Fulfiling our fantasies against the faceless functionaries that make our lives hell

 Stephen Carter

By Stephen Carter Bloomberg View

Published Nov. 18, 2015

Two-thirds of the way through "Spectre," the 24th film in the official James Bond canon, Bond and his partner du jour, Dr. Madeleine Swann, are dining on a train in Morocco. Suddenly they are attacked by Mr. Hinx, a relentless Spectre assassin who has been pursuing them. What's curious about the scene is that they are attacked by only Mr. Hinx. For an instant, the film steps out of character -- and out of what has become an exhaustingly common Hollywood trope.

Consider that Spectre is presented as a vast criminal organization, with legions of secret henchmen on instant call. Early in the film, Bond is assured by a non-grieving widow he has just rescued from two Spectre gunmen that he has saved her life for only five minutes, because there are hundreds more.

Do the arithmetic: two assassins to kill one widow, but one assassin to kill both Bond and Swann, when Bond is himself a trained agent with a license to kill, and Swann, although she professes to hate firearms, proves to be no slouch with a gun. The fight sequence is expertly filmed, but, against its context, makes no sense whatsoever.

And, as I said, sending a single killer runs against the trope, which used to be called the "Ludlum formula," after the indefatigable novelist Robert Ludlum. The hero acts alone, or nearly alone, against a seemingly invincible malevolence. This structure has always been central to storytelling, particular in the West, where in the face of the ever-advancing regulatory state, we cling that much more tightly to our belief in the power of the individualist.

And Hollywood gives us what we need.

Think about "Star Wars." The Empire isn't just evil. It's also vast, faceless and bureaucratic. Our heroes are plucky and eccentric. Even in the original trilogy, it was never clear who exactly was in charge of the rebellion. Maybe nobody was. Maybe the rebels comprised a well-coordinated mob.

Film makers have detected and shamelessly play to what is perhaps the single greatest source of frustration and anger in contemporary life: bureaucracy. "As the world grows more complex," writes the political scientist Robert E. Lane, "our bureaucratic encounters multiply." We run up constantly against entities public and private that we cannot navigate without an enormous application of time and effort.

And we hate it.

This is not bureaucracy in the Weberian sense. Hollywood cares little for he formal rules, expertise or specialized training that so enchanted Max Weber. Film makers give us bureaucracy as experienced by those it nowadays more governs than serves. Hollywood is serving up a metaphor for all that we hate about dealing with government agencies or large corporations: the impersonality and cold relentlessness. Whether waiting in a physical line, waiting on telephone hold or waiting for online assistance, there seems no way for the individual to win.

Except in Hollywood.

In the movies, Luke Skywalker can defeat the Galactic Empire, Jason Bourne can outwit the Central Intelligence Agency, and there is little doubt that next week Katniss Everdeen will triumph over the massed forces of the Capitol.

In the real world, large organizations secure considerable economies by standardizing their interactions with their customers or citizens. They guard against corruption and favoritism. In Hollywood, however, the assumption seems to be that when we run up against a bureaucracy, our fantasy is to blow it to bits. Perhaps the classic example is the 1993 film "Falling Down," where the audience is plainly meant to sympathize with Michael Douglas's considerable overreaction to the fast-food manager's supercilious "That's not our policy."

The detective's boss never believes her theory of the case. If our protagonist is a journalist, you can be sure that the editor will order him to drop the story. And as we've known at least since "Three Days of the Condor," the person most likely to be targeted by his own side is the midlevel government employee who stumbles across a secret.

Even when bureaucracy isn't evil, it's rarely any help. At the end of the first season of "The Walking Dead," the last remaining expert at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta blows up the place in despair. The lone scientist who knows the truth is never listened to, whether it's Dennis Quaid warning of climate disaster in "The Day After Tomorrow" or Russell Crowe warning of Krypton's coming destruction in "Man of Steel."

Not every film fits the theory. "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Apollo 13" celebrate, if not bureaucracy ("Tell me this isn't a government operation"), at least teamwork. But the exceptions are few. Even in so enthusiastically pro-organization a film as "The Martian," Matt Damon only gets home because an eccentric scientist comes up with the solution, and a plucky NASA official leaks it. And in "Spectre" itself -- most of which I enjoyed more than most of the critics -- Agent 007 succeeds only by defying orders and going rogue.

All in all, I think Hollywood has us right. We hate going up against faceless functionaries. Yet we're forced to do it all the time. Small wonder that we're willing to plonk down good money to watch our heroes show the wicked bureaucracy who's boss.


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Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale, where he has taught since 1982. Among his courses are law and religion, the ethics of war, contracts, evidence, and professional responsibility. His most recent book is The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama (2011). He is an author and Bloomberg View columnist.