The official 007 franchise, 23 films and $5 billion worth of box-office receipts deep, may be impressive in and of itself, but the influence of the series on popular cinema is equally daunting: Indiana Jones, Jack Ryan, and Jason Bourne all directly or indirectly incorporated the franchises euro-fetishism and espionage-as-adventure ethos into their respective universes. Mat Whitecross’s Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond follows a similar formula, except the director’s Bond substitute is Ian Fleming (Dominic Cooper), the real-life creator of James Bond, who loosely based the spy’s stories on his own experiences as a British Naval Intelligence officer in World War II.
Fleming is a sub-Bond, an incomplete version of the masculine hero archetype embodied by Sean Connery. Or perhaps James Bond can be seen as an ur-Fleming, a version of the author in which all insecurities are eliminated, resulting in a highly trained, irreverent, womanizing automaton, serving imperialist and patriarchal interests with pretenses of sexy anti-authoritarianism. While these layers of potential meta-commentary might be seen as a chance to deconstruct the embedded conservatism of the 007 movies, Whitecross limits any intentional self-reflexivity to a series of in-jokes for fans of the franchise. Before 30 minutes pass in this four-hour miniseries, the director has already cut from a tropical villa to a ski resort, visually referencing Thunderball and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
The series is only loosely adapted from Fleming’s life. There are enough references to the author’s penchant for embellishment and exaggeration that he can only be viewed as an unreliable narrator of his own story, and a title card at the end of each episode admits that historical facts have been changed for the sake of “dramatic effect.” Instead, this is the story of how an underachiever breaks from the low expectations set before him and turns himself into a master spy. Fleming comes across as a Bond origin story, or the tale of how Fleming became Bond, detailing the life of an upper-class man who’s so profoundly insecure that he dedicates his life to proving that no one is cooler under pressure or more capable of making hard decisions than himself. The series posits Bond as a culmination of Fleming’s experiences, real or imagined; the subtitle may have well been “The Man Who Would Become Bond.”
When we first meet Ian in pre-war London, he’s the black sheep of his wealthy family. His brother, Peter (Rupert Evans), is a successful writer and his father was a highly respected member of Parliament, killed in the First World War. Ian, on the other hand, is an unsuccessful stockbroker, a womanizer, and a self-destructive narcissistic. Before long, Fleming is recruited by an admiral (Samuel West) with a commandeering secretary (Anna Chancellor), placing the future author in a three-way dynamic that will be familiar for any Bond enthusiast.
If Fleming is the story’s substitute Bond, then Rear Admiral Godfrey is a substitute M and Second Officer Monday is a substitute Monneypenny. Both Godfrey and Monday are exasperated with Fleming’s insouciance even as he impresses them with his ingenuity. Meanwhile, Fleming’s only motivation to perform in the position is an embedded desire to unseat his brother as the proud son of the family. Instead of dealing with Bond’s legacy, Whitecross has crafted a subpar Bond story with a banal zero-to-hero storyline and a bevy of in-jokes and references.
Whitecross takes the subtext of the Bond franchise and makes it the text of Fleming. Why is Bond so ambivalent toward authority figures? Because Fleming hated following orders, especially from his mother. Why is Bond so confident? Because Fleming was insecure. The miniseries also gives space to Ann O’Neill (Lara Pulver), a London socialite with a husband at war and another wealthy lover in the city. Presumably, the subplot is supposed to say something about Bond’s attitude toward monogamy and marriage, but whatever purpose it has gets muddled by awkward scenes of rough-but-safe-for-television sex and a narrative framing device that gives away Fleming’s eventual marriage to O’Neill.
Ostensibly, the Bond films are celebrations of Western ideological dominance, but over the course of almost two dozen films they slowly reveal cracks in the Western exceptionalist façade. Whitecross’s version of Fleming, in contrast, isn’t nearly as interesting. Despite the mediocrity of the whole production, Cooper functions quite well in the role precisely because it would be difficult to imagine him pulling off the gravitas necessary for the real Bond. Instead of an enigmatic figure of morally questionable international justice, Fleming is just a petulant socialite with mommy issues, ready to redeem himself and save the world. Fleming the character is Bond without the mystery, and Fleming the miniseries is a Bond epic reduced to the most generic of redemption stories.