Fifty years in, the spy is ever less relevant — and still beloved. Why?
Attention, Eon Productions, Daniel Craig, and Heineken: James Bond is not a beer drinker!
Sure, I know. Getting all worked up about the new James Bond installment is like freaking out about a new Tim Burton movie—past glories don't justify contemporary relevance. The year 2012 marks 50 years since the release of Dr. No, which spawned the defining film franchise of the 1960s. One irony here is that from the start, Bond was something of a throwback: a bitter, hard-living woman-hater who liked to drink and beat guys up.
Ian Fleming based the character on people he knew in British Naval Intelligence during World War II. Bond's cold attitude was a spy's hatred for a world increasingly indifferent toward those who would protect it. This is visible in the joy Bond takes in deriding Q's cleverness and self-satisfaction. Because he is a secret agent, Bond's risks and sacrifices are never acknowledged publicly; even from his superiors, he rarely receives anything but criticism, whether it's for property damage or carrying on with some girl. This is one of the reasons we empathize with and like him.
It makes sense, then, that, while always dashing, Sean Connery's Bond still felt like a crass working-classer who had mastered the manners necessary to be a secret agent of Her Majesty's government. His general lack of respect for his superiors and his alternately wanton and dismissive attitude toward women indicate the opposite of "good breeding." That sense that Bond's social graces had been learned left the role with Connery, and a succession of self-satisfied cads took over. Blame Roger Moore, who sapped the character of his culturally interesting elements and replaced them with cartoonish upper-crustiness.
To some extent, Bond has existed outside of time. Jetting to Jamaica, Istanbul, Fort Knox, Tokyo, and Switzerland, sampling the world's great beaches and casinos along the way, Bond moves in a world that still exists much as it existed in the '60s—a self-contained 1 percenter's universe of rare privilege and fraudulent dissipation. That was (and is) a big part of the films' escapist appeal.
During his initial peak of popularity, Bond never witnessed—nor do we have any evidence that he was even aware of—the 1960s as the average pleb experienced those turbulent years. He flew high above civil unrest, the peace movement, and changing social mores, such that his misogyny and implicitly pro-establishment lifestyle and moral code were never challenged.
In important ways, that lack of social context helped perpetuate the film series beyond its '60s roots. It meant that Bond could fight any type of mega-villain, including those far removed from the series' Cold War roots, without that villain being tied to a specific geopolitical context. (Cold War aside, Communists were in the background, never the foreground, of Bond pictures.) It meant that Bond could serve as an elastic archetype rather than a static, chronology-bound figure expected to age with the series. Moore to the contrary (he played Bond for 11 years and was 58 when he made his last, A View to a Kill), Bond has remained in his forties across the decades.
As other actors took over the role, they molded it to conform to their own screen personae. Moore replaced cigarettes with cigars and wit with smirks. Timothy Dalton appeared to bring an edge back to the character—and cigarettes, too! But he was sunk quickly by License to Kill, which applied that edge into inappropriate vengeance of the Death Wish variety. (Not a bad movie, just not Bond-ish at all; the recent Quantum of Solace went down the revenge path, as well, and the results weren't good.) And Pierce Brosnan lapsed too far back into Moore territory: all smirks and teeth-gritting, really just Remington Steele again.
Having passed through the decades and actors, and having been filtered and manipulated by writers and producers more concerned about Bond's social acceptability than they were in the '60s or '70s, Bond lost his piquancy. The movies have sluggishly morphed into generic, if occasionally well-made, action pictures.
Craig is all steely blue eyes and comic book physique. He bears little resemblance to previous incarnations, and, more importantly, reflects few of the basic qualities of the character. That might not be the actor's fault; in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, Bond was tangled up in sprawling plots, enormous action set pieces, and romantic melodrama. But Craig's Bond doesn't smoke, treats women with something that almost looks like respect, and, apparently, drinks beer with irony.
Craig's rebooted Bond series aside, someone else has, intentionally or not, put forth a new version the character. About five years ago, Matthew Weiner put Bond into an American cocktail shaker and poured the result into Bond's own salad days of the 1960s. That result was an American advertising executive named Don Draper, a cold professional who gets what he wants: from colleagues, from rivals, from women, and from his bosses. Draper is a war veteran with a shadowy past. He lives in a world of cigarette smoke, hard liquor, and high-class whores. He makes a grand show of working hard and playing harder—but actually he's thinking about work even while he plays. In all of these ways and more, Don Draper is the real James Bond of the 21st century. He inhabits a realistic version of "the Bond era," forced to grapple with social and cultural changes and, unlike Bond, with himself.
But despite the years washing over him and rubbing the edges off like a beach-lodged plate of brass, we continue in our adoration of Bond even though he shills for luxury cars, expensive watches, and that goddamn beer. We adore him as a self-controlled, classy lone wolf trying to save a chaotic world from itself. His sacrifices and thankless derring-do prevent him from having a real life and real relationships, and we admire that. He is still, despite sociopolitical and cultural changes, an exorbitant ideal—our hero.