Saturday, September 11, 2021

'Die Another Day': shaping James Bond for a post-9/11 world


It was 20 years ago today that two hijacked Boeing 747 commercial aeroplanes caused a macabre terrorist attack in the heart of New York City, but watching the images all over again still chills anyone in any part of this world. The terrorist attacks that took place in the morning of September 11, 2001, didn't just change the politics and social mood of the United States of America. It changed the whole world and particularly the Western hemisphere: anyone who grew up in the late 1990s and early 2000s surely remembers how afraid we were of going to McDonald's or walking next to the US Embassy in the days that followed 9/11.

You don't need a PhD to see how this event changed Hollywood: what kind of action films do we do? We place the Middle East as the enemy and have an American action hero defeating him? Do we divert the focus to something else and do something like The Matrix and deliver villains without a marked political orientation? The challenge was huge and dealing with such sensitive matters could have an adverse effect in a society that was very much hurt, but at the same time, there was the admission that the Western world wasn't a secure place any more and the fear of death was around the corner.

The morning of 11 September 2001:
a day the world will never forget.

The earlier 2000s swayed between leisure and horror, and these contrasts are more than evident in the unfairly maligned 40th anniversary James Bond film Die Another Day.

True, the Lee Tamahori film vastly abuses the technique of computer-generated imagery that involves an invisible cloak for 007's Aston Martin Vanquish, a false tsunami that the secret agent improvisedly surfs with a metallic platform and a parachute, and even a bullet that goes into the eyes of the audience during Pierce Brosnan's final gunbarrel sequence in addition to an excess of speed ramps and slow motion effects courtesy of editor Christian Wagner. But, then again, there are all the films of this generation to blame for those "sins": Swordfish, Charlie's Angels, Mission: Impossible 2 - and the latter two were massive box-office hits, just like Die Another Day  was despite incoherently receiving an unfounded blame as the production that "nearly killed the franchise".

Although, it may seem an impossible task, forget about the aesthetic of the film for a while. Die Another Day was the first post-9/11 James Bond film, and this is shown repeatedly. Not less interestingly, script development began as early as in 2000 and the events of September 2001, according to the official The James Bond Archives book published by Taschen, forced screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade to ditch the original plot line that involved CIA agents turning against their handlers. 

29 January 2002: President George W. Bush
delivers his State of the Union Address,
condemning Iran, Iraq and North Korea

For a little over two hours, Die Another Day represents the biggest insecurities and fears in the Western society in the aftermath of 9/11. Trying to escape from the complexity of facing Bond off with a Middle Eastern villain, the antagonists came all from the Far East. More precisely, that "rogue nation" in the Far East, the one that is still surrounded by dark mysteries and multiple complaints from human rights associations: North Korea, the country that was accused of being part of "Axis of Evil", along with Iran and Iraq, by president George W Bush.

Colonel Tan-Sun Moon has the zeal of a political leader. He is little interested in money or revenge and every corrupt activity he's involved in, arms and conflict diamonds dealing, are simply oriented to finance a rise to power and his desire to make the West "shake with fear". He doesn't just want to rule the world, he wants to make North Korea rule the world. Expressing his views to Bond in a taunting manner, Moon sees the British as "pathetic people who think they can police the world" right after the spy's cover is blown and, after being presumed dead for years, goes as far as genetically changing his ethnicity to infiltrate the Western society as British businessman Gustav Graves and destroying them from within: With their technology, with their free-market economy, laughing at them right under their noses as he even gets knighted by Queen Elizabeth.

Gustav Graves: a Western
çade for a radicalized
North Korean officer.

This is not too dissimilar to the actions of the "Hamburg cell" which planned the  9/11 attacks, Middle Eastern students residing in Germany discussing anti-American and anti-Israeli views before immigrating to the United States to carry out those schemes. Mohammed Atta, the Egyptian engineer who crashed flight AA11 on the north tower of the World Trade Center, was treated as a Westerner and therefore reaching the US wasn't a difficult job in terms of a visa permit. In a way, he was seen as Gustav Graves was seen by the British press and the authorities: A humanitarian, a joyful businessman with dreams of greatness "trying to give the planet something in return" for what it has given him. 

But, the 9/11 effect was not simply focused on the tenacity of the radicalized villains: Die Another Day went as far as showing us the cracks in the Western intelligence agencies.  

James Bond himself is less of a one-man army and at the pre-credits sequence, he is captured by the North Korean army just as he completes his mission to eliminate Moon. His 14-month torture is shown through a two minute duration over Daniel Kleinman's main title sequence, where the fire and ice girls are more frightening than alluring, in contrast to the seductive girly silhouettes from the days of Maurice Binder's designs. Bond, resisting an atrocious torment, is finally exchanged for Zao -who has been captured by the Americans- and far from being welcomed as a hero, he is seen as a disposable asset: "You are no use to anyone now", a cold-hearted M tells the operative she considered "their best" three years earlier in 1999's The World Is Not Enough. Long gone is the Bond that could succeed in anything, that could escape from impossible situations, the Bond that we could perceive as "a hero". 

This conversation between 007 and M on a floating vessel hospital going through Hong Kong sending Bond to the "reevaluation centre", perfectly exemplifies what Ian Fleming himself noted in an interview with the CBS in 1963: That espionage was frequently romanticized by readers, but it was actually a dirty trade. War veterans that have been captured behind enemy lines and brought back to their homelands after negotiations by the government were received as heroes, embraced by family and friends. But, James Bond has no family nor friends, and the only woman that could feel this gap in his life, the one that esteemed him as "his best boy" (so to speak) now ditches him because he may have been leaking information, something the Americans -leading the War on Terror- couldn't forgive in this time and age. In contrast to the previous films, even the first three Pierce Brosnan era adventures, the image of James Bond that Die Another Day  gives us is that of a government tool that is "useful" or "expendable" - an idea reflected in the 1953 novel Casino Royale where Mathis advises Bond to avoid "becoming human" or the Service would lose "a wonderful machine".

Miranda Frost, an undercover MI6 agent posing as Gustav Graves publicist,
is briefed by M. The British Intelligence missed the fact that she was the
mole who exposed James Bond during his mission in North Korea.

On top of that, there is a big intelligence flaw between the British and American governments: NSA's Falco hides from M that her young new recruit Miranda Frost studied with Colonel Moon in Harvard and both joined the fencing team. M, on the other hand, ignored the damage this beautiful, innocent-looking girl could make to Her Majesty's top agent: Using her job at MI6 as cover, she not only tipped Moon off about a Cuban clinic where DNA transplant services were offered to runaways, but also informed him directly that a British MI6 agent licenced to kill named James Bond would be sent to assassinate him. This case of misintelligence provokes Bond's downfall through the first half of the story, and also indirectly serves to reflect how real-life intelligence agencies failed to anticipate and prevent a bold terrorist attack like 9/11 from happening. Disavowed from the British Secret Service after his imprisonment, torture and exchange, Bond is completely on his own, gadget-less, lacking support, and has to resort to old hardware (a Smith & Wesson revolver, a 1957 Ford Fairlaine, a pair of binoculars) and a semi-retired contact to find any trail to the person who burned him in North Korea, also proving his worth.

A gadget-less Bond tries
to find out the whereabouts
of Zao, the only man who
can identify the person
who set him up.

Die Another Day's climax is somewhat redeeming amidst a worst case scenario: Moon/Graves is advancing over South Korea and every troop allied to the West (South Korean, British, Americans) can't defeat him: His Icarus satellite can literally burn any expensive and sophisticated anti-satellite weapon fired by the Americans, and can also detonate the landmines buried beneath the Demilitarised Zone dividing both Koreas. NSA's Damien Falco clarifies we are in a DEFCON-2 state, a step below nuclear war, a scenario feared right after we saw the Twin Towers crumbling in flames on that fateful day of 2001 (back then, DEFCON-3 was declared). It's up to James Bond and his American companion, NSA agent Jinx to stop him by infiltrating his base in North Korea and subsequently the Antonov jet which the antagonist uses to oversee and execute his operation. And naturally, they succeed.

The Daniel Craig era frequently gets the laurels for introducing a grittier Bond to reflect how the world has changed after September 11, 2001. Die Another Day, on the other hand, is lambasted for a lack of depth attributed to the special effects department and sharing the style with the millennial movies we now pretend to forget how much we enjoyed. The Craig era showed us the twist and turns provoked as a consequence of 9/11: Brokers for terrorists and shadowy operators who speculate with the stock market after one of these acts is carried on, rogue agents using technology to strike through the distance, bureaucrats placed by the enemy in Whitehall and obsessed with surveillance, to name a few examples. But, Die Another Day was the closest film released to the date of the 9/11 event and, therefore, showed us a less watered-down scenario and almost directly made James Bond fight our biggest fears: A zealous extremist wanting to take control of the West sowing panic. People who seemed unbeatable and indistinguishable. People embedded in our society, smiling to the camera while plotting against the soil they were walking by. 

Never forget.


Nicolás Suszczyk

*The author has written Beyond The Ice: The Case For and Against Die Another Day. Get this book in Paperback and Kindle on Amazon and BookDepository.

*Photos sourced by Thunderballs.


  1. who else but Anthony Hopkins

  2. Comprendi questo film... Anche nella situazione più pietosa puoi imparare qualcosa.