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Spectre: “You’re a Good Man, James”

“I hate guns,” Madeleine Swann sputters moments before she skilfully unloads and dry fires a handgun a few seconds later. Swann, the latest Bond girl, introduces an anti-gun perspective in Spectre, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The film’s subtle aversion to violence (subtle, this is James Bond after all) actually highlights an essential aspect of the character, one that resonates with our real-world notion of heroism.

Skyfall (2012) took a traditional stance when it pitted the Double-0 section against the progressive notion that agents have become unnecessary or “quaint” in light of technological transparency. Skyfall’s M (Judi Dench) slaps down this view in the memorable Tennyson poem scene, and Spectre’s new M (Ralph Fiennes) continues this push against excessive government surveillance as silver-bullet solution for evil. He explains that you can research and analyze to incredible depth, but it still takes looking a person in the eye to know whether or not to pull the trigger. It’s a push for local decisionmaking in the same way that he objects to global intelligence sharing because of the lack of elected oversight or democratic control. Though grumpy at times, M demonstrates great confidence in his agents, but the iconic 007 doesn’t always seem to share the same enthusiasm this time around.

Bond questions his role much more in this film than he did in the early days of Casino Royale (2006). Back then, he quipped that he “wouldn’t be very good at [his] job” if killing people bothered him. He also said that he loved Vesper enough to travel the world with her, but most people wouldn’t take that resignation too seriously from such a charming character. In Spectre, he demonstrates the same level of lethal proficiency, but a lot of emotional baggage accompanies the ability to take a life. Bond rarely smiles and appears drained in the wake of M’s death, but a lot of his reluctance comes from the newest love interest, Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux).

As the daughter of a shadowy criminal operative, Swann’s resistance to the violent spy lifestyle is understandable, but it does become a sticking point for the relationship. Even though there’s no shortage of women for a man like James Bond, he chooses Swann over his license to kill at the end of the film. Instead of pulling the trigger for dramatic effect when he has the villain caught at gunpoint (but without any bullets), Bond mimics Swann by ejecting the magazine and tossing the firearm aside. “Besides, I have better things to do,” he says looking in her direction.

Although 007 seems to walk away from his calling, the choice to leave behind the life of a “paid assassin” actually strengthens Bond’s character. Swann tells him, “You’re a good man, James,” even as she breaks the relationship off. Despite her stated position on firearms, Swann still is proficient and recognizes the need to fight evil even though her personal scars drive her away from the shadows.

If anything, Bond’s reluctant soul-searching proves his devotion to defending good and protecting queen and country. He jokes that it was either this life or the priesthood, but not to consider another lifestyle would suggest that he really was “cold-hearted” as Vesper suspected from the very beginning. Whether it’s ancestral farmland, an English composition class in Pennsylvania, or the right to enjoy good scotch and flirt with women in peace and quiet, great warriors must have some higher good that is worth fighting for. Compared with Mr. Hinx, Spectre’s silent henchman who fights like a machine, 007 seems downright sentimental.

It’s not wrong to hate the fact that we live in a fallen world. We all long for a better place without the dark corners of human nature and the deeds of evil men. I don’t think it’s even necessarily wrong to hate the means we use to defend what is good as long as there is the understanding that they are indeed necessary. As Faramir says in The Lord of the Rings, “I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”

The mistake is believing that a government program or technical innovation will render the fight between good and evil obsolete—either through government lighting and police foot patrols in Woodrow Wilson’s era or monitoring of internet and phone usage in our own. It still takes a good man or a good woman being in the right place doing the right thing to keep evil at bay. Swann understands that, and I think Bond understands that too, even if he chooses not to be on the front lines of that battle any more.

The Bond franchise has become increasingly darker and more psychological since Quantum of Solace in 2008, and that’s part of the reason why Spectre has struggled to win the acclaim of earlier films. Whether or not he bears this newfound emotional grime or returns to the clean-cut values of the Cold War days, 007 will be back—you can count on it. The world will still need his wit and his marksmanship.


Banner Image: “London” (cropped) from Santiago Almada. Creative Commons License, 2015.

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