Noble Endeavors in Entertainment, from John Adams to James Bond

In a letter to his wife, Abigail, written in May of 1780 — a time when the outcome of the American Revolution was still very much unknown — John Adams lays out his reason for the study of politics.  It was so that his children could study the sciences.  His children's duty to study the sciences was so that their children would be able to study the arts.

This, then, to me, means that art is the highest end of humanity.  When all other challenges have been overcome, the noble endeavor of creating painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain — the arts that Adams lists — will still be there.  (I think it not incidental, either, that he chose to list off seven items related to the arts when he listed only two in relation to politics and the sciences.)

This quote from Adams, one of my favorites, came to mind recently while I watched a documentary about Daniel Craig's tenure as James Bond.  Two more disparate things can hardly exist than a founding father of the United States and a British spy franchise.  Adams was a member of the Committee on Spies during the Revolution, but that's not the connection I'll make here.

No, the connection really goes no farther than Adams's above quote, but it's important because, even though James Bond is a British film franchise, what Adams laid out nearly two and a half centuries ago set a foundation for Bond and all other forms of art being created today.

To be fair, Adams and the other founding fathers stood on the shoulder of giants, but the point is, only when we've sufficiently overcome the more base challenges of a society do we have time to pursue the nobler ones.  And I do believe that the James Bond franchise, especially during Craig's tenure, has been a noble endeavor.

Another story that comes to mind is that of Jimmy Stewart and Lionel Barrymore on the set of It's a Wonderful Life.  In the movie, Barrymore plays the villain, Mr. Potter.  In real life, Barrymore's words may have saved not only the movie but Stewart himself.  As the story goes, Stewart, back from flying combat missions over Germany and suffering from PTSD — one mission that Stewart led lost 13 planes and 130 men — wondered aloud if acting had a purpose.  After all, even during that Golden Age of Hollywood, actors were still prone to frivolity and worse, and many viewed their roles and exorbitant paychecks with disdain.  Wasn't it more noble to defeat evil above the battlefields of Europe?

"Isn't entertaining people better than dropping bombs on them?" Barrymore reportedly said.

Entertainment, especially well done entertainment with a deeper message to it, can lift humanity up as well as make it examine itself.  This is certainly evident to anyone who's watched It's a Wonderful Life, but even in an action movie franchise seemingly devoid of gravitas like James Bond, there are moments that uncover the human condition and cause us to reflect.

I've heard plenty of snide remarks about actors — that all they do is get paid handsomely to read words on a page.  I suppose there are harder jobs, and some are certainly paid very well.  Some are even overpaid in proportion to their ability.  But a good actor, like Jimmy Stewart or even Daniel Craig, can pull us into a world for a couple of hours where we can forget the problems we face in the real world and, perhaps, even help us to solve those problems by shining a light on them in a different way.

The documentary Being James Bond: The Daniel Craig Story did a wonderful job covering Daniel Craig's time as Bond, sharing a lot of the behind-the-scenes challenges that faced production, and dove into the ethos of Craig and what made him, arguably, the best Bond ever.

Before becoming Bond, Craig did a lot of "artsy" films, as he called them, and he didn't feel the role of Bond would be for him.  It was this "artsy" background, which featured roles focused on character development more than story, that made him such a dynamic Bond, though.

During the documentary, which featured several interviews with Craig, he spoke of instances during the filming of Casino Royale when he challenged director Martin Campbell's ideas, creating a better story.  One in particular related to the scene of Vesper and Bond in the shower after the stairway fight.  Campbell wanted to film it with Vesper in her underwear.  Craig challenged him to film it with both of them, sitting on the floor, fully clothed, and it's one of the most moving scenes in the film.

The documentary also discusses the rollercoaster ride that was Craig's run from the moment his casting was announced.  In that arc, there are good lessons about having a thick skin, believing in oneself, and the emotional turmoil wrought on those who we might otherwise believe have everything going for them.

Devout Bond fans may remember the controversy surrounding his casting as the first blond Bond.  It seems the most trivial of things fifteen years later, but the documentary reminds us just how vitriolic the press was at that moment.  My hat goes off to Craig.  He knew they were going to create something great with Casino Royale, and he didn't let the negative press, based on nothing more than the conjecture fueled largely and quite literally by some teenagers in their mothers' basements, get to him.

Strangely enough, or perhaps not strangely at all, considering it's a theme as old as Hollywood itself, was the stress that the positive press wrought on Craig.  As Producer Barbara Broccoli recalls, he went from being a rather unknown actor to literally being on the tea towels.  He had paparazzi perching in trees outside his flat, and he was forced to hide inside quite often.  The same onslaught of attention is what eventually drove Sean Connery out of the role.

Thankfully for Craig, he was later able to embrace the fame and the role of Bond more.  As the documentary closes and they show a clip of him speaking to the cast and crew after the final night of filming of his final film, No Time to Die, one really can sense the meaning it brought to his life to be part of such a historic franchise.

Of course, playing the instrumental version of "We Have All the Time in the World" from On Her Majesty's Secret Service and having Craig channel George Lazenby's final lines in that movie ("It's quite all right, really") by saying, "It's all right now" certainly added to the impact.

Well done and thank you, Baille Walsh (director of Being James Bond: The Daniel Craig Story), Daniel Craig, Jimmy Stewart, and all the other artists in Hollywood and around the world and throughout time who have helped to make our lives a little brighter through the joy and, quite often, the insight they have brought to the screen, the canvas, the page, or the ear through their creations.  Thank you, too, to John Adams, Thomas Edison, and all the other statesmen and scientists who came before or still labor today in the study of politics and the sciences.  Without all of these, the freedom and knowledge to pursue the arts would not be possible. We are all better because of all of them.

Image: Heroes of Film via YouTube.

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