The reviews of director Marc Forster’s “Quantum of Solace” have complained about the film’s hectic pace (reminiscent of Doug Liman’s and Paul Greengrass’s Bourne thrillers), about the humorlessness of Daniel Craig’s Bond, and even about the squalid surroundings, so unlike Monaco and Prague, in which the film is set (with many scenes in Haiti and Bolivia). They have missed the most remarkable departure of all. Forster presents us with a new phenomenon in the James Bond films, a Bond at odds with the United States, who risks his career to save Evo Morales’s leftist regime in Bolivia from being overthrown by a General Medrano, who is helped by the CIA and a private mercenary organization called Quantum. In short, this Bond is more Michael Moore than Roger Moore.
The plot of the film was developed by producer Michael G. Wilson during the filming of “Casino Royale.” New York-born Wilson is from a show-business family (his father, Lewis Wilson, was the first actor to play Batman on screen, and his step-father, Albert Broccoli, was long the producer of the Bond films). But Wilson did a law degree at Stanford in the 1960s and worked for a while at a firm specializing in international law. Outrage at offenses against international law are as much at the heart of this film as the more personal vendettas of Bond and Camille (Olga Kurylenko).
Kurylenko, a Ukrainian, is the first Bond girl actually played by an actress from the former Soviet Union, and the St. Petersburg-based KPLO, a Communist group, denounced her, saying,
‘ “The Soviet Union educated you, cared for you, and brought you up for free, but no one suspected that you would commit this act of intellectual and moral betrayal.” ‘
The KPLO then called James Bond “the killer of hundreds of Soviet people and their allies,” which suggests why they are still Communists– they have difficulty distinguishing between reality and fantasy.
The St. Petersburg Communists got the politics of the work all wrong. It is the closest thing to a progressive Bond film ever made, more Graham Greene (admittedly, Graham Greene on steroids) than Ian Fleming. Kurylenko, who grew up in a poor family headed by her mother, plays a Bolivian girl whose family was destroyed (and her mother and sister raped) by the haughty General Medrano. She is so organically a figure of the left that no distinction can be made between her private quest for vengeance on Medrano and the salvation of the pro-peasantry government of Bolivia.
The Bond films were never quite as rightwing as had been the novels. In “From Russia with Love,” Ian Fleming had the Soviet assassination unit, SMERSH, deploy the crazed serial killer Red Grant for its nefarious purposes. The films instead made SPECTRE, a private terrorist organization, the villain, depicting it as working against both Soviet intelligence and MI6 or British international intelligence. (Admittedly, the films were reflecting the steps toward detente that in some ways began with Johnson). The films were prescient about the potential for the rise of private terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda as major players in their own right, able to confound the intelligence agencies even of powerful states.
Still, East Bloc leaders and troops are often depicted as sinister. An example is the rogue Soviet General Orloff in “Octopussy,” who conspires to set of an atomic bomb, made to look like an Amrican device, to give aid to the peace groups in Western Europe in their quest to make it a nuclear-free zone, thus setting the stage for a successful Soviet take-over. (That film implicitly configures the movement against having nuclear warheads in Europe, spearheaded by figures such as the leftist historian E.P. Thompson, as advocates of a surrender to Moscow. That is about as far right a position as you could take on the European peace groups of that time).
The present film takes, to say the least, a different view of popular movements of the left. Morales is not mentioned in the film, but his movement was in the headlines while “Casino Royale” was being shot, as he challenged the old “white” elite and was denounced by the US ambassador as an “Andean Bin Laden” and his peasant followers (many of them of largely native stock) as “Taliban.” Morales’s nationalization of Bolivia’s petroleum and natural gas and his redistribution of wealth from the wealthy elite to villagers were among the policies drawing the ire of George W. Bush and his cronies.
If Morales is not mentioned, Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti is. The villain, Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) remarks that while Aristide was president 2001-2004, he raised the minimum wage from 25 cents an hour to a dollar an hour. It was, he said, little enough, but caused the corporations that benefited from cheap Haitian labor to mobilize to have Aristide removed. (Aristide himself maintained that US and Canadian intelligence connived with officers at the coup against him and kidnapped him, taking him to southern Africa.) The Left analysis of American imperialism in the Western hemisphere is put in the mouth, not of a worker or ideologue, but rather of the collaborator in capitalist exploitation of America’s poor neighbors. Aristide’s story is a clear parallelism for the fate the CIA and Quantum are depicted as plotting for Morales.
Note that director Marc Forster’s father was from conservative Bavaria, and that the family was forced to relocate to Davos in Switzerland because they were targeted by the radical Baader-Meinhoff gang after the father became wealthy on selling his pharmaceutical company. Forster’s previous film, “The Kite-Runner,” sympathized with the Afghans oppressed by the Soviet invasion and even shows one character refusing to be treated by a Russian-American physician. That is, Forster is no glib Third-Worldist. He and his screenwriters are simply performing the work of the intellectual, interrogating the way the wealthy and powerful in the Bush era casually overthrew (or tried to overthrow) foreign governments in the global south to get at the resources they coveted.
In the new film, Dominic Greene is a secret member of Quantum, a mercenary coup-making consulting firm. That is, it is represented as a private contractor to which the CIA is willing to farm out coup-making instead of doing it directly. Greene’s cover is that of the head of a conservation organization that buys up land in poor countries to ensure it is preserved from despoilment. In fact, he despoils it. In a complicated and not very plausible plot twist, Greene appears to be buying up land under which he is convinced there is oil, but in fact is trying to corner the market on Bolivia’s aquifers so as to overcharge the country for its water after the military coup unseats Morales.
The CIA is convinced to back Quantum both because it wants leftist governments in Latin America overthrown and because Quantum would re-privatize Bolivia’s fossil fuels. Greene observes to CIA field officer Greg Beame that the way the Bush administration bogged the US down in the Middle East allowed several Latin American countries to move left (obviously, the referents are Venezuela, Bolivia and Brazil). Beame’s partner, Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) is uncomfortable with the coup plot and the collaboration with Quantum.
Britain’s own elite comes in for a drubbing. Quantum has placed a man close to the British prime minister, who is thus duped. M tries to call off Bond, with no success, and she is pressured by her superiors to bow to the CIA plan. This plot element is a veiled reference to Blair’s knee-jerk support for Bush. The notion of a mole from a mercenary corporation close to the PM recalls the allegations that far-right billionaire Rupert Murdoch was a spectral presence at every Blair cabinet meeting.
Of course, in real life the CIA did use a private set of organizations, the Mujahidin or Muslim holy warriors (Afghans and the Arab volunteers who became al-Qaeda) to overthrow the leftist government of Afghan leaders Karmal Babrak and later Najeebullah. CIA consultants with Hollywood have been careful, in films such as “Charlie Wilson’s War,” to play down the element here of ‘blowback’ (where a covert operation goes rogue and produces an attack on the sponsoring country).
But this Bond film is explicit that the United States under Bush has become the bad guy, that US intelligence is in league with rogue mercenaries and brutal, rapist-generals who plot coups against elected governments. Bond therefore has to take on the United States government (at one point, a SWAT team from the CIA Special Activities Division tries to capture Bond in a bar in La Paz, but fails because Leiter tips Bond off to their approach. The good American in this film is the one willing to betray the US government to a more virtuous MI6 field officer).
George W. Bush is a lurking presence in this film, and appears to have almost single-handedly pushed Bond into championing the indigenous peasants against the white-tie global elite. The plotting of millionaires at a performance in Bregenz in Austria of Puccini’s opera, “Tosca,” to devastate and brutalize for their own gain the poor of Bolivia half a world away, recalls the scene in Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11″ where Bush toasts his super-wealthy “base.” He was implicitly promising that their enterprises will be deregulated and their taxes lowered and the costs of those things passed on to the middle classes and workers.
The original Bond began his education at Eton (he was thrown out) and was a member of the British elite, even if he exhibited its otherwise hidden rough edges and occasionally ruthless methods (deployed against still more ruthless opponents such as Soviet assassination squads). Still, he defended the interests of his social class against challengers.
With this film, Daniel Craig’s Bond, who is from a considerably lower social class than Flemings’, has chosen to defy the white-tie set, and the Bush administration’s greed and lawlessness, and to stand up for the little people (including Camille, who symbolizes Morales’s Indios). At one point the smarmy CIA man Beame rejects any criticism from Bond of US imperialism, given Britain’s own long and sordid imperial history. But a country, and a people, always has a choice in each generation, of whether to do the right thing. They are not prisoners of their ancestors.
Craig’s Bond is an intimation of the sort of Britain that could have been, if Tony Blair had stood up to Bush and refused to be dragged into an illegal war of choice, and into other actions and policies that profoundly contradicted the principles on which the Labour Party had been founded (and you could imagine Craig’s Bond voting for Old Labour, while Flemings’s was obviously a Tory). In a way, this Bond stands in for Clare Short, who resigned as a cabinet minister from Blair’s government in 2003 over the illegitimacy of the Iraq War.
It is a sad state of affairs that Bush’s America now appears in a Bond film in rather the same light as Brezhnev’s Soviet Union used to. One can only hope that President Barack Obama can adopt the sort of policies that can get Bond back on our side.