Pass the Popcorn: The Function of Man

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Just no other way to do this, folks – this post contains MEGA mega mega spoilers.

You have been warned.

My impression of No Time to Die changed on second viewing. When I first saw it in theaters, until the end I was enjoying it thoroughly, but I also felt it had flaws. Dialogue often seemed incomplete. Like many people, I thought the motive of the villain was unclear. But the opening gut punch (when he’s in the car and can’t decide whether to bother fighting back, when he puts Madeleine on the train) really landed, and when the ending came, I was genuinely moved. I thought: “That was really gutsy, and it worked really well.”

Upon seeing it a second time, I appreciate the whole movie much more. What I had thought were flaws were, in fact, a byproduct of a highly complex plot that requires you to attend to everything that’s going on throughout. Some important things are unstated, and become more clear with familiarity. I appreciate that attention to detail, and the invitation to the viewer to discover the implications of the story on our own.

No Time to Die is both a highly satisfying story in its own right and provides a highly satisfying conclusion to the arc of the Daniel Craig films. Nothing, of course, can redeem the monstrous idiocy of the movie Spectre – like many of the most important things in No Time to Die, that goes without saying – but this movie makes a full enough recovery, and makes enough good use of the setup provided in Spectre, that I no longer feel like the time I spent on Spectre was fully wasted. And that takes some doing.

Like Bond in Havana, let’s spend a moment with Ana de Armas before we get to the main event.

Everyone who said that de Armas stole the whole movie in the 20 minutes she was on screen was, obviously, right. Let’s just be thankful she gave the movie back to Daniel Craig on her way out. I felt like she could have walked off with it and there would have been nothing we could have done.

“I’ve trained for three weeks!”

And some people thought the conventions of the Bond franchise couldn’t be retooled for the 21st century cultural environment.

What I really appreciate about the whole Havana-and-oil-rig segment is the great effort that clearly went into making it work on multiple levels – comedy, action, drama – even though it’s essentially disposable in the larger arc of the movie. Even the death of Felix Leiter, while it is used in a very important way to make the point that the movie is making, is strictly unnecessary to the larger plot. They could have skipped Havana and the oil rig entirely and just had a 60-second scene in which the turncoat scientist kills off Spectre.

This is a long movie; there must have been a pretty awful temptation to go that way. But then this would be just another escapist fantasy, rather than a movie about something. And they put in the work to make it entertaining as well as about something.

Speaking of Felix and what this movie is about, let’s get to the main event.

Take a look at this picture of Bond, in his bulletproof car, surrounded by enemies, sitting next to a woman he no longer trusts, trying to decide whether or not saving his own life and hers is even worth it.

Now hold that thought for a moment.

In a way, No Time to Die is the tragic flip side to the essentially happy ending of Skyfall. The lessons of Skyfall, as loyal JPGB fans may recall, are as follows:

  1. All your fancy modern technology and advanced civilization will not save you if you are not the right kind of person.
  2. If you have forgotten how to be the right kind of person, look to your elders and return to the place where you came from.
  3. Do not hesitate to use your fancy modern technology to kill your elders and blow up the place you came from if that is what being the right kind of person requires.

Skyfall is a pretty good way of distilling how the classical liberal view works out in the context of the 21st century. The advance of technology and civilization does not remove, or make less agonizing, the titanic moral struggle at the heart of humanity. That is what divides classical liberals from illiberals whose preferred flavor of illiberalism is progressive.

The sources of the past are all we have to guide us in that struggle, since the sources of the future are unavailable. But the struggle is not to preserve the past, the struggle is to win the battle against evil in our own hearts. The institutions and authorities we have inherited are themselves subject to the same struggle, and inevitably tainted with moral failures, past and present. Sometimes that makes it necessary to destroy them.

Like when they behave irresponsibly and outside the law – which, as we established in Skyfall, they often have to do in order to fight evil.

And here is the happy ending part: To destroy the institutions and authorities we have inherited – if we do it for genuinely moral reasons, and not because we’re infantile and we want to show mom and dad that we’re grown up now and they can’t tell us what to do any more – is to carry forward all that is morally valuable in them. It is in fact the only way to carry forward what is morally valuable in them.

Bond and Mallory reconcile and carry on the fight together.

But we pay a price, because we need these institutions and authorities for more than moral reasons. They provide identity, meaning, purpose – wholeness. We cannot simply decide for ourselves what the meaning of our life is, because we have no non-arbitrary basis on which to make the decision. Of course, a very few are capable of reasoning all the way back to the true non-arbitrary source of all things and then reasoning forward from there, but most people require a coherent world of cultural structures to guide them to the right conclusions.

This brings us to what divides classical liberals from illiberals whose preferred flavor of illiberalism is traditionalist.

We need wholeness. But in the advanced modern world with its constant flux of institutions, we struggle not only for morality (as we always did) but now for wholeness as well. The signposts that used to tell us who we are can no longer do so because they are constantly being created and then swept aside in what is by historic standards an eyeblink of time. This is caused by the ceaseless churn of technological change, economic development and freedom of belief – which are, in the long run, interdependent and come as a package deal.

The basic question that confronts us is which of the two struggles – for morality or for wholeness – will take precedence. For the illiberal traditionalists, “because it is right, because justice requires it” is not an adequate reason to tear down the whole cultural world. For liberals, it is.

This is the tragedy of liberalism – that, to preserve what is morally good in the tradition from the shipwreck of its own injustices, we must throw ourselves into a world without wholeness.

The ending of Skyfall left us feeling like we would have what we needed in the new world created by our stand for justice.

No Time to Die admits that we really don’t – and chooses the new world anyway.

Bond and Madeleine want to write their pasts on slips of paper and burn them, visit the grave to ask forgiveness, and then leave the war for justice behind and enjoy wholeness.

Now look again at that other picture of Bond, not sure whether saving himself is even worth it.

The war for justice can’t be left behind. (Nothing but God is really sacred.)

Bond, because he is a warrior for justice, cannot have wholeness. That was, in its way, the lesson of Casino Royale. But now we learn it more completely. (All the best stories have something in the end that points you back to what you saw at the beginning, but now having a different perspective because of the intervening story.)

The lesson of No Time to Die doesn’t require three points, only one.

Wholeness is overrated.

As I’ve said before, Jeffrey Wright’s Felix Leiter has been an enormous gift to this franchise. In contrast to the very British Bond, Leiter always represents America – whether that’s the slick New York sharpness of Jack Lord in Dr. No, or the “aw shucks” Midwestern charm of Cec Linder in Goldfinger, or the simultaneous smoothness and bluntness of Wright, “a brother from Langley.”

Leiter, hemorrhaging, struggles for life in the rising water:

“It’s like back when I was a kid on that shrimp boat.”

“You’re from Milwaukee.”

“Am I? I thought I made that up. . . . You got this?”

“Yeah.”

“Make it worth it. . . . James . . . it’s a good life, isn’t it?”

“The best.”

Wholeness is overrated.

The villain in No Time to Die doesn’t want to destroy the world. The big beef about this movie was: “He wants to destroy the world, but we never find out why!” Washington Post movie reviewer Sonny Bunch answered this effectively with: “Come on. Who doesn’t want to destroy the world?”

That is, in fact, part of what this movie is about.

Safin doesn’t want to destroy the world; he’s selling his viral/nanobot/whatever weapon to people who want to destroy the world. (Kill millions, actually, not destroy the world – but the forms must be obeyed.)

Safin’s whole family was murdered by Mr. White on behalf of Spectre, and he was left as a child with nothing.

Like the illiberals of left and right – the differences between the two flavors hardly matter – all he really wants is to stop the pain and get his lost wholeness back.

For him, that means taking Mr. White’s daughter and granddaughter and making them – or at least the granddaughter, if the daughter can’t be subjugated – his new family.

And it means creating a new technology that will change the world, making his life matter because he left a lasting impact, without caring whether it was just. Just like Nietzsche said we would need to do if we wanted to create wholeness for ourselves in a world that had been stripped of wholeness precisely by the (his words) “slave morality” that cares more about justice than wholeness.

Safin says Bond, with his war for justice, leaves nothing behind him. But he thinks that he, unlike Bond, does.

He gives the world what he thinks it wants: “People want oblivion.”

This nihilistic nullity has been the final endpoint of all illiberalism in the modern world, of left and right alike: to steal other people’s children for indoctrination, and destroy anything they can’t control.

Because they want their wholeness back, and they care more about that than about justice.

As Pat Buchanan said in 1992: “Somebody’s values are going to prevail. Why not ours?”

What better image than a poisonous garden built on top of a decommissioned ICBM silo for all the efforts, on both left and right, to take our wholeness back?

The naïvely rationalist Romanticism of the illiberal left would seize the technological and economic capacity produced by classical liberalism and use it to build a Brave New World. The naïvely traditionalist Romanticism of the illiberal right would seize that capacity and use it to build a Brave Old World.

Both are “brave” because they begin by summoning up the courage to kill the part of us that loves justice more than wholeness.

And both end in poison, fire and death.

Safin is wrong. Bond does leave something behind.

In the end, we see Madeleine driving with Mathilde.

Visual clues tell us, subtly but unambiguously, that they are back at Matera.

Bond has been buried with Vesper, where he always belonged.

Madeleine has visited the grave to ask forgiveness.

She is going to tell Mathilde about her father, who sacrificed his life – and his wholeness – so she could be safe, and be raised by her mother and not a madman, in a world ruled by the merely weak and venal rather than the diabolically insane.

Meanwhile, his friends at MI6 also tell his story and remember him.

Then, clink the glass and: “Back to work.”

The war continues.

Wholeness is overrated.

The proper function of man is to live, not to exist.

I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them.

I shall use my time.

In the advanced modern world, we all agree on this. In fact, there has never been a time when this was not agreed upon. But it has taken on new urgency in the advanced modern world because, having lost our wholeness, we are constantly tempted to merely exist and prolong rather than live.

But what do we use our time for? All the big divisions are about this.

Seeking to take our lost wholeness back only grows poisonous gardens that end in fire.

We need wholeness. But we need to serve others more.

It’s right to want wholeness, because we ought to love ourselves.

But love of self becomes poisonous if we don’t make it an even higher priority to love others as we love ourselves.

Mathilde wants wholeness, too.

“If it’s an error, it’s on my shoulders, fair and square,” says Mallory, who endured torture for three months as a prisoner of the IRA.

“I’ve dedicated my life to defending this country. I believe in defending the principles of this…”

He gestures, and looks around at London, and falls silent, unable to find any words to sum up what he serves.

“Of this.”

The burden of responsibility, the legacy of injustice and corruption, the necessity of making new worlds, the sacrifice of wholeness…

If we love others as ourselves, we must accept it.

The war goes on.

Back to work.

4 Responses to Pass the Popcorn: The Function of Man

  1. […] review of the titanic struggle between liberalism and the illiberalisms of both left and right – and […]

  2. matthewladner says:

    Ok so I am going to go see this again.

  3. […] I said in a recent movie review, the difference between the Romantic illiberalism of the left and right hardly matters. The […]

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