The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 4): manipulative propaganda posing as maudlin soap opera

Saul Dibb, “The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 4)” (2020)

The tedium finally comes to an end in this fictional account of what the British government and news media claimed occurred in Salisbury over several months in 2018, starting with the collapse of Sergei and Julia Skripal in a shopping mall in early March 2018 and ending with the death of Dawn Sturgess, supposedly from spraying herself with a deadly nerve agent she mistook for perfume which her boyfriend found in a charity bin in June 2018. The sub-plots are so threadbare in plotting, dialogue and character portrayal that the entire series resembles a strange tour of a zoo in which bored animals pace in circles in their cages or engage in repetitive behaviours. As we have now come to expect, Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall) is still trying to come to terms with his near-poisoning death from Novichok and the dramatic effects it has had on his family and their circumstances. Bailey seems unable to continue with his life on leave from the police force. His long-suffering wife and daughters continue … to be long-suffering. Salisbury public health department head Tracy Daszkiewicz (Anne-Marie Duff) continues juggling the demands of her work with those of her partner and teenage son, and having doubts about her ability to do her job well. Dawn Sturgess (MyAnna Buring) dies, leaving her family grieving and flummoxed about the nature of the “perfume” that killed her.

The episode lays on the anti-Russia propaganda more thickly by having mention of real-life Russian tourists Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov (who visited Salisbury on the same day that the Skripals fell ill) on television. The episode strongly insinuates that these men’s actions make them responsible for the death of Sturgess, even though to date no direct or indirect evidence has surfaced that would point to the men’s culpability. By doing this in the context of a maudlin, melodramatic soap opera, “The Salisbury Poisonings” becomes dangerous propaganda, cynically targeting and manipulating people’s emotions by devoting so much attention to Sturgess’s death and funeral and focusing on her grieving family, especially her mother and young daughter.

By the end of the mini-series, the characters of Bailey, Daszkiewicz, Sturgess and the people around them are no better drawn than they were at the beginning of the show and they remain stereotypes: the brave, stoic police officer and his devoted family, caught up in events by accident which change their lives and which they cannot control; the career woman trying to prove to herself that she can be a successful leader and home-maker; the fallen woman who wants to remake her life and start afresh. These stereotypes are intended to represent British people as stoic, determined and resilient in the face of an extraordinary crisis and emergency – even though in the mini-series, no-one actually seems to do anything useful to end that emergency.

By using the structure of a melodramatic soap opera, in which characters are more important than the narrative they supposedly follow, the BBC escapes with a crappy script, sketchy character types, the most atrocious dialogue, lack of accurate information and the dumping of vile propaganda onto the viewing public. Anyone who thinks s/he might actually learn something about the Skripal poisonings from this drama will quickly be disabused of such a quaint notion. The issue should have been dealt with in the form of a documentary with some live-action drama restaging the most significant events with an emphasis on facts and logic, not on manipulative pulling of the heart strings.

The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 3): more overwrought schlock drama

Saul Dibb, “The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 3)” (2020)

In this episode, Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall) recovers from his poisoning attack in hospital, only to discover later together with wife Sarah (Annabel Scholey) that their house and all its furniture and their family’s other belongings have been destroyed by the British government. Moreover the Baileys cannot make an insurance claim and are advised by their solicitor to … sue the Russian government for damages, since it is supposedly responsible (in the absence of any proof) for the poison that nearly killed Bailey. Dazed and confused by the advice, the couple stumble out into the streets of Salisbury city. Elsewhere, Tracey Daszkiewicz (Anne-Marie Duff) is busy making a hash out of protecting Salisbury residents from the mysterious Novichok poison: at one point in the film she considers dredging the entire pond system in the city and almost decides to kill all the ducks and swans when police learn that before their collapse the Skripals had been feeding bread to the birds. Somehow over the months following March 2018, Salisbury endures and survives an extended state of emergency, though how this is done is not made clear in the film because it takes enormous leaps in time without making this clear to viewers. Daszkiewicz’s work takes her away from her partner and son, and her relationship with both suffers.

Nine miles away in Amesbury, drug dealer Charlie Rowley (Johnny Harris) and girlfriend Dawn Sturgess (MyAnna Buring) are chowing their way through charity bins; Rowley finds a perfume bottle in one of the bins. He later gives it to Dawn who sprays perfume from it onto her wrists. Some hours later she collapses, gasping for breath, and Charlie rushes her to Salisbury General Hospital. He also needs to be admitted as a patient. Much later in the film the Rowley and Sturgess families gather in the hospital where they are stunned by news that Charlie and Dawn have been contaminated by Novichok.

The film is extremely vague and sketchy on the timeline of the events that make Salisbury the cynosure of all eyes and ears around the world in early 2018. One gets the impression that the sub-plots are happening all at once when in fact the sub-plot that involves Sturgess took place some time in June after everything seemed to be going back to its usual placid normality and the story of the Baileys had long disappeared from the media. Daszkiewicz appears not to do anything decisive and important yet somehow she does her job and manages to keep her partner and son from running away. The Nick Bailey sub-plot is remarkable mainly for not really saying or doing much that would gain viewer sympathy for two cardboard cut-out characters in Nick and Sarah Bailey.

A hilarious moment comes when the Porton Down chemicals expert exclaims that Novichok was found everywhere in the Bailey house and family car, yet Sarah Bailey and her daughters escape unscathed, which the expert can only call a miracle. (The truth surely is that the whole official account about the Baileys was made up to scare the Salisbury public into accepting whatever lock-down restrictions London imposed.) Apart from this, the episode is basically overwrought soap opera schlock. I can forgive actors for appearing in this mini-series because they need money and there may be few acting jobs in Britain but everyone associated with the script should be hanging his/her head in shame.

The agenda behind the mini-series is to reinforce British government propaganda of Russia as a sinister menace and a threat to British national security. This explains why this television show has had to be done as a fictional drama series: a proper documentary about the Skripal poisoning incident and its aftermath simply can’t be made because it would expose British political elites and British news media, including the BBC, as unprincipled liars.

The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 2): cheap TV drama populated by cast of cardboard stereotypes

Saul Dibb, “The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 2)” (2020)

Part 2 of this dreary mini-series purporting to show the effect of the Skripal poisoning incident on the people of Salisbury focuses on the sub-plots surrounding two characters, Tracy Daszkiewicz (Anne-Marie Duff), the public health department head of Wiltshire Council, tasked with safeguarding the entire city population from the mysterious menace called Novichok, and Sarah Bailey (Annabel Scholey), the wife of the stricken police detective Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall). Daszkiewicz spends her time running between her office and various locations around Salisbury where Sergei and Julia Skripal travelled on the day they fell ill; to her horror, these places include Miller’s Pub and Zizzi’s Restaurant where the couple lunched on seafood risotto: itself a possible source of poison which Daszkiewicz never considers despite her position and the knowledge she should have. All these locations and the police station where Detective Sergeant Bailey reported are found to be swathed in Novichok. Trying to shut down these businesses, which would cost Salisbury millions in lost rent and jobs, while keeping the public reassured that everything is being done to keep people safe, would be a difficult job for anyone, let alone someone who talks herself into doubting that she can handle the job; yet according to this woeful episode, Daszkiewicz’s biggest problem is keeping a balance between the demands of her work and the demands of her partner and son for her attention. It obviously does not occur to the partner and the son that maybe for just half a year or so they could see a bit less of her while she lives at the office 24/7 until the emergency is over. Meanwhile Sarah Bailey visits her husband every day at the hospital, hugging and kissing him despite his perspiration being possibly full of nerve agent that should have killed him (and maybe his entire family) 36 hours ago. Their daughters endure teasing at school when his name is publicised in the news media. In another part of Salisbury, Dawn Sturgess (MyAnna Buring) is troubled by the news of the Skripal poisoning and boyfriend Charlie Rowley (Johnny Harris) comforts her and tells her he’ll take her back to his place in Amesbury.

With the plot jumping all over Salisbury, viewers will feel nothing significant happens that advances their understanding of what is going on in this melodrama, apart from people having conniption fits or being close to bawling their eyes out in frustration over the dire script. The dialogue is atrocious. Nowhere in Salisbury General Hospital is there any indication that the Skripals are being held. The police and emergency services zero in on the front door of the Skripal home: it seems that the door knob is smeared in Novichok. (No-one explains though how it can be that both Sergei and Julia Skripal are contaminated with Novichok, unless every time they enter and leave the house, they both have to hold the door knob together. The other possibility that the door knob is not the primary source of Novichok tainting never arises.) While police remove the door and other investigators in hazmat suits remove people’s vehicles from the streets and take them to Porton Down, viewers are left scratching their heads at all this activity which is never explained adequately and which is cut off by over-eager editors wanting to get the next scene on the screen.

The episode panders to all the worst stereotypes about women, be they full-time homemakers or working women torn between the pressures of their jobs and the needs of their families. Sarah Bailey is portrayed as a saintly Madonna figure and Tracy Daszkiewicz epitomises the harassed working woman trying to do the best she can and just managing to hold everything and everyone together. Male characters in the episode tend to be helpless or vacillating, and end up deferring to Daszkiewicz. Dawn Sturgess runs into the arms of her lover. Everything these characters do is so generic that they are more colourless and shallow than water, and viewers are not likely to feel much sympathy for them.

We are no closer to knowing what is happening to the Skripals or where they even are in Salisbury during the episode. Viewers expecting some facts or reference to facts will be dismayed. This mini-series is little more than a cheap soap opera.

The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 1): British propaganda at its most excruciatingly atrocious

Saul Dibb, “The Salisbury Poisonings (Part 1)” (2020)

As an example of British propaganda targeting Russia and perceived Russian militarism, this BBC miniseries is remarkably fourth-rate. With a script boasting two Guardian journalists as script consultants, the first episode is a dreary affair: the patchy plot zips all over the joint, unable to settle on a definite strand within the drama; characters are so sketchy they cannot even be considered one-dimensional, because they struggle to exist on any dimension; and as a drama based on real events, it fails to get any facts right if indeed it stumbles across any facts accidentally. The mini-series is based on the official account (itself dubious) of what occurred in March 2018 and afterwards when former KGB agent turned double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia were found in an extreme state of distress on a bench in The Maltings shopping mall in Salisbury, southern England. After receiving first aid from a nurse who happened to be walking by when her daughter found the pair – and the nurse herself happened to be the Chief Nurse of the British Army who had recently completed a simulated military exercise in which chemical weapons were featured (go figure, as Americans would say) – the Skripals were airlifted to Salisbury General Hospital where they were determined to have been poisoned by Novichok which the British government later claimed could only have been made in Russia and then smuggled in to Salisbury by a dastardly agent or agents in an assassination plot. (Never mind that the recipe for Novichok is actually available online and that researchers in a number of countries including Czechia and Iran have been able to make the stuff.)

In the first episode – I must say that in Australia the mini-series is being shown in four parts, whereas in other countries including the UK it was shown in three parts – the plot focuses most on the hapless Detective Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall) who goes into the Skripals’ house and contaminates himself with Novichok early on. Amazingly, in spite of the fact that Novichok kills a person within half an hour of contact, the detective soldiers on for a whole day, presumably passing poison to his wife and children by kissing and hugging them, and spreading Novichok all over the furniture in his house, even as he suffers from faltering eyesight and other poisoning symptoms. By the end of the first episode, Bailey is in hospital being intubated while his faithful spouse sits at his bedside. Meanwhile, Wiltshire public health department head Tracy Daszkiewicz (Anne-Marie Duff) runs hither and thither trying to make sense of the events in the city. Farther afield in Amesbury, Dawn Sturgess (Myanna Buring), a mother struggling to get her life together after years of alcoholism and addiction to hard drugs, is introduced in a brief scene talking to a social worker and then later attending a party during which she sprays her wrists with perfume that in later episodes will turn out to be … Novichok!

By portraying the events in Salisbury in early 2018 as a drama, the mini-series sidesteps having to say anything about the Skripals themselves that might contradict the official British government account, while at the same time claiming to focus on how these events affected the people of Salisbury and brought out their heroism in a context of extreme emergency. Here is where this BBC production becomes propaganda of an insidious kind: it equates the events in Salisbury in 2018 to an invasion by secret intelligence elements in the Russian government for no reason other than to satisfy Russian President Vladimir Putin’s supposed desire for revenge against Skripal. (Of course if the Russians had been really mad at Skripal for turning traitor, they’d have thrown him into jail for life and he would never have been included in a spy swap with the British.)

I was prepared to watch this episode as comedy, and indeed the funniest part of the film comes at the climax when a scientist from the Porton Down military laboratory complex explains what Novichok is to a bewildered audience. He claims that the Skripals survived because not only were they treated fortuitously with Naloxone (a drug given to people presumed to be suffering from fentanyl overdoses) but because – at this point the dialogue is vague, and probably deliberately so – either the Naloxone was given cold or the weather was cold. Ha! It seems the evil Russians overlooked the fact that Novichok only works in warm to hot weather. How the heck did they ever manage to make Novichok work during the cold Russian winters? When such a detail is treated cavalierly by the journalists who assisted in writing the script, I wonder that they managed to get jobs at The Guardian at all, as the work clearly shows contempt for viewers’ intelligence.

The actors do what they can with the script but overall their performances are wooden and some characters are little more than gender stereotypes. Dialogue is bad to the point where it becomes funny at the expense of the characters made to mouth rubbish. Done in the style of a crime procedure television show, this episode is dull and lacking in the energy and urgency its subject demands.

Breaking an individual to intimidate others in “Not In Our Name: The Psychological Torture of Julian Assange”

John Furse, “Not In Our Name: The Psychological Torture of Julian Assange” (July 2020)

Making good use of archived video material and photographs, current news reels and interviews with mental health experts and former Ecuadorian diplomatic personnel, this timely documentary makes an excellent case for investigative journalist and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange having been harassed, humiliated and bullied over the past decade, not just by governments but also by media outlets that turned on him, to the extent that his treatment past and present constitute torture as defined by the UN. The film looks at various forms of known psychological torture and applies UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer’s definition of the phenomenon to Assange’s case, using examples to demonstrate its argument.

The video is broken up into segments on the basis of the various types and characteristics of psychological torture. In each segment that deals with a particular aspect of such torture, the film finds an example in Assange’s life that conforms to the characteristics of a type of mental torture, such as learned helplessness and hopelessness, constant slander of his reputation, and sensory deprivation and isolation. Many such examples in Assange’s life turn out to conform to several different types of torture at once: trashing his reputation, impugning him as a rapist and narcissist, is not so very different from actual physical isolation and alienation. Constant fear and anxiety about your place in society, and whether people might be inclined to be hostile, even violent towards you, can have a huge bearing on your physical health. At the time this video was made, Assange was being held at Belmarsh Prison in London, itself hit hard by the SARS-CoV-2 disease and there are very real fears that he is extremely susceptible to the disease’s worst ravages due to his psychological state having an impact on his physical health.

The film does its homework very well, interviewing a former Ecuadorian diplomat, and following Assange’s biological father John Shipton to rallies and Nils Melzer at conferences. Clinical psychologist Lissa Johnson, a strong supporter of Assange, puts forward powerful arguments that Assange’s treatment by Swedish and British authorities amount to bullying and psychological torture – and physical torture to boot, as constant stress, anxiety and fear about what the future will bring combine to lower a person’s immunity to disease in the long term. Most interviewees are very co-operative and willing to be interviewed about Assange and what he is supposed to have done or engaged in.

The video runs at a steady pace, not too slow or too fast, and viewers will get a clear view of just how determined the US and UK governments are to make an example of Julian Assange, how prepared they are to harass him and break his body and his spirit, to intimidate other journalists and reporters and force them to self-censor and stay away from questioning authority and speaking truth to power. By exposing UK / US imperialism in all its ugliness and viciousness through his work in leading Wikileaks and publishing information provided by sources such as Chelsea Manning (herself subjected to past torture and present harassment), Assange crossed an invisible red line for which he is being punished constantly. John Furse has made a very impassioned work whose importance cannot be doubted.

Lab Rat: an investigation into what it means to be human

Nour Wazzi, “Lab Rat” (2019)

Initially the plot seems familiar to the point of banality: three scientists working for a robotics firm are suddenly trapped in the office, all entry and exit points locked by remote control, and forced to figure out by the firm’s CEO which one of them is actually an android. One of these scientists, Johnny (Matt Harris), has reason to feel irate at the CEO since she, Dr Edwards (Abeo Jackson), happens to be the mother of his girlfriend Alika (Kirsty Sturgess) with whom he’s passionately in love. Wanting desperately to go home, stuck in the dark and just having heard news about rioting in the street over the introduction of AI in offices and factories, with people fearing the loss of their jobs to robots and AI generally, the three scientists turn on one another like cats while in Dr Edwards’ office, the CEO gloats at how quickly educated and supposedly rational people turn bestial and murderous. Alika, distressed, watches the other two scientists Ellie (Sian Hill) and Marvin (Max Williams) pile on and beat Johnny and start strangling him. The daughter can bear Johnny’s treatment no more and rushes out to save him – but the mystery of which of the characters in the film is the android remains.

As it turns out, the fight between Johnny and the other two scientists is not really the test. When Johnny finds out who really is the AI cat among the human pigeons, he is absolutely gutted. Dr Edwards is full of smug satisfaction that her creation has performed as she had hoped – if the AI is to pass as a human, then the AI must exhibit the full range of human emotions, including anger and love, and be as fallible and prone to making mistakes and bad decisions as humans – and her final words are chilling as she orders more replicas of the prototype model to be made, with each model retailing for several million each. The fate of all those poor replica models is to be bought and sold like so many slaves or trafficked prostitutes.

All the actors – even those playing Ellie and Marvin, though those are minor characters – put in good performances and Jackson and Sturgess turn in excellent performances as sociopathic mother and innocent daughter respectively. Once again, a sci-fi film presents androids as being capable of more humanity than humans themselves: the twist here is that the human is the mother of the android, and in most societies who is usually tasked by custom and tradition to teach young humans how to behave and to become “human”?

Aside from addressing (in a rather superficial way) the issue of robotics making humans redundant, the film considers the possibility of giving robots not only human intelligence but also human emotions and the ability to feel empathy and compassion – with what that implies for how humans should treat robots ethically and whether robots are entitled to the same human rights, privileges and responsibilities as humans – and through this strategy, investigates the nature of what it means to be human. The result is that the most human of all the characters in the film, the most compassionate and least brutal and violent of them all, turns out to be the robot.

A strong character-driven short, “Lab Rat” shows that science fiction films need not rely on special effects at all, with all the science contained within the plot and the characters’ dialogue. Good acting is called for to make such a film successful and it is to director Wazzi’s credit that she found excellent actors to fill all the roles in this film.

The Atlas of False Desires: cynically saying that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em

Nathan Su, “The Atlas of False Desires” (2016)

By turns inspiring yet depressing, this 8-minute film puts forward a proposition that to save Planet Earth from destruction caused in part by mass consumerism encouraged by social media in the form of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram promoting (or not) so-called social media influencers – often young women paid (or not) to flaunt particular fashion trends of life-styles – activists must resort to using the same tactics of manipulation, astro-turfing, even trolling and fake news generation to appeal to emotion and subconscious desire and to shape opinion and behaviour. The film revolves around an Indian click farm called Desire Atlas that runs a devious IT operation to seed fake content and create a fake grassroots following about a new global fashion trend – undyed garments – through a collaborating vlogger (Bethany Edgoose, who also co-wrote the script with director Nathan Su) in order to save rivers in India from toxic chemical pollution caused by the use of industrial coloured dyes in fabric and to encourage Indian weavers in using and maintaining their traditional knowledge and skills to weave plain-coloured fabrics. The vlogger uses her Manic Monday vlog to promote the hashtag #undyed, a teenage influencer sees the pictures of models wearing clothing made of undyed fabric, believes they are for real and passes the message of a new fashion trend to her friends. Before long, major corporate clothing and fabric labels are up in arms about an apparent new global trend of fashion in undyed fabrics that has suddenly boomed out of nowhere; cyber-marketers and corporate IT employees are nonplussed as to how a trend they had no warning of could suddenly have so many followers in the millions around the world. The global clothing-dye industry collapses and rivers in India no longer carry dangerous toxins.

The message may be too simplistic but it does highlight the interconnected nature of the global fashion industry, how companies use and harvest social media platforms for trends that they can manipulate for profit, and how gullible people, influencers and influenced alike, with little knowledge of the outside world beyond their own immediate experience, can be exploited emotionally by marketing campaigns going for their jugulars. Fashion trends then spread through cyber-space like viruses – emphasises in the film with beautiful computer-generated imagery of clouds of coloured pixels exploding through space above city or country scenes – and create huge shifts in production and distribution in faraway lands, with enormous consequences in the way raw materials may or may not be chosen, where they are transported to and transformed through stages into the end product, and the impact that manufacturing generated by fashion trends can have on employment, people’s lives and cultures, and the natural environment.

In a mix of documentary and fictional drama, “The Atlas of False Desires” proposes that the same tactics that corporations use to entice people to make choices by appealing to their irrational instincts and desires can also be used to influence people to do good. The problem with this idea is that it does not challenge the underlying systems, values and ideologies on which global fashion and clothing manufacture are based. People are still being treated as passive consumers who can be pushed around and mentally brainwashed with ease. Consumerism as a way of life – and a destructive one at that – remains unquestioned. Major environmental issues are not always amenable to simplistic solutions: the health of rivers in India may depend on many factors as well as on whatever industry spews into them. And what will happen when consumers around the world tire of wearing plain clothing with no dyes? Is another trend, perhaps based on the use of natural dyes, ready to sell with the same tactics of manipulation? Suppose the target audience realises it is being manipulated – what do the well-meaning activists at Desire Atlas do then?

Skyfall: revisiting the past for new inspiration and direction

Sam Mendes, “Skyfall” (2012)

Released in 2012, the year being the 50th anniversary of the first EON Productions’ James Bond film release “Dr No”, “Skyfall” carries the theme of a return to one’s past, either to resolve outstanding conflicts and problems before one can move on, or to draw inspiration from past history in order to forge a new, refreshed direction. Issues such as the contrasts between youth and middle-aged maturity, and whether attitudes, ideas and institutions that were relevant in a past age have outlived their usefulness in modern times, are referred to briefly and superficially. Aspects of past James Bond films and even the original novels by Ian Fleming appear in “Skyfall”. The film though is mainly remarkable in deviating somewhat from the franchise formula in fleshing out the characters of Bond (Daniel Craig) and his superior M (Judi Dench), giving them a motivation for doing what they do, in addition to flushing out and battling a rogue ex-MI6 agent in the form of Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem).

In the film’s opening scene, Bond and fellow MI6 field agent Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) chase mercenary Patrice (Ola Rapace) who has stolen a hard drive containing the names of various MI6 and NATO agents through the streets of Istanbul and later the railway line leading out of Istanbul into Bulgaria or Greece. As Bond and Patrice fight on top of a speeding train, Moneypenny is ordered by M in London to shoot Patrice, even though she does not have a clear shot. Under sufferance, Moneypenny follows orders and Bond, shot in the chest, falls 30 metres into a river and disappears, seemingly forever, down a waterfall while Patrice rides to freedom. For this bungle, a public enquiry is held into M’s conduct and she is pressured by Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), a former SAS officer, to retire. Naturally M refuses, preferring to stick out her job until she judges the time is right for her to leave.

In the meantime, MI6’s computers are hacked and MI6’s bizarre ziggurat London headquarters at Vauxhall Cross are blown up. (Good riddance, I say.) MI6 is forced to move to underground digs. Bond, who used his “death” to retire to a little island in Indonesia where he spends his days drinking alone in a bar, hears of the attack and returns to London to the consternation of M. She packs him through a series of physical and mental tests (which he fails) and despatches him on a mission to find Patrice and his employer, kill Patrice and get the hard drive back.

Through a series of adventures in Shanghai and Macau, Bond locates Patrice but loses the him when Patrice falls to his death from a skyscraper. Bond however receives unexpected help from Patrice’s colleague Severine (Berenice Marlohe) who takes him to an island near Macau where they are captured and taken to the employer, Raoul Silva, who turns out to be a renegade former MI6 agent with a grudge against M.

From this point on, the film traces a more familiar formulaic path as Bond does battle against the campy Silva, culminating in Bond taking M to his childhood home Skyfall in remote Scotland with Silva and his men in hot pursuit. Most of the plot features Bond in feats of near-foolish bravado that in real life no-one would ever survive; only an actor like Craig who is able to work gravitas and grit into ever more silly and ridiculous acts that Bond is required to do can make such crazy stunts look plausible. Craig’s Bond brims with the sort of complicated and dark psychology usually associated with DC Comics figure Batman; it surely is no coincidence that Bond turns out to have been an orphan during his childhood. With no family to call his own, anyone can see from a mile away that MI6 is Bond’s substitute family and M his substitute mother. Sigmund Freud would drop his cigar watching this film.

Very little in the film makes much sense: why on earth would Bond take M back to his childhood home (which he never liked much anyway) knowing that the crazed Silva’s arrival means it will be blown up sky high? Silva is so hilariously comic with his clown wig and his attempt to straighten out his dentures (a pity they don’t turn out to be shark’s teeth or made of venom-tipped steel, and they never get used at all in the film) that one wonders if Bardem had been told he was going to play the Joker in a Batman film. He sort of does anyway, playing the rogue MI6 foil to Bond, in yet another iteration of the motif in most films in which mega-criminals flaunt their wealth, underworld status and influence to Bond and jeer at his meagre pay and MI6’s cavalier treatment of its field agents if they are ever captured or killed. Bond is forced yet again to ponder why he keeps taking on dangerous assignments for a capricious employer – and none is more capricious and tetchy than Dench’s M – in a universe where Britain’s influence and status have long since gone into the garbage tip of history, where spy agencies have become corrupt and incompetent (as evidenced by M’s actions) and, in the age of the Internet, seemingly antiquated and irrelevant.

The only good thing about this film is Daniel Craig as Bond, the actor infusing his style of grit and balance of humour and seriousness into a fantasy character in a bizarre fantasy universe, and making the whole shebang look fairly convincing. The real world may be grubbier and not at all exciting, the ethics of MI6 and its employees may be more corrupt and expedient than the ethics of those MI6 pursues, and the competence of the people who would claim to save humanity from criminality and terrorism is questionable. MI6’s field agents may end up suffering from PTSD or survivor’s guilt after having seen so many of their comrades become incapacitated or dead from even just one mission. But in the Hollywood fantasy machine world, Bond is basically the same man as he was in the beginning: a blank slate on whom viewers can project their fantasies about a world they will never experience – because that world does not exist and has never existed.

GoldenEye: betrayal, duplicity and loyalty to one’s brother spy

Martin Campbell, “GoldenEye” (1995)

Named after original James Bond creator / novelist Ian Fleming’s estate in Jamaica, itself named after an Allied WWII operation spying on Spain’s possible connections with Nazi Germany, this film first featured Irish actor Pierce Brosnan as the MI6 wonder spy in an adventure that takes Bond to post-Soviet Russia and Cuba. The film begins back in the 1980s when Bond and fellow MI6 spy Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) infiltrate a chemical weapons facility but are sprung by Colonel Ourumov (Gottfried John) who apparently kills Trevelyan while the Brits try to escape. Years later, Bond tries to stop the outlandishly named psychopathic pilot Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen) from stealing a Eurocopter in Monaco but is held back by others. MI6 traces the stolen ‘copter to a military radar base in Severnaya in northern Siberia. An electromagnetic pulse suddenly destroys the base and knocks out all satellites orbiting above. MI6 determines that the pulse came from a Soviet-era satellite codenamed “GoldenEye” and Bond suspects the involvement of the now General Ourumov who has high-level military access to the satellite’s codes.

Bond travels to St Petersburg to connect with CIA agent Jack Wade (Joe Don Baker) who tells him to meet Valentin Zukovsky (Robbie Coltrane) who in turn can organise a meeting with Janus, a crime syndicate. When Bond does meet Janus, he is astonished to discover that Trevelyan is not only still alive but is the head of Janus. Bond is sedated and wakes up to find himself trapped in the stolen Eurocopter with a Severnaya survivor, computer analyst Natalia Simonova (Izabela Scorupco). The two narrowly escape being blown up and after a number of chase sequences during which Simonova is abducted by Ouromov and rescued by Bond, and several priceless historic buildings in St Petersburg are demolished, Bond and Simonova travel to Cuba when Simonova discovers that a work colleague of hers, Boris Grishenko, has also survived the Severnaya destruction and his location is discovered to be somewhere in that Caribbean nation. Bond and Simonova are due for a surprise when they reach Cuba and search for the Janus syndicate base and its satellite dish, flying their light plane over a lake which looks innocent enough to them.

The plot is a bit complicated to follow at first but after Bond and Simonova meet, it becomes fairly straightforward with plenty of action sequences – maybe too many and too irrelevant to the plot – to keep mainstream audiences entertained. The St Petersburg scenes look dirty and gritty and the film-makers don’t treat the city’s buildings and monuments with much respect at all. Brosnan plays a good Bond, tough and intelligent, with enough sensitivity to make his romance scenes with Scorupco’s feisty Natalia credible. Other characters range from the sinister (Ouromov) to the oddball (Grishenko) and the comic and unbelievable (Onatopp). Onatopp in particular must have been a left-over from the Roger Moore period of fantasy villainous hench-men: she is a jarring presence in what is otherwise a fairly realistic adventure thriller. On the other hand Bean puts life into a character stereotype (a Bond doppelganger) though the character’s motivation seems implausible: would MI6 really employ as a spy someone whose background might suggest he could easily turn double agent during his employment? The film might have built up the friendship between Trevelyan and Bond a little more at its beginning so that Bond feels the betrayal and duplicity of Trevelyan more sharply than he does, and his inevitable cruel despatch of Trevelyan becomes more understandable.

Themes of loyalty to one’s country and friends, betrayal, vengeance and the very thin line between good and bad in a morally indifferent universe – with perhaps a related issue of whether blood ties and self-interest count for more than friendship, loyalty and patriotism – are paramount in this film about two brother spies in arms who become enemies. Not for the first time is Bond challenged by a villain who chides him for being loyal to a bureaucratic organisation that belittles him by not paying him terribly well and expecting him to carry out dangerous life-threatening assignments and rescue damsels in distress, not all of whom he manages to save, for no better reason other than defending Britain and its interests. That Bond remains resolutely loyal to his crotchety employers in spite of the lack of gratitude MI6 often displays is always a given in the Bond films but is not explored in any of them in much detail. Apart from these observations, “GoldenEye” is a good straightforward introduction to Brosnan who fills the character of James Bond very well indeed.

The Living Daylights: bringing James Bond back into the real world of grubby self-interest

John Glen, “The Living Daylights” (1987)

With a new actor playing the role of British spy James Bond, this 15th film in the James Bond movie franchise adapts to its new lead actor Timothy Dalton’s gritty, down-to-earth interpretation of the character and presents as a more conventional and grounded spy action thriller. The plot is still as convoluted as previous James Bond film plots have been, starting from one incident and developing new twists from there that take the character to different parts of the world and coming up against new antagonists, and the action is as prolonged and ridiculous as can be to keep a mainstream audience entertained and attentive. At the same time there is a bit more emphasis on character development, to ease audiences into accepting Dalton as Bond and to make his developing romance with the requisite Bond girl, in this film the cellist Kara Milovy (Maryam d’Abo) more plausible.

Initially Bond helps a senior KGB officer, General Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbe) defect from the Soviet Union by shooting a sniper’s rifle from Milovy’s hands during a concert performance in Bratislava, rather than killing Milovy as he is supposed to do, and then popping the general into a gas pipeline and sending him through to Vienna and later Britain. Just as soon as the general enters a safe-house, he is abducted by presumed KGB agents and whisked away. Bond is then assigned by MI6 to hunt down new KGB head General Pushkin (John Rhys Davies) in Tangier and kill him, the general apparently having revived an old KGB directive to all its agents to kill foreign spies. Visiting Milovy in Bratislava, Bond discovers Koskov’s defection was a set-up. The couple go to Vienna for Bond to meet his MI6 contact Saunders who tells Bond of contacts between Koskov and a rogue US arms dealer Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker) who fancies himself an army man. After Saunders is killed by Koskov’s henchman Necros (Andreas Wisniewski), Bond and Milovy continue on to Tangier and Bond meets Pushkin who tells the spy that he did not revive the directive and that Koskov is wanted for embezzling Soviet state funds.

Bond agrees to work with Pushkin while Milovy meets up with Koskov (they are former lovers) who convinces her to drug Bond so he can be captured. Bond and Milovy are then flown to Afghanistan and imprisoned by Koskov’s men. They escape prison with the help of another prisoner, Kamran Shah (Art Malik), who turns out to be a local mujahideen leader. Bond discovers that Koskov is using stolen Soviet money to buy huge amounts of opium from the Afghans and to use the profits from opium and heroin trafficking to buy weapons from Whitaker.

The villains may not be of the billionaire stature and eccentricity of past Bondian villains and minions; they tend for the most part to be colourless and grubby men keen on advancing their own financial self-interests and not on subjugating the world to their wills. As henchmen go, the only thing special about Necros is his unfortunate name. Whitaker seems a more pathetic creature than a scheming villain. The team-up between Bond and Kamran Shah’s mujahideen was dubious even in 1987 and in the light of Afghanistan’s post-Soviet period is even more dubious given that the mujahideen then were receiving arms and money from Saudi billionaire and al Qa’ida leader Osama bin Laden. The film does nothing to distinguish Koskov and his rogue set of Soviets from the Soviet soldiers working and fighting in Afghanistan and the part of the film that takes place in that country devolves into anti-Soviet propaganda combined with the usual chase sequence, lots of fighting including an improbable fight between Bond and Necros in a cargo plane, and explosions galore.

While the acting is solid and Dalton is highly credible as Bond, the role of Milovy seems ill-thought out and inconsistent: sometimes the character will do something smart and then at the next moment retreats into a ditzy blonde stereotype. Maryam d’Abo is certainly quite a beauty but is unable to stamp her character with any individuality. The rest of the cast does good work around Dalton and d’Abo.

While far from being the best film in the series of James Bond films, “The Living Daylights” saves the character from the fantasy bombast from previous films and restores some semblance to reality to the character and the world he inhabits: the world of drug-trafficking and the illegal arms trade that stretches across continents, impacts the lives of millions around the globe and influences geopolitics and world and regional alliances. In this world, political and ideological loyalties count for little more than cynicism, greed and self-interest, as Bond has to learn again.