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James Bond vs. Jason Bourne

27 July 2007

7:19 AM

27 July 2007

7:19 AM

Peter Suderman and Isaac Chotiner each highlight an interview with Matt Damon (who is promoting the latest Jason Bourne thrilla, The Bourne Ultimatum). I like Damon. He’s an increasingly interesting actor and his excellent performance in The Good Shepherd last year was every bit as under-rated as the movie itself. Nevertheless, he’s also an ass. Evidence for the prosecution?

Matt Damon’s amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne shares initials with another notorious screen operative. But other than that, Damon doesn’t see any similarities between Bourne and James Bond.

Bond is "an imperialist and he’s a misogynist. He kills people and laughs and sips martinis and wisecracks about it," Damon, 36, told The Associated Press in an interview.

"Bourne is this paranoid guy. He’s on the run. He’s not the government. The government is after him. He’s a serial monogamist who’s in love with his dead girlfriend and can’t stop thinking about her," Damon said. "He’s the opposite of James Bond."

Before we proceed, it’s only fair to ackowledge that Damon’s director, Paul Greengrass, is no better informed. According to the talented Mr Greengrass:

"[Bond]’s an insider. He likes being a secret agent. He worships at the altar of technology. He loves his gadgets. And he embodies this whole set of misogynistic values," Greengrass said. "He likes violence. That’s part of the appeal of the character. He has no guilt. He’s essentially an imperial adventurer of a particularly English sort.

"Personally, I spit on those values."

Clearly neither of these gentlemen can have read any of Ian Fleming’s novels. Heck, it’s possible they’ve only seen the post George Lazenby Bond movies. As we shall see, almost every assumption they make in this interview is incorrect.

Where to begin? Well, perhaps by remembering that James Bond isn’t English. His mother was Swiss; his father Scots.

Is Bond an "imperial adventurer"? Only up to a point. He lives at a time when Britain is retreating from empire not adding fresh territory. More significantly, there’s no instance that I can recall (I don’t have access to the books right now) of Bond regretting the retreat from Empire. Fleming was many things but he was not, in this instance, a nostalgist. Indeed, the realities of the new world order are spelt out as early as Casino Royale, the first novel in the series. Yes, Bond battles Le Chiffre at the card table (though he plays Baccarat rather than Texas Hold ‘Em as was the case in the recent movie). But he loses and seems beaten. What saves the day is the US cavalry, in the shape of Felix Leiter and an injection of CIA funds. The message could scarcely be clearer: Britain had a role to play and could, on occasion, do things the US could not but there was never any doubt as to who was the lender of last resort.


Even the films, insubstantial though most of them are, demonstrate this point: Bond frequently relies upon American logistical and technical support. If he’s an imperialist he is so in the context of the Cold War as he battles the Russians and, later, international organised crime syndicates and the occasional lunatic hell-bent on destroying Britain.

Indeed, many of Bond’s missions are purely defensive operations  – ie, recovering stolen British atomic missiles (Thunderball), defending the country’s rocket programme from Hugo Drax (Moonraker) or preventing the food supply – cereal and livestock alike – being poisoned with devastating consequences (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). Others, such as Dr No involve investigating the murder of a British agent. None of these are quite the domain of the swashbuckling imperial adventurer. This is not Errol Flynn territory (not that there’s anything wrong with Errol Flynn. Far from it in fact, though that’s a post for another day).

Moving on, is Bond a misogynist? Most people think so. Most people are wrong. Or rather, they miss the point. Bond is a misogynist only to the extent that he is also a misanthrope. Heck, he doesn’t even like himself.

Bond has no friends. Not one. The taste for fine things (food, drink, cars, clothes, his own blend of tobacco for hsi cigarettes) is important because these things substitute for anything resembling a normal, functioning personal life. Consequently, Bond’s savoir faire actually highlights his essential loneliness. It’s all he has.

If he enjoys his missions and being a secret agent – as, yes, he does – it’s because that’s the only thing he has. The nature of the work, of course, mitigates against forming friendships, but the near-existential angst Bond feels when he is not on a mission and is instead confined to desk work is another reminder that the nature of his work isolates him not just from outside society, but even from the non-Double O sections of the service. He can play cards with M (Moonraker) but he can’t move in those circles. Tellingly, bond is not a member of a club himself (if memory serves). And though he is reasonably well-off, his lifestyle is such that one bad loss at the casino could leave him in serious financial difficulties.

As for the gadgets and the high life, it’s important to recall that the first Bond novel appeared just a couple of years after Britain finally ended post-war rationing. Even then these were austere times and it’s not so fair to condemn Fleming for wanting to, as he put it, "stimulate" his audience. Anyway, the Bourne movies have their own share of techno-porn and cool secret agent gadgetry know-how and fieldcraft.

Still, back to the misogyny question? Is it fair? Only up to a point. Consider this line from Diamonds Are Forever:

"Before a man’s 40, girls cost nothing. After that you have to pay money, or tell a story. Of the two, it’s the story that hurts most. Anyway I’m not 40 yet."

That might seem misogynist, but it’s really self-loathing, coupled with a desperate fear of decline and decrepit old age. Bond’s drinking problem might also be considered evidence of self-hatred mixed with a far from unusual need to find excitement somewhere at any time. Bond’s great fear is lassitude and fresh bouts of introspection and bitter recrimination. Girls are a vehicle for passing the time, no more important than a series of encounters with a series of rent boys would be were Bond a homosexual. Bond’s a sexist, for sure, (then again, he does live in the 1950s) but there’s little evidence he hates women any more than he hates men. Quite the contrary in fact.

As for Damon’s claim that Bourne is better than Bond because Bourne is "in love with his dead girlfriend" while Bond conquers skirt around the world, well that too is silly. Has he never read or seen the much under-rated On Her Majesty’s Secret Service?  If he has, he might recall that Bond’s wife, Tracey (played by Diana Rigg in the movie. Yay!) is murdered, sending Bond into a terrible and deep and lasting grief form which, in some respects, he never fully recovers. Bond had been charged with saving the wild and impetuous Tracey but in doing so he was also, in some senses, going to save himself. Finally he had a shot at being a real person. He was even going to leave the service.

Now, I’ve enjoyed the first two films of the Jason Bourne franchise and look forward to seeing this latest installment. But that doesn’t give Damon or Greengrass the right to talk piffle even if its true that too many Bond movies have departed from the interesting and even intriguing possibilities afforded by Ian Flemings character. That the Bond movies have been less than they could have been does not make them (at least up until OHMSS), or James Bond,  the pe
rson Messrs Bourne and Greengrass think him to be. 


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