Thursday, September 17, 2015

Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond [2014]

In 2014, BBC America debuted a four-part miniseries called Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond that starred Dominic Cooper as Ian Fleming, the man created Bond.
  
  
  
  
This marks the fourth time that Ian Fleming's life has been portrayed in a biopic feature or series.  The first two were 1989's Goldeneye and 1990's Spymaker: The Secret Life of Ian Fleming.  I've previously given both the You Only Blog Twice treatment, and if you want to read about them, follow those links.
  
In those previews reviews, I included an extensive plot summary complete with copious screencaps; this was so as to enable people to be familiar with the movies without actually having to watch them (which, in the case of Goldeneye, is not exactly easy to do due to limited availability).
  
I'd intended to do the same with the four hours of Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond, but it's not going to happen.  I simply can't stomach the idea of watching it again that extensively.  If you expected better of me, then I offer my deepest apologies; but the fact is that I mostly disliked this miniseries, and the thought of spending the time it would require to competently recap and screencap it is not an attractive one.
  
So I'll make you a deal: I'll come back to this miniseries some day.  Once Spectre is released and I've reviewed it, I plan to begin tackling the Ian Fleming novels one at a time.  Once I've finished those, I'd like to consider the several major Fleming biographies; and that seems like an optimal time to turn my attentions to Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond once more.  Will this be for the express purpose of ripping it to shreds based on what I perceive to be major inaccuracies on its part?  Oh yes.
  
The title is Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond, but it might just as well be Fleming: The Miniseries That Would Be Bond To The Extent It Is Legally Allowed To Be.  You might recall that I levied a similar accusation at Spymaker: The Secret Life of Ian Fleming.  I think Fleming is a bit less offensive in that regard than was Spymaker, but only marginally.  It is by this point clear that we're never going to get a proper biopic of Fleming's life, because producers and writers are inexplicably hung up on the idea that Fleming was Bond.
  

You can imagine them sitting around some party, stoned and having deep-thought conversations about Voltron or whatever, when all of a sudden somebody mentioned James Bond.  "Yeah, man, but, like," says some genius, "the guy who wrote about James Bond, man, he, like, WAS James Bond, man...!  He lived it...!"  Some other genius says, "Radical...!  How do you know that, dude?!?"  And genius #1 waves his arms a bit, says, "Just...," makes a pffft noise with his mouth, and continues: "I mean, like, who doesn't know that, bro?"  All present nod sagely, and two months later they turn in the screenplay.  Except in that time they've sobered up, realized that they have to make it seem realistic enough that people won't accuse them of outright fiction, and they've taken out the car chases and nuclear crises.
  
I say that if you're going to refuse to go big, you should just go home.  If you are determined to just make shit about Ian Fleming up, then brother, make some fuckin' shit up!  Write it in such a way that everyone knows you're lying, but make them not care.  Either that or just tell the goddam truth.  One way or the other, commit.
  
I trust by now you've gathered that I have much to say about this miniseries and its accuracy issues.  I could go on and on, but, like I've said, I can't bear the thought.  So instead, let me quote a passage  (detailing an incident from late in Fleming's wartime service) from John Pearson's 1966 biography The Life of Ian Fleming:

     For several months vague reports had been reaching Room 39 about a castle at a place called Tambach, deep in the forests of Wurttemberg.  No one could be sure what was happening, but it appeared that an elderly admiral was in charge and that for months lorry loads of documents had been arriving there.  Fleming set his book-collector's heart on getting to the castle of Tambach,  An expedition was arranged.  On the eve of the German surrender Fleming and Trevor Glanville, 30 Assault Unit's expert on enemy documentation, went to Tambach.  There they found the old Admiral in a state of high excitement.  In the grounds of the schloss a huge pyre had been prepared on the dried-out bed of the lake.  It consisted of the entire German naval archives since 1870.  With the Russian advance the Admiral was preparing to go down with his documents.
     Perhaps his nerve failed him at the last moment.  Or perhaps the villagers of Tambach had stolen the ration of gasoline which the German High Command had allocated for burning the archives.  Anyway, the pyre was never lit and Fleming and the stricken old enemy admiral got on well together.  the result was that when Fleming left Tambach he took the whole of the official German naval archives with him.  There were many tons of them, and he arranged for a fishery protection vessel to bring them back from Hamburg to London.  The old admiral came, too, and at Fleming's suggestion he spent the next few months in London helping to edit the German naval archives in a small office in the admiralty.
  
Now, for a look at what the writers of Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond did with this episode from the man's life, let's turn to a post by Nicholas Rankin (author of Ian Fleming's Commandos: The Story of the Legendary 30 Assault Unit) that appeared at the blog of the Oxford University Press.  Rankin had this to say about the events, which occur near the end of the fourth and final episode:
  
     As a biopic, the fourth and final episode of Fleming is preposterous. It’s early 1945. Boyish Ian Fleming (Dominic Cooper) demonstrates some Q-style gadgets — a poison-gas pen and a cigarette-lighter camera whose film fits in a golf ball — to the cigar-chomping American Colonel William Donovan (Stanley Townsend) and says they will win the war. Donovan dismisses his toys because he’s after bigger fish: Hitler’s atomic bomb program! Where are the ‘Nazi nuclear secrets’? Ian Fleming draws four lines of retreat on a map of Germany. They intersect at Tambach Castle! That’s the hiding place, and he must race there before the Americans or the Russians. ‘Leave it to me!’  

     Taking with him a lone sergeant and a couple of Sten-guns, Fleming drives in a jeep through southern Germany, looking for ‘Nazi documents, nuclear secrets’. The snowy woods are full of last-ditch ‘Werewolves’ with scars on their brutal, stop-at-nothing faces. At the castle, a German admiral is protecting the secret stuff  – ‘my life’s work.’ The Werewolves attack; the sergeant holds them off till he dies, actorishly; Fleming murders a Nazi with his bare hands, puts on his uniform and escapes in a truck with the admiral and all the papers. Russian troops stop them; the German admiral is shot, but with one bound (‘I am a British officer!’) Fleming escapes with the precious documents.     

     This being Fleming, it goes without saying that none of this happened. Or if anything like it did, they get it wrong. In Ian Fleming’s real life in the Second World War, he killed no-one, never fired a submachine gun, invented no gadgets, met no Soviet troops. William Donovan, Director of the Office of Strategic Services, was a Major-General at the time, not a Colonel. The real-life ‘Werewolves’ were mostly a fantasy of Joseph Goebbels, enacted by a few kids. Tambach Castle held nearly 500 tons of the German naval archives (far too big to fit in one small truck) and they were captured intact without any shots being fired.     

     The true story is completely different. Commander Fleming worked for British Naval Intelligence and he was directing his ‘intelligence commando’ teams towards naval targets, not ‘nuclear secrets’. As well as capturing the archives, Fleming’s commandos, 30 Assault Unit or 30AU, hunted down the first German miniature submarine and seized the hydrogen peroxide technology powering both Nazi rockets and a new generation of U-boats that were faster than anything the Allies had. This is the real background to the later James Bond books like Thunderball and Moonraker. At the Walterwerke in Kiel, 30 Assault Unit uncovered a genuine ‘lethal toyshop with its jet-driven explosive hydrofoils, radio-controlled glider bombs, remote-controlled tankettes, rocket-propelled ‘sticky bombs’, silent steam cannons, mine detonators and a new kind of big gun with a fuel injection system in the barrel to extend its range.’ The TV Fleming is like being trapped with a crassly compulsive liar who can’t tell truth from falsehood, and doesn’t want to try.
  
Ouch.
  
But that's Fleming for you.  The miniseries also fumbles the ball badly in many other regards, but this sequence may be the worst offender of the bunch.
  
So with that in mind, let's now let You Only Blog Twice do what it does: assess the miniseries based on the established rating format.  You want to be Bond?  Okay.  Let's see how that works out for you.
  
(1)  Bond ... James Bond

The miniseries cast Dominic Cooper as Ian Fleming, and the filmmakers clearly want you to see the dashing and handsome Cooper as James Bond.  I'm not one who insists that a biopic try to cast someone who looks and sounds like the subject they are portraying, but I do believe it is incumbent upon them to at least try.

Here's Ian Fleming:




Here's the Ian Fleming of Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond:




That's not even trying.

So how, then, does Cooper fare as a Bond-like character?  Ehh...okay, I guess.  His voice is too high for my tastes, but Cooper does cockiness and self-assurance fairly well.  He also does what the screenplay asks him to do: portray Fleming as though he were a colossal prick.  He does so with a veneer of charm and sophistication, but the screenplay doesn't emphasize those elements; it emphasizes the prickishness.

Points awarded:  001/007.  I like Dominic Cooper as an actor, but there is a reason why you never see his name on the list of potential future-Bond contenders.  (By the way, my first and only choice to play Fleming in a biopic would be Benedict Cumberbatch.  Well, either him or Idris Elba.)

(2)  SPECTRE

Main Villain:  For the purposes of this scoring system, I designate Lady Evelyn Fleming, Ian's mother.  She is played here by Lesley Manville.




There can be little doubt that Evelyn exerted a great deal of influence on her son's life, but this miniseries elevates her to an Blofeldian degree of villainy.  (I exaggerate, of course; but not as much as you might think.)  In one early scene, she is upset with Ian and decides to have a word with Winston Churchill in order to get him a job.  And voila, he is a high-ranking naval commander.  This, to be blunt, is a fucking load of horseshit.

Later, Evelyn manipulates Ian's lover Ann so as to prevent the two of them from marrying.  I see no reason to assume that this is not also a fucking load of horseshit.

Points awarded (Main Villain): 000/007.  Manville plays the role well -- Evelyn is a hissable villain -- but the historical inaccuracy is appalling.
  
Henchmen:  I neglected to pay attention to his name (is it Rushbrooke?), but the man who takes over from Admiral Godfrey as Fleming's commanding officer is fairly detestable.  He won't let Fleming do anything, and even once Fleming has -- according to the implications of this miniseres -- singlehandedly stopped the German nuclear program, he's still an a-hole toward our hero.

Points awarded (Henchmen):  002/007.  I'm going to be kind and issue two points here, mainly because I like the actor's beard.
  
Total points awarded (S.P.E.C.T.R.E.):  001/007

(3)  The Bond Girls

Main Bond Girl:  There can be no doubt that the Main Bond Fleming girl of this piece is Lady Ann O'Neill, as played by Lara Pulver:




She likes it rough.  Nothing will get her wetter than being slapped around a bit and choked a bit and then taken from behind.  Ian Fleming is just the man to oblige her in this regard.

Am I making that up?  No I am not.  Were the screenwriters making it up?  Well . . . maybe not.  There does seem to be at least some evidence (via letters from Ann to Ian) that some degree of masochism factored into their personal chemistry.  But this miniseries foregrounds that element to an almost ludicrous degree; it doesn't quite veer into Fifty Shades of Fleming territory, but you can tell that the filmmakers would have loved to have done just that.

As choices go, it is a bizarre one.  That sort of element is a perfectly valid one for storytelling; there is no denying that some people do indeed have sexual relationships of that nature, and that it results in them being very much in love with one another.  I'm no prude; I understand that that's just how it is for some folks.

BUT...

If you're going to introduce an element like that into a story, you have to do so in a believable and compelling manner.  That does not happen in Fleming.  It comes out of nowhere, results in some cheesy PG-13 writhing (lots of quickly-cut-away-from thrusting, lots of moaning, numerous naked shoulder and elbows and navels, etc.), and then goes away again until the next episode.

Pulver -- a talented actor who has appeared in Sherlock, Edge of Tomorrow, and True Blood, among other things -- is very good as Ann; she's confident, sexy, and has marvelous eyes.  But she's hamstrung by the screenplay, which has her insist over and over again that Ann simply wants to be married; she must have a husband.  Pulver's performance does not in any way suggest a woman who needs a husband; one suspects she looked at those lines, rolled her eyes, and just played the role the way she wished.

Points awarded (Main Bond Girl):  001/007.  Pulver is good; the character is not.

Secondary Bond Girls:  There are a few Secondary Fleming Girls, and leading the way is Annabelle Wallis, who plays Muriel Wright:



Wright was a major figure in Fleming's life, not the least because she died tragically during a German bombing on London.  She was a girlfriend of Fleming's who often -- partially in the course of her job as a dispatch rider -- purchased cigarettes for him.  She was doing so when a bomb was dropped, killing her instantly.

You'd think that would be dramatic enough for the purposes of any movie or television series, but no.  In The Man Who Would Be Bond, Fleming returns from an overseas trip; he's promised to rendezvous with Wright as soon as he returns, and sure enough, he does call her as soon as he gets back . . . from the apartment of Ann O'Neill, whom he has visited first.  The telephone call causes Wright to go to Fleming's apartment, and it is there that the bomb is dropped, killing her.

This is an outright lie, and it's one that is designed (a) to make Fleming's life seem more dangerous than it was and (b) to make Wright more of a hanger-on.  Loathsome!

There are a few other characters I should discuss, but I don't want to.  So there!

Points awarded (Secondary Bond Girls): 001/007.  A single point because Wallis is pretty.

Total points awarded (The Bond Girls): 001/007
  
(4)  "Oh, James..."

Action/Stunts:  There are a few explosions, and a few training sequences, and such.  Plus that fourth-episode foofaraw about the "nuclear documents."

Points awarded (Action/Stunts):  001/007.  I'll award a single point, and I'm not sure why I'm being so generous.

Editing:  The only thing that I remember about the editing is that the sex-scenes are edited in softcore-porn style, which does not work; and that toward the end of the fourth episode, there is a competent sequence (almost surely a figment  of imagination) involving a near-miss between Ian and Ann.

Points awarded (Editing): 002/007.  Probably too generous again.

Costumes/Makeup:  Nothing spectacular, but it's functional.

Points awarded (Costumes/Makeup):  003/007

Locations:  Unless I misremember, there are no real locations to speak of other than a visit to a German forest.

Points awarded (Locations):  001/007

Overall points awarded ("Oh, James..."): 001.75/007
  
(5)  Q Branch

Bond's Allies:  The main allies here are Admiral Godfrey and his secretary, Monday; they are played by Samuel West and Anna Chancellor, respectively.





Obviously, these two are intended to be proto-M and proto-Moneypenny, and in that regard they are a mixed bag.  West gives a fine performance, but the implication is that Fleming had to bully his way past Godfrey at every step (often with Monday's help).  That's probably not the relationship Fleming had with Godfrey, and it's certainly not the relationship Bond had/has with M.  So as regards Godfrey, the miniseries fails on every front except casting.

Chancellor's Monday is much more successful.  I think I recall that such a secretary did in fact exist, but even if she didn't, I'm inclined to give a thumbs-up here.  Chancellor is very good, and Monday clearly has a thing for Fleming; this is fine by me.

Another ally, I suppose, is Ian's brother Peter, played by Rupert Evans.  Evans is headlining Amazon's upcoming adaptation of The Man in the High Castle, and he's pretty good in Fleming.

Points awarded (Bond's Allies): 003/007.  I'm being very generous here, entirely on the strength of Anna Chancellor's Moneypenny-esque role.

Direction:  The direction comes courtesy of Mat Whitecross, who does good work in a few scenes, competent work in most scenes, and incompetent work in a few scenes.  If I were screencapping the whole thing, you would now be shown multiple examples of Whitecross's occasional tendency to not be able to frame a shot worth a damn.  On numerous occasions -- whenever (I think) we're supposed to feel unsure or edgy -- he lets his characters' faces sort of drift into the upper corners of the frame.  When this happens, it looks as if the image has been crudely cropped.

Why?

I also choose to blame Whitecross for how cheesy the sex scenes are.

Points awarded (Direction):  001/007

Cinematography:  The whole thing looks okay, I guess, apart from Whitecross's occasional framing mistakes.  It's flat-looking work, but not bad.

Points awarded (Cinematography):  002/007

Art Direction:  There are a few scenes in which the sets look nice and suggest Bond-like sensibilities without going over the top.

Points awarded (Art Direction):  003/007

Special Effects:  There are a few explosions, and a decent number of CGI effects intended to suggest German or French or British locales.  Some of those latter effects are okay, but some are about as comvincing as something from your average episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.

Points awarded (Special Effects):  001/007

Gadgets:  Fleming is shown to be a proponent of Q-like gadgetry (such as a sleeping-gas pen).

Points awarded (Gadgets): 002/007.  I don't think there is much historical evidence to suggest that this was the case, but the miniseries does a decent job of lying convincingly about Fleming's tendency toward innovations in weaponry and gadgetry.

Opening-Title Sequence:  No such thing.

Points awarded (Opening-Title Sequence):  000/007.  Typically, I'd grant a "n/a" score in a case such as this, but this time I'm inclined to say they should have had one.  It's a tv series (albeit limited)!  An opening-titles sequence is a must.  Yeah, yeah, I know: most tv shows nowadays don't have them.  Well, they should.  And if they are attempting to rip off the Bond movies, they should just commit do it and go for the gold.

Overall points awarded (Q Branch): 001.71/007
  
(6)  Mission Briefing

I believe I said all I currently wish to say about this above.

Points awarded:  000/007

(07)  The Music

Title Song:  No such thing.

Points awarded (Title Song): n/a

The Score:  There was music, written by Ilan Eshkeri and Tim Wheeler.  Most of it made little impact on me, except for occasional moments -- such as at the very beginning of the first episode -- where it is clear that they are using a four-note motif to try to suggest Monty Norman's "James Bond Theme."

You will get no love from me for doing that.

Points awarded (The Score):  001/007.  I want to give a 000, but I think that might be unfair.

Total points awarded (The Music): 001/007
  
So, how does that all tally up?
  
Double-0 Rating for Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond:  001.07/007
  
Here is where that would fit in as a comparison:
  
006.48 -- Skyfall
006.47 -- On Her Majesty's Secret Service
006.40 -- Casino Royale
006.37 -- Thunderball
006.23 -- From Russia With Love
006.03 -- Goldfinger
005.58 -- The Living Daylights
004.84 -- Moonraker
004.76 -- Dr. No
004.42 -- For Your Eyes Only
004.41 -- Quantum of Solace
004.39 -- Live and Let Die
004.36 -- GoldenEye
003.96 -- A View to a Kill
003.92 -- Octopussy
003.77 -- The Man With the Golden Gun
003.75 -- Licence to Kill
003.66 -- The Spy Who Loved Me
003.63 -- Die Another Day
003.09 -- You Only Live Twice 
001.43 -- Never Say Never Again
001.07 -- Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond
001.02 -- James Bond Jr
000.60 -- Spymaker: The Secret Life of Ian Fleming
  
All in all, I guess I can live with that.  To be honest, I do prefer James Bond Jr, though; it is ridiculous, but at the very least it seems to have come by its ridiculous honestly.  It was designed to entertain children and to sell toys and to keep Kevin McClory from making an animated series.
  
What's Fleming's excuse?
  
Anyways, I apologize again about the relative laziness of this post.  See y'all again relatively soon!
  
You Only Blog Twice will return in . . . Spectre.

12 comments:

  1. I told ya, man. It could have been about some non-descript Englishman during the War and it would have made for a lacklustre four hours of television. It STILL was a lacklustre four hours of television, but I watched it through to the end because it was (purportedly) about Ian Fleming. As I said previously, I would have been far more interested to see a story about him sitting down to write "Casino Royale" and his subsequent life in Jamaica and right through to his death.
    Oh, and Sarah Pulver and Anna Chancellor were wasted in this. And I don't mean heavily drunk. Although, I would have preferred to see THAT for four hours. Now that would have been entertaining.

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    1. Yessir, sure enough, you were right. I expected nothing else, and somehow still ended up disappointed.

      I agree that there would be a better movie/series to be made that actually dealt in some way with the writing of "Casino Royale" (or at least the circumstances which led to it). 1989's "Goldeneye" does at least feint in that direction; it is by far the best of the Fleming biopics to date. Heck, at least Charles Dance was strong casting!

      Here's something you will already know, but which might be of interest to anyone reading along: I didn't mention it in the review simply for the sake of expediency, but the fourth episode more or less ends with Ann marrying Lord Rothermere. And yet, the first episode had begun in 1952 with Ann married to Ian. I kept looking at the lock, wondering how they were going to squeeze all of that into the final -- I kid you not -- two or three minutes.

      They deal with it by having a card come up on screen saying something like "Ann and Ian finally got married in 19___" (can't remember the year), then it shows another scene of them in Jamaica for a few seconds. And that's the end. Maybe they were thinking about doing a second season or something, I don't know. But they decide to just skip straight over YEARS of interesting stuff.

      This thing really is quite terrible. The more I think about it, the worse it seems!

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    2. There, there, don't fret, BB. "SPECTRE" is right around the corner and, unless there's a cruel cosmic joke in the works, it should wipe away any memory of this Fleming biopic. Part of me would (eventually) find it funny if "SPECTRE" turns out to be worse than "Fleming- The Man Who Would Be Bond".

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    3. I almost literally can't imagine a proper Bond movie being that bad. When and if that happens, I may cry a little bit. Or maybe a lot.

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  2. Man, did I say 'Sarah' Pulver? I meant 'Lara'. She was wonderful in that episode of "Sherlock". Very memorable entrance.

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    1. I really need to see "Sherlock." I've heard nothing but good things.

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  3. Sounds dreadful.

    I second that nomination for "Goldeneye" being the best of the Fleming biopics to date.

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    1. At the least, its heart was in the right place. "Fleming" and "Spymaker" are just exploitative embarrassments.

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  4. Like you mentioned in the review I don't get where this desire to show Flemming's life being just like his books, and the James Bond novels were all autobiographical. You can't deny that he lived an interesting life, and that those experiences are a massive influence on his writing. However there are SO many people who did such amazing things during that time period. Just that most of them didn't end up writing bestselling spy fiction.

    I think I'm going to pitch a script to the BBC telling the life story of Mike Myers, and how his boyhood travelling the world, and foiling super-villains let him to write Austin Powers.

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  5. "Gioldeneye?" I seriously thought you were talking about a different biopic (the 3rd out of the 4) or were making a joke about it. Oddly, from googling it, it seems you are far from the only person on the Internet to make this typo.

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