Friday, March 23, 2012

The Infernal Machine: Moonraker


The greatest war in the history of the world rages.  On June 6th, Allied forces assault the beaches of Normandy, and the Empire of the 3rd Reich begins to collapse.  In retaliation, the Nazis unleash one last horror, one born not of the ancient capacity of humanity to hate itself for its differences, but out of the explosion of technological breakthroughs of the 20th centuries as we found ways to finally pierce the sky itself.

From Paris, several rockets blast into the air.  Ethanol, Water, and Liquid Oxygen fuel a fiery blaze lasting 65 seconds.  The rockets soar over 50 kilometers in altitude, breaking free of the land and penetrating outer space.  They travel over 100 kilometers before descending at more than 10 kilometers per second, emitting an ear-shattering crack as they surpass the sound barrier three times over, crashing onto a London still devastated by the aerial bombardment of the Battle of Britain.  A thousand kilograms of explosives end the lives of two civilians - 63-year-old Ada Harrison and 3-year-old Rosemary Clarke - and one Royal Engineer on leave, Bernard Browning.  And for months, the rockets continue to fall, killing more than 2,700 in London, nearly twice as many as were killed by the bombings of the Lutwaffe, and injuring another 6,500.  On November 24th, a single V-2 kills 160 and seriously injures another 108 after hitting a Woolworth's department store. (In Antwerp, Belgium, an even more devastating hit strikes a cinema, killing 567 and injuring 291)

British Intelligence eventually leaks falsified information suggesting the rockets are overshooting London by 10 to 20 kilometers.  The ruse works, and most of the remaining rockets fall in Kent, greatly reducing though not eliminating civilian deaths.  Between the Blitz and the V-2s, London lies in ruins.

When at last the War ends, enough still stands that it can be rebuilt.

1955.  The trauma in England of the devastation of their homeland and their capital lingers, amplified by the economic difficulties Post-War.
Across the Pond, the Pentagon announces their plan to build ICBMs - intercontinental ballistic missiles, armed with the increasingly powerful nuclear weaponry of the age.  The Soviet Union oversees the Warsaw Pact between the Communist powers in Europe.  Winston Churchill steps down as Prime Minister after a series of strokes severely weaken him both physically and mentally.  His last term has overseen the fall of colonialism and the British Empire, despite his stubborn resistance.

Tolkien finishes The Lord of the Rings with The Return of the King.  The biggest hit single is Bill Haley's rousing rock-and-roll rendition of Rock Around the Clock, another lighthearted joy to counter the dark moods of England (and complement the much more optimistic mood in America).

While Fleming continues with his secret agent in Moonraker, but keeps Bond curiously grounded in England and has him face an even more horrific reflection of the destruction of London in the War.  What to a modern audience - and, I imagine, even a contemporary American audience - plays as a solid thriller that drags a bit in the middle but picks up for a thrilling and surprising finale, in 1955 taps directly into the fears and emotions of England.  A vastly successful businessman, Hugo Drax, is building the Moonraker, a vastly upgraded V-2 with nuclear capabilities to allow England to defend itself from its enemies.  But Drax is secretly a Nazi who changed his identity near the end of the war and infiltrated England, intent on its utter destruction in revenge for the defeat of his Fatherland.  The Soviets supply him with a nuclear bomb, which he secretly fixes to the top of what is supposedly a test rocket.

He's going to nuke London with what was meant to defend her.  In a single moment, he will utterly destroy England.

And so, with England itself in danger from both the enemies of yesterday - the Nazis - and the enemies of today - the Communists - armed with the space-age weaponry of tomorrow, Bond becomes England's White Knight, mythic in an entirely different way from Live and Let Die

Except Fleming undercuts his mythic hero twice.  The first is by humanizing him - at first, simply by showing a glimpse of his home life.  Even removed from the exotic traveling and expensive hotels and casinos, Bond is far from a relatable working-class hero, residing in a very nice flat with his own housekeeper.  But this glimpse still makes him less mythic and more human.

But Fleming's big humanization of Bond is in his finale.  Bond loses.  Oh, he does save London, but Drax's nuke still explodes out in the North Sea, resulting in a tidal wave that kills Drax... and thousands of civilians on the coast.  M tries in his distant, stiff-upper-lip way to sort-of comfort his best agent, but Bond limps out of the office largely defeated, with the only bright spot in his mind being Gala Brand, the girl he met at Drax's compound.

Gala is a much stronger and more interesting character than she's given credit for, largely because she's never appeared in one of the films.  She's a member of Scotland Yard, undercover in Drax's organization as a simple secretary.  She wears a ring, Bond assumes, to ward off advances in the otherwise all-male group.  She's clever, thoughtful, and pretty tough when it comes down to it.  And she's very good at a very difficult job, and a genuinely strong female heroine.  She can only even be considered a damsel in distress briefly, and even then, Bond's attempts to rescue her end up putting him in exactly the same position.

And having given Bond the best female counterpart he's had yet, and taken everything else away, he brings Bond to his "reward"... and takes even that away.  Gala's ring isn't just a ruse, after all; she's genuinely engaged and off to be married.  The intensity of their hours together fighting Drax have left her a bit confused, but Bond, despite having nothing else, denies her before she can really even ask.  He honorably lets her away to a better life.  A life Fleming suggests Bond neither shall nor could ever have.

Fleming uses an interesting structure that wasn't uncommon in thrillers and action yarns until the '80s -- holding off almost entirely on any action until the final act, but then packing that last act to the brim with set-pieces.  Done properly, setting a slow-burn baseline and paying off with a spectacular finale is exhilarating -- The French Connection exemplifies this style particularly well.

To pull it off, though, you have to get two things right, and Fleming doesn't quite make both.  The first is that your actionless first two-thirds have to be well-plotted and characterized, and the second is that the payoff in the last third has to be worth the wait.  It starts well -- the high-stakes Contract Bridge game comprising the first 60 pages is surprisingly exciting.  I love bridge, but it's not exactly one of the more tense or exciting card games out there.  Regardless, Fleming builds an incredible level of tension out of the face-off between Bond and Drax.

Once that winds down and the real mystery gets going, however, doldrums set in.  While Moonraker has fine if unexceptional characters, they aren't quite strong enough to carry the midsection, and the early plotting consists of about  80 pages of Bond wandering around Drax's compound trying to figure out who is up to what nefarious deeds.  Which could be interesting in theory, but Bond mostly just waits around for something to happen.

But even after largely dropping the ball on the first part, Fleming makes the last act such a knockout that it still feels worth the wait.  The set-pieces -- the incredibly sexy swim, the collapsing cliff-face, the race to London, and the car chase all escalate the excitement superbly.  Drax then, naturally, ties Bond and Gala up so that they will be killed by the launching rocket.  It's a theatrical gesture, of course, not a realistic one, but when it sets up such a terrific finale, it's difficult to complain.  Bond's escape is very clever, brutally taunting Drax into assaulting him... which leads to Drax unintentionally leaving the very tool Bond uses to escape behind.  Finally, the climactic scenes as Bond first uses Gala's instructions to set the rocket off-course, and then their long wait hoping they'll survive the inferno of the rocket blast create a terrific finale.

And then, Fleming lays out his dark, downbeat ending.  Today, it has a real impact as the sort of ending you never really see in a Bond story.  But it's strange, really, to see it in context - of his first three adventures, Bond has really only been fully victorious once.  It's an intriguing take on escapism, delivering all the thrills and excitement, but leaving bittersweet finishes.  And Moonraker, in particular, sets itself apart like this, spinning a fantastic, over-the-top yarn, but ending on a complex, shadowy note, and packing a kind of punch the series only occasionally achieves afterwards.

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