The Role is Not Enough - Identity Week


No, that’s not a picture of me posing with a wax figurine of Pierce Brosnan at age 10. I swear. Photo by Antonio Manfredonio.

Last week, Irish actor Pierce Brosnan told The Telegraph that he doesn’t think he was “good enough” as James Bond during his seven-year, four-film stint in the franchise.

I get what he and many of his critics mean by this. Bond movies go by their own special criteria of “awesomely bad” to “unfortunately good,” but the ‘90s Bond movies hold a very special place in my heart. For better or worse, they represent the quintessence of Hollywood’s pre-9/11 geopolitical innocence.

For worse, they still pack as much punch as any in the franchise. It’s hard arguing for any of Brosnan’s films as progressive in the sense of gender equality or delusional grandeur. But at their heart, they wed the character—and the audience—to the responsibility of statism through the best kind of exclusive man club rooted in an escapist fantasy that the big screen has to offer.

Yet playing James Bond is not exactly the most enviable post in Hollywood, but Brosnan was totally the man for that job at the time he was given it. Like being an SNL cast member, everyone will compare you to the preceding legends throughout your tenure and decide long after you’re gone whether or not you were actually good enough. Yet like the Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey-cast of SNL in the 2000s, Brosnan was easily the most grounding force for a Baby Boomer entertainment institution going about a lazy experimental phase, all just by being himself.

And, no matter how haphazardly written the scripts he was given, he amicably articulated the West’s paranoia in the years between the Cold War and the War on Terror. Yes, sometimes it was comical and that is not Brosnan’s fault. Either way, he deserves a fan’s defense of his work–even from himself. So Pierce, buddy, let’s go back to GoldenEye.

M: “You don’t like me, Bond. You don’t like my methods. You think I’m an accountant, a bean counter more interested in my numbers than your instincts.”

Bond: “The thought had occurred to me.”

M: “Good. Because I think you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War, whose boyish charms, though lost on me, obviously appealed to that young girl I sent out to evaluate you.”

This is easily the best and most honest dialog of the entire 23-film franchise. And how Brosnan reacts says everything about why anyone bothers investing any thought even in the lesser movies of this gargantuan series; because you realize he embodies the character completely, even if slightly by accident.

As a government agent with permission to kill other human beings sans legal consequence, to a certain degree you’re given a job you don’t really accept. Or at least not if you’re a good person. For a theatrical role that doesn’t offer much besides absurdly cheap one-liners delivered with a dignified accent, playing James Bond is kind of the same thing in Hollywood. Or at least it is if you want to be a movie star, which is everyone.

And if you haven’t been given many chances for a leading role besides TV acting, like Brosnan at the time, you absolutely don’t have a choice. Plenty of people have said no to playing Bond, and after Carrie Grant, no one cares who these people are.

But playing James Bond at that point carried the weight of playing a ‘60s musician in an interesting, if not incredibly predictable, biopic before those were even really a thing. It still does. You have to strike the right poses to meet audience expectations yet keep things interesting. With the ‘90s Bond movies packing even more action to keep up with the times, Brosnan has less and less opportunity to live up to his predecessors.

Then again, would you really trust a government hit-man who talked too much? From stopping another 9-11? So besides the especially unrealistic flirtatious banter (and general plot set-ups) these little exchanges that Bond has with characters he doesn’t want to fuck and/or kill are everything.

Bond looks at his superior trying only to project disgust because he feels like he has to, and so does the actor playing him not knowing who to please: the dads and uncles in the audience or their sons and nephews.

It comes off like James Bond doesn’t know who to please. His boss or the alcoholic soldier inside him. It shifts his bearings as much as it encourages him to rise to the challenge. Charm does the rest of the job and Brosnan had nearly as much as Bill Clinton did in his heyday. (Not sure if that says more about him as an actor or Billy J. as a politician.)

What especially represents how well Brosnan did his job is how much he comes up short actually delivering the suspension of disbelief. Underneath, you can kind of tell his heart totally agrees with what she’s saying. But James Bond is a sinner as well as a symbol of a downright preadolescent approach to sexuality (say something pithy but is actually kind of stupid + look smug = get laid), so it’s Brosnan’s responsibility to come off like he’s a little disappointed he can’t take the convertible for a spin while Mommy’s home.

And really, is there a better metaphor for Pierce’s place in pop culture today then a straight-faced mug being caught in a generational values gap and taking it all like a champ?

Like most things that can be said about his tenure, Daniel Craig got the luck of the draw with the respect to “realism” and evolving the character from his problematic origins. You can’t play a sensitive guy who respects people as individuals and has feelings and shit (all while killing people legally) unless smart writers write him for you.

The ‘90s Bond movies needed to find out who their audience was going to be before reintroducing him to any semblance of reality. Also a profit margin. By the time they were willing to put the time and effort into getting that transition right, Brosnan was aging and coming just short of meet the tremendous physical demands of being a 21st century action hero. No one wanted to see another wrinkled 007.

With considerable credit to Brosnan’s efforts in holding down the fort for the younger crowds, the character still has quite a draw across demographics today, which has opened up opportunities for the minds behind him to get smarter about how these movies are made.

In other words, they can get the guy who made American Beauty to direct them. Even against the two Craig films that don’t suck, GoldenEye sets the standard for which all post-Berlin Wall James Bond movies will be judged (also their video game adaptations), and is Brosnan’s best bid to stand against Connery as giving a near perfect performance embodying a weighted pop culture icon.

Complain all you want about the other Brosnan movies, but don’t blame their ludicrous stories and gaping plot holes on the guy who had to keep a straight face through it all. He basically had one shot to get it right and when you’re old enough to realize that not even a fifth of these movies are worth the two hours out of your life they take up, he did hit it out of the park.

So Pierce, don’t blame yourself. Before Osama Bin Laden became a household name, we all needed to sleep a little easier in the ‘90s knowing someone was saving the world from those confounded newspaper moguls.

Trust me, you did more than just look the part.