The new Spectre is “sexily pro-Snowden,” the Guardian declares; James Bond takes “a stoutly pro-Snowden line against the creepy voyeur surveillance that undermines the right of a free individual.”
And yet, the first thing Daniel Craig’s Bond does is to go to Mexico on an unsanctioned mission, murder a man and destroy a city block without authorization from the British government or (god knows) the Mexican one. He is duly reprimanded, but the film is firmly on his side. He foiled a terrorist plot. If a few civilians were killed by falling masonry, that’s a small price to pay. Sometimes you have to go outside democratic safeguards to save democracy.
Which is a familiar action movie theme. But how is it pro-Snowden exactly?
The Guardian and other outlets see the film as pro-Snowden because Bond and his boss M (Ralph Fiennes) are engaged in a bureaucratic fight to keep the double-0 special agent program from being replaced by a super-international surveillance system. Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott) wants to integrate the intelligence systems of eight nations, creating a superspy network to “watch everybody.” M believes that this superspy system will be misused—a surely deliberate nod, as the Guardian says, to Snowden.
M and Bond are the heroes, so, of course, they’re right; Max’s plot is evil. In fact, (spoiler if you’ve never seen an action movie before) Max is in league with the enemy. He’s part of the super-secret bad guy group Spectre. Spectre launches terrorist attacks, which make governments panic and want more surveillance. Then Spectre sells them the surveillance technology, which Spectre controls. Fiendish!
If this sounds familiar, that’s only because you’ve seen it before. Hydra infiltrated SHIELD in Captain America: Winter Soldier only last year; the bad guys are always taking over the supposedly good institutions. The hero’s annoying bosses aren’t just annoying; they’re actively in league with Satan.
This is satisfying for anyone who hates their boss. It’s also insightful. The forces of order and the forces of chaos really do rely on each other. Osama bin Laden needed the U.S. to muck about in the Middle East if he wanted to recruit fanatical anti-Western bombers.
By the same token George W. Bush needed bin Laden to kill a bunch of Americans if he wanted to get support for various wars. Violence is built on violence. Security forces and terrorists need each other if they’re going to grow and consolidate power. In that sense Spectre and Max are part of the same machinery of death, just as Spectre says they are.
So how do you put the brakes on that machinery of death? Snowden and his supporters believe you do it through public scrutiny, public debate, and, ideally, through the rule of law.
And what about Spectre? The film does mention “democracy” a time or two, but it’s more a shibboleth than an ideological commitment. After Mexico, Bond spends basically the entire film gallivanting around without any supervision by public representatives, his actions (including killing people) kept secret from prime ministers, parliament and his own immediate superior. The contrast in the film is not between lawlessness and the rule of law. It’s between newfangled surveillance technology used without democratic oversight and old-fashioned agents shooting people without democratic oversight.
Of course, Bond doesn’t need oversight because, as Bond girl Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) inevitably declares, “You’re a good man, James.” The problem with unaccountable surveillance in Spectre isn’t that it’s outside the democratic process. The problem is that the surveillers are conniving terrorists. The good guys can be trusted with power because they are played by Daniel Craig. The bad guys can’t, because they wear rings that say “bad guy.”
Spectre suggests that the good guys are good precisely because they are unaccountable. M gives a rousing speech in which he tells Max that the double-0 program is more moral than surveillance because men like Bond kill on their own authority. “To pull that trigger, you have to be sure,” M says. “You look him in the eye, and you make the call.”
The license to kill, the carte blanche to serve as extrajudicial executioner, is what makes Bond more moral than all the boring people who haven’t shot anyone. Being freed from democratic restrictions makes you more aware of your ethical obligations, which is why Abu Ghraib was such a humane procedure.
Spectre isn’t pro-Snowden. It’s pro-Bond. It isn’t opposed to surveillance technology because it is concerned about lack of government accountability. It’s opposed to surveillance technology because Bond should be out there, alone, doing the dirty work of justice, and you don’t want bureaucratic cretins listening in and second-guessing him.
The ultimate violation, for M, is the discovery that Max is monitoring MI6 agents—MI6 agents who are going against orders, it turns out. The real problem, in short, isn’t wiretapping random citizens. It’s installing police body cameras.
Spectre shows how thoroughly our narratives of heroism rest on assumptions that are anti-Snowden. Spectre loves its bad boy hero precisely because he doesn’t follow the rules, doesn’t listen to his boss and shoots the bad guys dead while fusty institutional bureaucrats twiddle their thumbs. Bond isn’t accountable to anyone. That’s why he’s awesome.
And if some Snowden-like functionary were to go public with a file of Bond’s actions, in an effort to alert democratic representatives to the extent of the double-0 program’s taxpayer-funded carnage—well, that Snowden-like functionary wouldn’t be the hero in a Bond film. He’d be the bad guy. James Bond would hunt him down and, without trial by jury, shoot him dead.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.