming inability to keep one alive for more than 90 minutes.
Fortunately, it seems Hollywood is moving in the right direction. Studios are slowly disavowing themselves of the mindlessly dualistic spy thriller of the Cold War days (there are exceptions of course, i.e., 2014’s Thatcherist-pap Kingsman: The Secret Service.)
We’re also seeing John Le Carré adaptations being produced with greater frequency (two in the last year alone: A Most Wanted Man and Our Kind of Traitor). Le Carré’s thrillers are like Fleming’s, but for grown-ups. Though both authors spent time in Britain’s intelligence services, it’s clear Le Carré walked a way with a distinctly more refined understanding of modern geopolitics and espionage.
Le Carré’s recurring protagonist George Smiley is no mindless, Bondian killing machine. True, he does what he must to complete a mission, or prevent disaster, but he is never unquestioningly subservient to the objectives of the state. Neither is his nemesis—a Soviet agent known simply as “Karla”—painted as abjectly evil. He, like Smiley, is a man with strengths and weaknesses; a bit of good and a bit of bad. And like Smiley, he knows he’s a pawn in a wider game, too complex and intricate to be packaged in tropes of good vs. evil.
Bridge of Spies, the upcoming Cold War thriller directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks, looks to be a similar departure from oversimplified spy-movie storylines. In it, Hanks plays a civilian lawyer charged with negotiating a prisoner exchange with the Soviet Union. He had previously defended a Soviet spy by the name of Rudolf Abel, with whom Hanks’s character enjoys an empathetic rapport. It’s a refreshing demonstration of character complexity—even the players closest to an international conflict are, at the end of the day, human beings fighting for a core ideal (love of country) that doesn’t differ so much between nationalities.
The West doesn’t need more narratives depicting our so called enemies of state as wholly amoral, and agents of the government as unyieldingly righteous. Western foreign policy and intelligence-gathering policies are, morally speaking, as clear as dishwater. Hollywood obfuscations of that fact are less comforting than frustrating.
“All I want to do is move on,” Daniel Craig told Time Out. Perhaps it’s time the the world did too.