Sunday, January 3, 2016

You're a journalist? Well, make it up! (Tomorrow Never Dies)

fig. 1: James Bond vs. Fox News. How can I resist?

There's a datedness to Tomorrow Never Dies, another 007 film with a nonsense title, whose nonsense title in this case is actively contradicted by the march of history. The tomorrow that Tomorrow imagined withered on the vine sometime around 2006. The villain of the piece--hammed up to the hocks by Jonathan Pryce--is bent on manufacturing a war between Britain and China to boost the ratings of his fledgling news network while at the same time manufacturing a coup in China to make sure he gets exclusive broadcast rights there. Lots to unpack.

Looking back at Pryce's Elliot Carver with the benefit of almost twenty years of hindsight, his plan seems almost quaint. He's fixated on an old model of news distribution "I want TV, I want radio, I want magazines, I want books, I want films..." that simply doesn't exist any more. It seems almost as though all James Bond would have had to do was wait the guy out. The film reminds me in fact of Empire Records, perhaps the quintessentially 90's movie, and a film that just can't exist today. The entire plot of Empire Records revolves around the plucky staff of an independent record store trying to keep their business from being gobbled up by a Tower Records-style conglomerate. All of this drama only a few years out from Napster and iPods. Nowadays, the Tower Records of the world have long since blown away like tumbleweeds with the chain bookstores and Circuit Cities. Again, the solution seemed to just wait the bad guys out. Watching this movie in 2015, I noticed the Internet doesn't even get a word in. It has less of a footprint in this film than it did in 1995's GoldenEye.

Tomorrow Never Dies isn't about tomorrow at all. It's about yesterday, both the recent past and the past of a century gone. In 1997, the year of the film's airing, the first Gulf War was only six years old. CNN's twenty-four-hour-a-day coverage of that war put the cable news outlet ahead of all its broadcast network competition for the first time in history. Carver resembles both CNN's founder Ted Turner as well as Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch, whose own channel went online just a year before this film aired. Beyond those two men, the film draws an explicit parallel to William Randolph Hearst's yellow journalism scheme surrounding the Spanish-American war.

The anxiety that Tomorrow Never Dies posits is a natural and long-standing one: what if some unscrupulous ne'er do well got his hands on a media empire? Again the film feels quaint. Today, in America at least, we generally assume anyone at the tip of these media icebergs is corrupt. Liberals all bemoan Fox and its lying scare tactics, and Conservatives cry foul at CNN, MSNBC, and literally every single news outlet from satellites to carnival barkers as part of a Liberal Media Elite conspiracy. The only thing anyone can agree on is that everyone else is lying.

What's curious, then, about this film, is its ending. After Bond has dispatched Carver and thwarted his plan, M issues a press release saying that Carver died aboard his yacht in an apparent suicide, another line of dialogue that references a media baron, this time the deceased British magnate Robert Maxwell. No effort appears to be made to dismantle the Carver Media Group or to hold anyone within it to account for their actions in regards to the murder of sixteen British sailors earlier in the film, or the bald-faced manipulation of politics and markets that Carver and his cronies engaged in all through the margins of this film. Everything goes back to status quo.

This is, as ever, a problem in these films, though not a surprising one. Super-spies and superhereroes are always invested in the status quo. The status quo keeps James Bond in shaken martinis and beautiful women, and to the extent that he changes at all, it is through the reinvention that recasting affords, dragged along by that long march of history.. The Brosnan era, in particular, occupies--at least in retrospect--a holding pattern between the largely failed experiment of the Timothy Dalton years and the gritty reimagining of the upcoming Daniel Craig era. To go back through these films is a sort of pop-culture archaeology, as much as a personal one.

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