It’s appropriate that there is a Jaguar XKR convertible at the entrance to the International Spy Museum’s “Exquisitely Evil: 50 Years of Bond Villains” exhibit. Any authentic trip through the world of MI6’s finest, James Bond, requires visuals — the cars, the girls, the guns — that both shake and stir.
But the ambitious new Spy Museum exhibit — the entire first floor was redone to accommodate the 110 Bond artifacts — largely plows through the sensual, thrill-retentive, kitschy elements of the Bond franchise to focus on something bigger. We’ll call it primordial geopolitical anxiety. You’ve got a deep-seated doomsday fear nibbling at the edges of your Western consciousness? The 23-movie James Bond franchise has a villain for that.
In 1962’s “Dr. No,” Julius No, of the diabolical criminal enterprise SPECTRE, plots nuclear chicanery from his hidden, technology-filled Caribbean lair, with the fate of the U.S. space program hanging in the balance. The film premiered less than two weeks before the Cuban missile crisis triggered 13 days of brinksmanship involving a real-world nuclear threat. The “Cold War Power Plays” section acquaints us with Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who, through seven movies — including “You Only Live Twice” and “Diamonds Are Forever” — explores themes of economic sabotage and nuclear proliferation.
Other sections include “Drugs and Thugs” with the ruthless Mr. Big/Dr. Kananga in 1973’s “Live and Let Die,” said to be modeled after the Harlem heroin dealer and crime boss Frank Lucas. And “Cold War Castoffs” includes North Korean secret agent Zao, who drove the XKR in 2002’s “Die Another Day.” There are the “Murderous Monopolists of the Information Age.” There’s the rope used on Bond by the terrorist banker Le Chiffre, who’s got a rare condition that makes him cry blood in 2006’s “Casino Royale.” And the machete and sting-ray whip that narco-kingpin Franz Sanchez, from 1989’s “Licence to Kill,” used on his girlfriend.
Blanch, shudder, cringe.
Bond villains are reflective, and sometimes predictive of the anxieties of their times. “That’s what give the movies a lot of their power,” says Alexis Albion, a guest curator for the exhibit who served on the Sept. 11 Commission. “They are drawing from real-life fears. . . . They are anchored in a sense of real threat.” Bond creator Ian Fleming visited the Soviet Union in the run up to World War II and worked in British naval intelligence during the war. The ethos, themes and tropes of the Bond intelligence world draw from the reality of Fleming’s firsthand knowledge. If Bond fans are prone to sudden and powerful nerd-outs, it is partially due to that compelling intersection of fantasy and real-world spycraft. “It’s because he fills a vacuum in terms of public understanding about intelligence,” says Mark Stout, Spy Museum historian. “He is the public face of the private world of espionage.”
The exhibition includes Jaws’s metal teeth from “Moonraker” and Goldfinger’s shoes, mixed with Bond clips, book and film quotes, and videos. There are sidebars on animal assassins, faceless minions and torture. And commentary demonstrating the intersection between Bond and life includes Dame Stella Rimington, former director of Britain’s MI5, talking about Bond’s relationship with M in “Casino Royale,” and former CIA operative Valerie Plame, talking about maintaining your cover.
Toward the end of the exhibit, the “Weapons of Mass Disruption” room questions our readiness for cyberterrorism, interspersed with a somber-looking President Obama giving a news conference on the nation’s readiness for a cyberattack. It’s the scheme portrayed by Silva in “Skyfall,” the most recent Bond movie, and it’s the latest Western primordial fear.
through late 2014 at the International Spy Museum, 800 F St. NW. Call 202-393-7798 or visit www.spymuseum.org.