Department of Theatre and Film
"Christ, I Miss the Cold War": James Bond, 9/11 and Casino Royale
Mark Bernard is a PhD candidate in American Culture Studies with an emphasis in Film, Media, and Culture at Bowling Green State University. He is currently at work on his dissertation, entitled, "Selling the Splat Pack: Production and Consumption of the American Horror Film in the Early Twenty-First Century." His work has appeared in Contemporary Literary Criticism, Scope, and The ECCCS.
In a thought-provoking essay published in 2003, Jim Leach speculates about the future of the James Bond franchise in a post-9/11 world. Citing comments by Slavoj Žižek that conflate the image of Osama Bin Laden with that of legendary Bond super villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Leach laments that “the new situation” created by the terrorist attacks of 9/11 “would be explained and addressed according to the old scenarios” (249). Leach’s claims are apparently substantiated by his analysis of the September 2002 issue of Vanity Fair in which “a long photo-essay commemorating the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks” is immediately followed by an article previewing Die Another Day, the latest Bond film (257). As Leach puts it, “The reader thus turns the page from images of New York enveloped in smoke from the collapse of the WTC towers to images of the production of the latest film in which Bond saves the world” (257). Pointing out that Halle Berry’s wardrobe in the film is an obvious homage to Ursula Andress’s from the first Bond movie, Leach clinches his point: Bond, even after the events of 9/11, will continue to “save” the Free World using the same techniques and the same style that he always did. Thus, old scenarios are used to frame and “deal with” new situations.
However, Leach acknowledges the possibility that in a post-9/11 world, things may not remain so simple, claiming, “While Bond’s enduring popularity depends on the appeal of imaginary solutions to real problems, the terrorist attacks of September 11, and the subsequent critical and political responses, expose the complexity of the relations between the imaginary and the real in the contemporary cultural environment” (257). This complexity – or, more accurately stated, confusion – can be found in what I would argue is the first “true” post-9/11 Bond film, Casino Royale, directed by Martin Campbell and released in 2006, the year that Hollywood finally seemed ready to “deal with” the events of 9/11 by releasing a spate of films – United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006) and World Trade Center (Oliver Stone, 2006), for example – about the infamous day’s events.
On the surface, Casino Royale is, very purposely, different from previous Bond outings in two ways: it ignores all the films that came before and begins anew, with a young Bond (Daniel Craig) who has only recently obtained “double-0” status and has not yet polished his trademark debonair demeanor, and it eschews, for the most part, the gimmicks of the earlier films in favor of a more “realistic” treatment of Bond’s early career. However, the film’s “realism” should not lead one to believe that it deals with the current global, political climate in any “new” or interrogatory ways. Casino Royale still relies upon old models of understanding global politics or, as Leach would put it, imaginary solutions (superhuman secret agents, etc.) to real problems (the arms race, war profiteering, the unequal distribution of goods around the globe, etc.), but the film infuses these imaginary solutions with a “realism” that seems to justify and validate the hard-nosed, paranoid, and bellicose tactics that the United States and its allies are utilizing in the “war on terror.”
Many critics and commentators enthusiastically embraced this new, more “realistic” Bond, and the critical response to Casino Royale was generally positive. For example, Sean Burns, writing for the Philadelphia Weekly, praises, “[T]his bruising, stripped-down prequel deliberately avoids the bloated campiness that bogged down those desultory Pierce Brosnan efforts of recent years” (Burns). According to Burns, the film delivers an image of Bond that “feels a lot leaner and a good deal meaner than we’ve come to expect from the series in recent decades” (Burns). Tom Charity, critic for CNN.com, also admires this “utilitarian, back-to-basics Bond” who exhibits “psychological depth” and “bleeds and bruises” unlike the seemingly indestructible Bonds of past films (Charity). Along these lines, critic Philip French praises the makers of Casino Royale for infusing the film’s violence with more “realism” and making Bond a more vulnerable character: “the violence is more realistic and not accompanied by Monty Norman’s famous theme music. There is a lot of blood” (French). Similarly, Sean Burns admires how the film’s “violence is messy and unpleasant – lots of grappling close-quarter pummelings during which the sound design amplifies every crunching bone” (Burns).
Casino Royale’s depiction of Bond doling out, as Burns describes it, “messy and unpleasant” violence in order to protect the Free World may suggest that the film somehow questions the United States’s and Britain’s militaristic approach to global politics. After all, Bond is a figure who, with his British origins and American action-hero appeal, perfectly personifies a combination of Tony Blair’s and George W. Bush’s hardnosed tactics in the “War on Terror.” Unfortunately, an interrogation of these tactics does not take place. Instead, the film fails to deal with global politics post-9/11 in any significant ways and falls into the pattern of using old, Cold War-era models as a way to frame and think through – or, rather, not think through – contemporary situations. For example, Le Chiffre, the villain of Ian Fleming’s original novel Casino Royale, is “a bagman for the Soviet terror organization Smersh” (French), whereas in the film, he (played by Mads Mikkelsen) is transformed, in the most superficial and perfunctory way, into a “private banker to the world’s terrorists” who used his knowledge of the events of 9/11 to manipulate the stock market.
Further, the “realistic” violence of the film and the harsh treatment of Bond reanimate this old “Cold War” model with a feeling of victimhood on the part of the United States, post-9/11. Jonathan Schell, in “Too Late for Empire,” his scathing critique of American imperialism, argues that the United States’ imperialistic tendencies have often come from a state of imagined impotence: “Why, if the Untied States has had no peer in wealth and weaponry, has it for more than a half-century been persistently, incurably complaining of weakness, paralysis, even impotence?” (18). Predictably, this feeling of victimhood on the part of the United States was exacerbated by the events of 9/11 when, according to Tom Engelhardt, “one of the most common words over those days [following 9/11] in the Times and elsewhere was ‘vulnerable’ (or as a Times piece put it, ‘nowhere was safe’)” (17).
This perceived victimhood and powerlessness of the United States can be seen in the revamped Bond of Casino Royale. Sean Burns describes him as “the brutish, brokenhearted 007 for our times, appropriately tougher and sadder than the preceding incarnations” (Burns). I would argue that this “sadness” comes both from existing in a destabilized, post-9/11 world and from the United States’ perceived victimhood and that the “toughness” is what the film argues, through its usage of “realistic” violence, is required of foreign policy in these perilous times. Additionally, this “toughness” is reinforced by falling back on old “Cold War” modes of thinking. For example, at the conclusion of the film, an emotionally wounded Bond, who has been betrayed by a woman with whom he had fallen in love, has a brief, but illuminating exchange with M (Judi Dench), one of his commanding officers:
M: You don’t trust anyone, do you, James?
M: Good. Then you’ve learned your lesson.
For the audience, the lesson is clear: Cold War-style paranoia is the only tenable response to the current global political situation that has become increasingly violent, hostile, and perilous, especially – apparently – for white Westerners, considering that the audience sees no other person besides Bond endure torture in the film.
Jim Leach points out that self-reflexivity is one of the hallmarks of the Bond films (250), and it could be argued that Casino Royale is not significantly different from previous Bond films because of its self-reflexivity (there are plenty of in-jokes to keep fans of the Bond franchise entertained). However, I would argue that Casino Royale’s self-reflexivity and in-jokes serve to highlight the over-the-top campiness of previous Bond films and to foreground the “seriousness” of this one. For instance, when Bond and Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) embark on their mission to take down Le Chiffre, Bond teasingly informs Vesper that her codename for the mission will be “Mrs. Broadchest,” an obvious joke on the sexual and seductive names of past Bond femme fatales like Honey Ryder and Pussy Galore. Vesper objects, and the two share a laugh over the joke that both develops the emotional bond between the two characters and establishes their difference – a “serious” difference – from past Bond characters, a distinction on which the filmmakers attempt to capitalize when Vesper eventually breaks Bond’s heart by betraying him.
Another example of how self-reflexivity works to set Casino Royale apart from other Bond films is during the torture sequence. After having Bond stripped and tied to a chair, Le Chiffre remarks, “You know, I never understood all these elaborate tortures. It’s the simplest thing to cause more pain than a man can possibly endure” and proceeds to whip Bond’s genitals with a knotted rope. Le Chiffre’s comments on more “elaborate tortures” is obviously meant to call to mind the Rube Goldberg torture devices of past Bond villains, both foregrounding the “silliness” of those tortures and reinforcing the “reality” of Le Chiffre’s low-tech torture and Bond’s (and, by extension, America’s and Britain’s) victimhood.
Casino Royale seems to prove both Leach’s statement that “old models” will continue to be used in order to understand new situations and his claim that the relationship between the real and the imaginary will grow more complex in a post-9/11 world. The relationship between the real and imaginary is certainly more complex in Casino Royale, but this complexity does not necessarily mean that the film makes a significant or progressive statement about the current global and political situation. Rather, the film attempts to infuse old, Cold War-based models of thinking about global politics with a “realism” and “seriousness” in order to give them a new vitality and legitimacy in order to posit the United States as victims and thus justify hard-nosed tactics in the ongoing “war on terrorism.” In one scene, M laments, “Christ, I miss the Cold War,” but paradoxically, Casino Royale is a testament to how the Cold War modes of thinking, and icons like James Bond, really never left us, but instead have disguised themselves under the veneer of “realism” and “seriousness” and continue to inform the ways in which we envision and conceptualize our current global and political situation.
Burns, Scott. “Shaken, Not Stirred.” Philadelphia Weekly Online. 15 Nov. 2006. 21 May
Casino Royale. Dir. Martin Campbell. MGM / Columbia, 2006.
Charity, Tom. “Review: New Bond Is Dandy in Solid ‘Casino.’” CNN.com. 17 Nov. 2006. 21
May 2007. <http://www.cnn.com/2006/SHOWBIZ/Movies/11/16/review.casino/index.html>.
Engelhardt, Tom. “9/11 in a Movie-Made World.” The Nation 25 September 2006. 15-21.
French, Philip. “Casino Royale.” The Guardian Unlimited. 19 Nov. 2006. 21 May 2007.
Leach, Jim. “‘The World Has Changed’: Bond in the 1990s – and Beyond?” The James Bond Phenomenon: A Critical Reader. Ed. Christoph Lindner. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2003. 248-58.
Schell, Jonathan. “Too Late for Empire.” The Nation 14/21 August 2006. 13-24.