At the White House Correspondents Dinner, Michelle Wolf dug hard into the Trump administration at large, people within it, the political climate and, more incisively, the fictions—and metafictions—of the news itself. Skewering the room mercilessly, she said:
There’s a ton of news right now, a lot is going on, and we have all these 24-hour news networks, and we could be covering everything. Instead, we’re covering three topics. Every hour is Trump, Russia, Hillary, and a panel full of people that remind you why you don’t go home for Thanksgiving. […]
You guys are obsessed with Trump. Did you used to date him? Because you pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him. I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you. He couldn’t sell steaks or vodka or water or college or ties or Eric, but he has helped you. He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him.
A little over a decade ago, power hungry multinational billionaires were just as intent on exploiting the fear of the public, with only a British secret agent to save them. Though the Internet was still technically in its infancy, as the computer interfaces in 1995’s GoldenEye clearly show, Jonathan Pryce’s first appearance on screen in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies is of his spindly body dwarfed by a large screen on the wall, displaying the layout section of a front page for a publication called Tomorrow. The headline reads, in all caps, “BRITISH SAILORS KILLED.” He deletes the last word, types “MURDERED” instead, then asks his henchmen exactly how many people were killed in a crime sinking a British Naval submarine. They tell him they’ll get the number when they’re done with the survivors.
Clad in minimalist black pants and suit and soul, looking like a cartoonishly mean Steve Jobs, Pryce plays a mustache-twirling media mogul named Elliot Carver, the character based on former British Member of Parliament Ian Robert Maxwell, who famously bought British Printing Corporation, Mirror Group Newspapers and Macmillan, Inc. Carver, oft compared to Rupert Murdoch at the time of release and sharing obvious megalomaniacal tendencies, is driven above all by sales and ratings. His meeting room has the Carver Media Group logo collaged all over it, suggesting its omnipresence in the (then) modern media world. “What kind of havoc shall the Carver Media Group create in the world today?” he questions his correspondents as they tell him one by one of the worldwide horrors and injustices he can exploit for business. Another updates Carver on a new software filled with bugs, forcing consumers to upgrade endlessly. He tells another to compel the President to sign a bill lowering cable rates. On either side of this gigantic video monitor is Carver’s austere face, a cult of postmodern personality, eager for ratings and the world’s eyes.
With a school shooting every other day, the relationship between North and South Korea dramatically changing, the contentious dynamic between Israel and Palestine reaching a boiling point and the current administration rarely out of the spotlight for any number of reasons, making sense of the “news”—a fairly broad term—has evolved into a kind of masochistic sport. How to discern and prioritize stories, how to evaluate the immediacy of their impact on people as individuals and people as collectives, has become exhausting. But the public’s consciousness of news as a storytelling format, to be morbid about it, has increased for better and worse. That news media as a cultural text that is told, edited, shaped and manipulated has now become the core of certain discourses about how we navigate the world, especially as social media platforms have become additional news outlets and a space in which information and ideas can spread (accurately or otherwise) like a contagion.
It’s stranger now when Donald Trump, the President of the United States, either has the power to define those narratives or attack the people who do. In a world where wealth is celebrity, and power is always a form of narrativizing, Trump is like the ultimate unreliable narrator, telling, rewriting and revising the story as he sees fit. At the risk of minimizing the problem, his desire to be in control of the story and to harness that kind of power makes him almost like a James Bond villain.
After the success of GoldenEye, one of the first modern Hollywood franchise reboots, Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson enlisted John Cork, Richard Smith and Donald E. Westlake to consider what might happen if the plans to return Hong Kong to China were sabotaged. The next Bond installment they’d pen would be released in late 1997. Pierce Brosnan’s first outing articulated an anxiety in the modern world of what to do after the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union; with a Bond film almost always inclined to engage with the modern world and the consequences of British international relations, China would be the next subject. Though the script underwent rewrites even into production (to be eventually credited to Bruce Feirstein), the film’s plot would still include references to British Imperialism in Hong Kong, but would critique the ways in which news media could craft the story of international politics (it would also interrogate the insidious nature of capitalism and even Bond’s own existence).
As the tycoon, who seems to be in control of almost every media outlet in both the Western and Eastern worlds, gears up to launch his new satellite network, Carver’s gaze turns to the South China Seas and the tension brewing over the return of Hong Kong’s sovereignty to China. While other Bond villains have sought World Domination in, admittedly, blandly similar ways (banks, gold stock, real estate, etc.), the Brosnan era was the first in the franchise to suggest that global superiority could be achieved, in villainous terms at least, via the World Wide Web. GoldenEye’s Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) used a plan that effectively was a bank heist through computers, siphoning off money digitally. And then, Carver used our attention. To cause a disruption, and manufacture a story, regarding something as pivotal in the history of world politics as what was happening with Hong Kong, China and Britain would indeed capture an audience, changing almost irrevocably how that relationship would be told in the history books. It would change the storyteller, and therefore the “winner.”
Pryce’s Carver then, too, wants to become the ultimate narrator, the person with enough power in the world to direct people’s attentions—and their pocketbooks. (He wants broadcasting rights in China! He wants to catalyze World War III!) In his big, evil monologue, he declares, “I want full newspaper coverage, I want magazine stories, I want books, I want films, I want TV, I want radio, I want us on the air 24 hours a day; this is our moment! And a billion people around this planet will watch it, hear it, and read about it from the Carver Media Group.” “Tomorrow’s News Today” reads the slogan of Carver’s paper. He wants to be the greatest teller of fiction, to profit off misfortune, influence the meaning of legacy. Even if it means rewriting the story himself, and declaring anything that contests it unreal. Maybe even “fake.”
In Tomorrow Never Dies, Bond’s role to topple a villain means an attempt, at least in theory, to dismantle an entire structure, a paradigm of how people accrue information and “knowledge,” and how/where they consume stories and fictions. (Unfortunately, Tomorrow Never Dies isn’t seriously up to that task, instead dancing around it.) Bond’s partnership with Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh) means the two must reshape that fiction. In one scene, in Carver’s Saigon office, ripe for torture in elaborate ways, Bond and Wai Lin serve as subjects to Carver’s quasi-journalist, looking behind the curtain.
On Wolf’s set, Masha Gessen writes at The New Yorker:
There is a fiction that holds that journalists and their subjects can eat and socialize together and yet maintain the distance necessary to continue performing their professional roles. […] The same fiction continues to dominate our public sphere. In this story, Trump performs the role of President, albeit poorly, and those in the media maintain a strained civility in their coverage of him. […] But it is this pretense, and these fictions, that cast a pall of unreality over most media coverage and make late-night comedy shows the better news outlets.
As the James Bond franchise and the producers that control that franchise have recrafted and reoriented his necessarily amorphous existence in the world—and his need to reflect on the world in which he exists—Tomorrow Never Dies would be the first Bond, in an almost Craig-ian manner, to comment on the way that Bond interacts with the same fictions of the news and media as any other person, and is thus reflexively interacting with his own mythos. Carver mocks Bond, threatening that the next time the British secret agent will be in the news, the first story out of Carver’s Saigon offices, will be 007’s obituary. “‘British secret service agent James Bond, and his collaborator, Wai Lin, were found dead this morning in Vietnam’,” Carver types up. He turns around and taunts, “Lacks punch, don’t you think?” Bond retorts, “It’s old news, Elliot.” Even Bond knows that he too is a fiction within a fiction.