Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Past Is Another Country (The Living Daylights)

fig. 1: There's no chance I'll regret this in twenty years
It's 1987. Twenty-five years out from Dr No, twenty-five to Skyfall. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan has raged for nine years. We're forty years from the British pulling up stakes from India, the Jewel of the Empire, a country for which Afghanistan was used as a buffer against the Russians. More than a century since the British Afghan War ended with Britain in control of Afghanistan's international affairs. Sixty years since Amanullah Khan declared independence from British influence. Thirty-four years since the first Soviet economic and military aid arrived, in 1933. The US invasion of Afghanistan is still fourteen years away, but American influence is felt all through that country. US weapons are used to equip Afghan mujaheddin fighters, so they can fight the Russians, America effectively taking the place of Britain in the long proxy war that has raged through that country.

Roger Moore is out. A new James Bond, Timothy Dalton, is in. Like his successor Pierce Brosnan, Dalton fairly haunted the casting announcements prior to his landing the role. Though his path to succession wasn't nearly the public back-and-forth Brosnan's was, Dalton was seen for the role as early as 1967, demurring at first because he thought he was too young, then later in the early 1980's due to other commitments. Though he's remembered for a performance that bordered on the dour, this is I think largely in contrast to Moore's twinkling eye and talent for double-entendres. Dalton will turn in a much darker turn two years on in Licence to Kill, but here he plays the part with a lighter touch than he's remembered for.

The James Bond films are like period films. They take the broad concerns and conflicts of an era and use them to paint the backdrop of whatever latest spy adventure is in the offing. Only in the case of these pictures, it's never 2016 or 1987 looking back to 1945 or 1962. The Living Daylights is a period film about 1987 made in 1987. There's never that Mad Men-style irony and remove, just a whole list of signifiers repurposed as backdrop. Though he appears for the first time since Live and Let Die, Bond's American contact, Felix Leiter, is nowhere near Afghanistan. He's in Morocco, tracking an American arms dealer who made a deal with a Soviet defector to supply the Russians with high-tech weapons of their own. In fact, you could be forgiven for watching this film (and a similar film from just a couple years previous, the Chase/Aykroyd Spies Like Us) and coming to the conclusion that Afghanistan is nothing but desert and mountains and bearded guys fighting the Soviets on horseback. It is sharply contrasted to the chilly refinement of Cold War-era Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Britain, and to the more cosmopolitan Tangier where the film's main antagonist, Brad Whitaker, is holed up.

fig. 2: Not a Bond villain. I mean, probably.

Whitaker bears more than a passing resemblance to the execrable Ollie North, and The Living Daylights, a film preoccupied with an unscrupulous American selling weapons to be used in the Middle East, premiered a year after the first news of the Iran Contra scandal broke. Though, of course, in this film, Whitaker is a non-state actor, a cartoonish parody of American militarism who has statues of all the great war criminals throughout history remade with his face. The cartoonishness lets everybody get away with their hands clean. The British and American meddling in Afghanistan, even the Russians come off looking good in the form of John Rhys Davies General Pushkin, who forms a temporary alliance with Bond to defeat Whitaker and the Soviet defector who is helping him. Like Tomorrow Never Dies a decade later, this film doesn't bother with any of the ambiguity of James Bond's profession or of the imperialist tug-of-war he wanders in to.

Watching The Living Daylights with the benefit of almost thirty years of hindsight is a surreal experience. It's impossible to imagine a film made today set in 1987 that would treat Bond's chummy alliance with a cadre of mujaheddin fighters with anything like the complete lack of irony and self-awareness this film does. They're noble savages led by a guy who sounds like he could have studied at Eton with Bond. (I looked him up, and the actor, Art Malik, is in fact from Pakistan, which, by the standards of these types of blockbusters, is eminently Close Enough).

fig. 3: The actual line here: "I'm sorry we're late. We had some trouble at the airport."
In a year, Afghanistan, the USSR, and the United States will sign treaties and the Soviets will gradually begin to pull out of Afghanistan. In two years, the Berlin Wall will fall, in four the Soviet Union will collapse. In five years Afghanstan will plunge into civil war. In nine the Taliban will control most of the country, erasing reforms that existed for decades and instituting strict religious law. In fourteen years the United States will invade Afghanistan in what will be the longest military engagement in US history. We still haven't left.

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