Thursday, November 05, 2015

007 Week: Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) is the finest Bond film of the Pierce Brosnan Era (1995 – 2002).

Although many scholars and viewers would tag Goldeneye (1995) for that particular honor, Tomorrow Never Dies ultimately gets the nod because it builds on the success of that film in some significant and artistic ways. 

First and foremost, Bond himself is a deeper, more conflicted character in Tomorrow Never Dies, one who is haunted by the failures in his past, and the tragedies in his present. 

Specifically, Tomorrow Never Dies explores Bond’s (failed) relationship with an old flame, Paris Carver (Teri Hatcher) and reveals that he is a man who is doomed to repeats his mistakes.  

Bond keeps knowingly puts women in danger…and they keep dying.

What kind of man is he to let this happen again and again?

One who -- truly -- puts Queen and Country above his personal life, and at a great human, emotional price.

This “darker” look at James Bond grants Pierce Brosnan something powerful to hold onto -- something worthwhile to chew over -- and his characterization of 007 here is an improvement over his work in Goldeneye.  I like his impossibly handsome, impossibly urbane Bond with a fallible side; a kind of world-weariness.

As I’ve written before, I am not generally the biggest Pierce Brosnan supporter in terms of James Bond films, though -- perhaps ironically -- I do deeply admire his performances as an aging spy in virtually all of his post-Bond films. 

I suspect that fact suggests one thing: that Brosnan is perfectly capable of being a great Bond, but that somehow the scripts/story-lines during his era never quite gelled with his particular personal strengths.

Part of the problem, I would suggest, is the familiar push-pull of the Bond franchise.  Historically speaking, the movies follow a pattern.  They have repeated this pattern, again and again. 

What is that pattern? 

Well, the films veer towards excess, entry to entry, and then finally go too far.  Then, the filmmakers must re-ground the series, eschewing fantasy and going “back to basics.”

We have seen this re-grounding phase occur with the nearly gadget-less On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), For Your Eyes Only (1981), The Living Daylights (1987) and Casino Royale (2006). 

Those films are explicit and deliberate responses to the out-of-whack fantastic elements of You Only Live Twice (1967), Moonraker (1979), A View to a Kill (1985) and Die Another Day (2002).

Yet Brosnan assumes the role with Goldeneye, a film that -- whatever its merits -- takes no real creative chances, also because of reasons of franchise history. Goldeneye’s sense of re-balancing involves making Bond’s world less personal, less-real, less-serious, less human, and much more spectacular than the one in Dalton’s critically-reviled Licence to Kill.   

The re-grounding here is not about re-discovering lost humanity, then, but re-establishing the franchise’s “epic” bona fides.  Goldeneye gives us space lasers, bungee jumping, skydiving to planes in flight, and other big moments that telegraph one core idea: BOND IS BACK.


What this means for Brosnan, however, is that the films don’t really handle Bond’s persona in a deep way.  He is a step backwards in a sense; less dramatic a Bond than Dalton, with features in common with Moore’s Bond: colorful and flamboyant but not deep or often vulnerable.  

As I noted above, Brosnan’s recent performances outside the Bond saga ironically suggest he could have brought a more cynical, caustic, burnt-out approach to Bond.  It’s a shame that the franchise didn’t make use of those talents fully.

But enough history lessons.

Tomorrow Never Dies gets closest to a more human paradigm, exposing Bond as a bit of a cad who uses those he loves, and then lives a solitary life, without even the possibility of real love, because he always chooses duty over personal connection. Even he knows this to be true. He seems resigned to that destiny.  For bond, at this point, after-glow is kissing the head of a dead lover before leaving to exact revenge against her murderer.

That impression of Bond as a man who throws his lover overboard -- putting her in danger though he already knows all-too-well the likely result of that danger -- is clearly reflected or mirrored in the film’s villain: Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce).

He is a man, a media magnate, who doesn’t just report the stories; he makes stories happen. He puts people and even countries into mortal danger over his desire to make money; to forge a global “narrative” that fits his interests and grows his influence. 

Both men use people for ulterior motives. 

With Bond, of course, it is not about self-glorification or power, but about the safety and security of Britain.  For Carver, it is about ego, about power. 

Yet both men use poor Paris, and both men notably fail Paris. Bond’s reasons are using her are far more pro-social (avoiding a war), however, than are Carver’s. 

But it’s certainly telling that just moments after losing Paris, Bond is smiling and grinning at his mastery of a remote control car.  He lives in the moment too; just as Carver lives for a good story.

As many reviews and interviews have made plain, Elliot Carver is, basically, a fictionalized version of Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Fox News and other news sources. The depiction of Murdoch here isn’t about political commentary, however, but rather about the consolidation of power in one organization. 

The film evidences deep concern (or what qualifies a deep concern, in a Bond film, rather…) over the idea that one man can sell his message over multiple channels simultaneously, thus shaping the thoughts and opinions of millions of people.  One man, in control of a media empire, can be responsible for huge amounts of misinformation, not to mention innuendo

The question the film raises is this: is someone who can achieve that end -- the altering a millions of opinions in a few heart-beats -- more powerful, even, than a president or prime minister? 

The answer, according to Tomorrow Never Dies, is affirmative. Carver discusses in the film how he keeps politicians under his thumb.  One wrong move, and that leader gets “slimed.”

What’s the context that permitted this kind of social commentary? It’s not just the ascent of Rupert Murdoch, but the whole milieu around him.  Tomorrow Never Dies premiered in 1997, just as Fox, CNN, and MSNBC were rising in the culture, forming a crucial trifecta of the twenty-four hour news cycle.

What that means is that news stories were (and are…) aired all the time, every day, and thus had to consume voracious amounts of material, of content. 

The media beast had to be fed. 

One of the first personalities consumed by this beast was President Bill Clinton, and the Monica Lewinsky Crisis/Impeachment Scandal was one of the first major stories of this new “media” paradigm. Around the clock, the “news” networks fed the audience talking heads, dueling political operatives, and spin-doctors as “reporters” or “journalists,” weaving new conspiracy theories and new aspects of the story. The story was sucked up, chewed, spit out, sucked in again, chewed over one more time, and then regurgitated yet again.

Elliot Carver, who starts wars to sell newspapers and get good TV ratings, is only a hop, skip and a jump away from the real life corporate media.  Do we see such blurring of lines in real life?  Of course, in the Iraq War of 2003, journalists were “embedded” with troops and became part of the ongoing story.  And those who weren’t actually part of the story, just made pretend that they were part of the story (Brian Williams, j’accuse).

Tomorrow Never Dies nicely sets up a conflict between good (Bond and M), who want to “prevent World War III,” and bad (Carver), who in this case notes that ‘words are the new weapons, satellites the new artillery.”

Outside the more world-weary 007, and a social commentary about the rise of the 24-hour news cycle, Tomorrow Never Dies holds up well today for other reasons. 

Michelle Yeoh’s agent, Wai Lin, demonstrates a level of independence and physical competence heretofore unseen by women in the franchise. The film gets a lot of mileage out of Yeoh’s martial arts abilities, and she comes across as a ‘Bond Girl’ every bit Bond’s equal.  In fact, in some fight scenes, Wai Lin is clearly his superior.  He resorts to trickery and cunning to take out his foes, whereas she uses her athletic prowess.

The pre-title sequence -- a visit to a “terrorist supermarket” on the Russian border – is brilliantly-edited, ramping up suspense as Bond must dispose of a nuclear weapon before a Navy air-strike detonates the device. This scene features a ticking time-bomb quality and spectacular stunts.

The film also hews close to Bond transition, depicting Bond as the last line of defense – and independent thinking, actually – as World Powers lumber towards war.  This idea, played in terms of China and Britain’s dueling navy ships, feels like a call back to You Only Live Twice (1967) or The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).  And Mr. Stamper, Carver’s foot soldier in the “war for ratings,” also feels like a call-back to a similar character, working for Blofeld, in You Only Live Twice.

Finally, I give high marks to this film’s “sacrificial lamb,” Paris Carver, as played by Teri Hatcher.  I like her world-weariness and sharp dialogue.  He clearly understands that whatever path she takes, she is heading for a bad end.  And, she’s right

Pierce Brosnan headlined just four Bond films.  I understand why Goldeneye tends towards more critical appreciation.  It was a big, crowd-pleasing effort that arrived six years after the last outing, and – yes - it was great to have Bond back. 

But in so many ways, Tomorrow Never Dies improves on that film.

Aside from Sophie Marceau in The World is Not Enough and the first twenty minutes of Die Another Day (with Bond a prisoner of war in North Korea), Brosnan’s era never again came together so well.

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