On Thanksgiving Day, The Wife and I have a relatively new tradition of going to see a movie together after dinner (and sending The Daughter off packing with my parents). We've done this six of the last seven Thanksgivings, and on three of those, we've been lucky enough to see a James Bond movie. So...what of Skyfall?
It's very, very good. Here are some spoiler-free observations (with more extensive, and heavily spoilerish, observations after the page break):
:: Daniel Craig continues to own the role a little more, each time out. He gives lots of little windows into the soul of James Bond, sometimes with barely perceptible shifts in facial expression. He also does all the little, tiny things that make Bond Bond, and not some run-of-the-mill action hero. The best of these (which you’ve seen if you’ve seen the trailers) comes when he makes a pretty dramatic entrance into a train (the back part of the car he’s entering is falling away behind him, and thank GOD that the trailer didn’t show why the train car is falling away, because that’s one of the movie’s better eye-pops), and before resuming his pursuit of a bad guy, he pauses ever-so-briefly to straighten the cuff of his dress shirt.
:: If you’ve been waiting for years for a Bond movie that is great visually as well as in the script department, this is the one. Skyfall is a gorgeous film, just amazing to look at. There is color everywhere, always wonderfully used (a shot where M stands over the caskets of slain agents is particularly effective, with stark gray and black everywhere constrasting with the crimson stripes of the Union Jack), and...well, I just had a wonderful time looking at this movie.
:: Remember the awful, nearly-impossible-to-follow action sequences in Quantum of Solace? Remember the quick cuts from close-up to close-up with no establishing shots? Remember seeing entire action sequences when you had no idea what was going on until the sequence was over and you got to see who was still standing? Well...you can forget about those. Director Sam Mendes shoots his action scenes so well that it was a revelation. This is a subset of the item above, actually; I never thought that a James Bond movie could look this good. And that’s not to say that the Bond films haven’t looked good before! But this one? Wow. There’s one fight scene, between Bond and an assassin, fairly early on that had my jaw on the floor, so wonderful was the way Mendes composed the shot. Bond on one side, the assassin on the other, fighting in silhouette in front of the shifting display of an enormous LED display screen. And no cuts at all: the only thing Mendes does with his camera in that sequence is a slow close-up. The movie is loaded with sequences that just look amazing.
:: I need to save my observations about the script for the spoiler section, I think, but...the dialogue is great, and this movie does something that’s been hinted at before, but never attempted so openly: it delves into Bond as a character, looking at him personally. More on that in the spoiler sections. This is also a very emotional Bond film -- the most so since my beloved On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
:: The cast is fantastic. Not a single weak link. Javier Bardem and Ralph Fiennes are as great as always. Judi Dench is a rock. Albert Finney in a Bond movie? More, please! And Naomie Harris in a small role (with a delightful revelation at the end) was a treat. And...that young guy who plays the new Q. Liked him a lot.
:: Judging by the rate at which my admiration for Adele has grown over the last year or so (starting a year ago at a level of “Hey, who is this ‘Adele’ person I’ve heard tell about?”), in another year I’ll be covering the walls of my bedroom with posters of Adele and writing “Kelly Loves Adele” on the cover of all my notebooks. I’m just sayin’. I love the song, and I love Adele’s voice. She’s amazing.
:: I’ve seen a few reviews that aren’t terribly enthusiastic about Thomas Newman’s score for Skyfall. David Arnold has been the Bond composer for the last five movies, starting with Tomorrow Never Dies, and he’s done a generally excellent job, but Sam Mendes has a strong working relationship with Newman, so along came Newman for the ride. I thought Newman did a fine job, working the Bond theme and the Skyfall song into the score in nice ways, and he did a lot with chord progressions that strongly suggest the classic John Barry ‘Bond sound’. I like the score a lot.
:: I thought this movie was just terrific. I don’t have perspective yet to put it into any kind of ranking in my personal Bond pantheon, but I can really see it ranking highly. For me, Skyfall is in OHMSS territory.
OK, now the spoilers, below the break. Read at your own risk, if you haven’t seen the film.
As I was driving home and thinking about the movie, I realized that Skyfall, while seeming to be a standalone film after Quantum of Solace’s direct sequel to Casino Royale, is really the concluding film in a trilogy that reboots Bond from the ground up. It’s generally thought that CR was the ‘reboot’ film -- that’s where we saw Bond earn his Double-0 stripes -- but that’s all that one did. QoS continued that story, working Bond through the personal issues from that mission, and now comes Skyfall, which completes the job by filling in the rest of the classic tropes in a modernized way. Put it this way: in the film’s very last scene, as a longtime Bond fan, I actually gave a not-entirely-silent inner cheer when I saw Bond pass through a certain doorway with a certain leather-cushioned door.
In Skyfall, we have a Bond who is no longer learning the ropes as far as the physicality of his job goes. And we no longer have a Bond who is emotionally wounded after having suffered a kind of betrayal at the hands of a woman with whom he had fallen in love. This is the beginning of the ruthless Bond, the Bond who is always competent and always calm and almost always able to figure out a way to regain the upper hand, no matter how thoroughly he may seem to have been defeated. It takes him some time to get there, however: in the film’s pre-credits sequence, Bond is pursuing an enemy agent who has taken possession of a computer drive containing all the names and aliases of all the MI6 agents undercover throughout the world, and in the course of grappling with the guy on top of a train, his partner -- a female agent named Eve, whose last name we’ll learn later on -- get a line on a shot to take out the bad guy. But she can’t get a clean shot, a shot that hits the enemy and misses Bond, so M orders her to take the shot anyway. And she hits Bond, knocking from the train and off the bridge and into the water.
This action of M’s forms the emotional basis of the entire movie, because it’s at the heart of Bond’s emotional journey in Skyfall. James Bond works in a business where ruthlessness and lack of emotional attachment are the basis of everything, and yet, Bond has never been portrayed -- on screen, at least -- as quite the ruthless killer that his world seems to assume he is supposed to be. He just isn’t. He’s very careful and very guarded, but he does allow emotions and concerns for people to factor into his decision making, even if he doesn’t call a great deal of attention to it and even if he seems committed to a lifetime of real loneliness. Still, Bond can’t help but see M’s ordering of the shot as something of a betrayal -- or does he? The script never really makes it clear exactly how he sees M’s order, which is one of the script’s strengths, because it turns out that our villain this time is another former MI6 agent against whom M gave a similar order, and whose opinion of that is a lot less generous -- possibly -- than Bond’s. Will he see things in Silva (Javier Bardem)’s way? Probably not, since we all know that James Bond is a hero. But how strongly will he resist Silva’s appeals to his emotions at being betrayed? Will some part of him turn out to be just a bit sympathetic? And will that lead, in a moment of distress, to a moment of hesitation?
The idea here seems to be that you take an established character, make us think we know where his moral boundaries are, and then push him right up to those boundaries. Silva, obviously, has crossed them. What will Bond do, even in the face of certain disaster at MI6? This is a circumstance that the Bond films have never much plumbed before. Bond has disagreed with M before, and even outright disobeyed M (or someone holding the office of M), but Bond has never had his loyalty to M tested in anything remotely like what happens in Skyfall. And that, it ultimately turns out, is because M is more than Bond’s commander, Bond’s superior. M is Bond’s true parental figure. This is brought home in startling fashion in the film’s final act, when, seeking an advantage in familiar ground, Bond takes M to his ancestral home in Scotland. And here we get the first real acknowledgement in the history of the Bond film franchise of Bond’s origins.
Yes, it was mentioned briefly in GoldenEye, and in fact, that earlier film delved a bit into the nature of James Bond as eternal loner. In that film he admitted to the girl (Natalya) that he had to stay alone because his loneliness is what keeps him alive. Also in that film, our villain -- rogue double-0 agent Alec Travelyan, in another sense an agent perverted by a perceived betrayal, that one by Bond himself -- also reminded Bond of his status as an orphan, referring to the climbing accident that killed Bond’s parents. I wondered a bit, watching Skyfall, if a conscious decision to take the questions posed by GoldenEye even farther was made by the writers of the present film. But then, doing so opens up questions to how much of a ‘reboot’ this current incarnation of James Bond really is, especially since the film brings back the most iconic of Bond film gadgets, the Aston Martin from Goldfinger. So, was Daniel Craig the Goldfinger Bond? Was someone else? Was there a Goldfinger Bond at all? Who knows? People who like continuity are, as a rule, vexed by the Bond films. But it’s not hard to look for continuity here.
Another interesting choice that Skyfall makes is to put James Bond into a more contemporary context by updating the world in which he lives, and by drawing connections between the world of Bond and the ‘real’ world. There’s little doubt that the Bond films have much of the time been a world of fantasy, what with the gadgets and the wonderful locations. (One of my problems with Goldfinger, which I’ve never liked nearly as much as everyone else, is simply that a James Bond movie should never prominently feature a KFC in the establishing shots of any of its locations.) Also, the Bond films have not generally dealt very strongly with geopolitical realities. Years ago I got into an argument on a Usenet group with someone who had opined strongly against ‘the stereotypical view of Russians taken in James Bond movies of the 1960s’. My problem was simply that there was no stereotypical view of Rusians taken in James Bond movies of the 1960s, because only one of the six Bond films of the 1960s dealt with any kind of Cold War subtext as a primary plot point at all (From Russia With Love), and in that one, the subtext was of espionage as more a game than anything else. It wasn’t really until the 1980s, with For Your Eyes Only, that the Cold War became a significant backdrop in the James Bond mythos, and even then, it wasn’t much of a “Bond versus the Russians” thing at all, except in FYEO. In Octopussy it was a rogue Soviet general who wanted to trigger a war all by himself; in The Living Daylights, it was another rogue Russian military officer who was basically trying to make a pile of money for himself.
Licence to Kill would go into the drug war, and then when GoldenEye appeared, part of the plot dealt with the fragmenting of the Soviet Union after the fall of Communism. But even so, for the most part, the Bond films have always been about really rich and evil businessmen with nefarious schemes, only occasionally inspired by any degree of contemporary events. Topical Bond is dated Bond, to a large extent, and the Bonds that are the most timeless tend to be the ones that manage to tell their stories in such a way that they aren’t grounded in hyper-specificity of era (with the exception of stuff you can’t avoid, like cars and hairstyles). While earlier films would nod in the direction of the Cold War, things didn’t start getting pretty specific until GoldenEye. One key indicator was a line of dialog that M had in that film: “Unlike the Americans, we don’t like to get our bad news from CNN.”
And that’s precisely how Bond finds out that it’s time for him to re-engage with the MI6 world, after he’s been off ‘enjoying death’ for a time, as he puts it: he’s in a crappy beach bar someplace, and CNN comes on with reports of the bombing of MI6 headquarters. More than that, though, Skyfall explicitly explores the role of MI6 in the larger world of geopolitics. M is called to testify before Parliament, where she is basically forced to defend her agency’s actions and her general approach to intelligence and thwarting threats to Britain and the world. M gives an impassioned speech in which (before quoting Tennyson, huzzah!) she indicates that we now live in a world where enemies aren’t nations and you can’t tell who the combatants are by looking at a map. This is true, and it’s pretty daring on the part of the screenwriters to go that route, seeing as how, as I’ve already noted, that’s always been the case for Bond anyway. Bond is never going up against some country on a map; it’s always super-rich businessmen with nefarious plots.
(I have to admit that the older I get and the more awful, and completely legal, shenanigans I see large companies and businesses commit, I wonder more and more why SPECTRE ever bothered with crime in the first place.)
So: Skyfall performs the somewhat amazing trick of taking a character who has always squared off against rogue elements and makes him contemporary and relevant again by making it clear that we need him precisely because of rogue elements. That’s pretty nifty, and it works wonderfully. The ‘then-versus-now’ subtext also applies to Q-branch, which is now cast as a group of superhackers as opposed to a bunch of tinkerers coming up with nifty gadgetry. The only real innovation this time out is a gun that imprints to Bond’s palm print, and for those paying attention, we’ve already seen one of those, in Licence to Kill. The new Q rather snottily says something like “What were you expecting, an exploding pen?” But the tables get turned on him pretty quickly, and in the end, Bond relies heavily on precisely the kind of old-school gadget that used to rule the day, in the form of that great old Aston Martin. (How it got there, where it came from -- all that is cheerfully ignored by the movie, leaving forever open the question of whether or not we’re to believe Bond is the same guy who’s been working for MI6 for fifty years now.)
One can’t discuss a Bond film at any length without discussing the villain, so now we have to talk about Mr. Silva, played by Javier Bardem. He was a British agent -- the film doesn’t indicate that he was a Double-0 -- who was sold out by M in order to get a larger objective done. Somehow he’s survived, and now he’s waging a personal war against M directly, hacking into her computer so that the phrase Think on your sins appears onscreen just before every thing he does. I found Silva to be a very effective villain, because his motivation is personal and, if not justifiable, it’s at least understandable. I can look at Silva, consider where he’s coming from, and say, “Yeah, I can see how that might drive a fellow to murderous rage.” Those are the scariest villains, the ones whose evil has just a hint of righteousness behind it.
Bond villains are often a homoerotic bunch, but Skyfall really amps that up, to the point where Silva really seems to be coming onto Bond. One might say that the “Bond meets the villain” scene constitutes a mini-genre of its own in these movies, and this one might well become one of the more iconic ones, as it is shot in close-up and Silva runs his hand across Bond’s body in spots that we’re unaccustomed to seeing another man touch. I’m not sure what all that was about -- perhaps Silva is testing Bond’s limits, or playing on him to see if he can crack into Bond’s outer shell and create some discomfort, or perhaps he’s genuinely seeing if Bond reciprocates at all. The moment passes and isn’t much commented on again, but it does linger in the mind, as the film’s larger implication seems to be that there’s not a whole lot separating Bond and his unshakeable sense of duty from Silva, whose sense of duty has been not shaken but broken.
I also like that the newer breed of Bond adventures seems skewed more to villains who are personally involved, not just from a standpoint of motivation, but also in the execution of their schemes. Silva has his remote fortress where he meets Bond for the first time, yes, but he also is willing to come out of it, to get down and dirty with his plan. In fact, his plan requires him to do so. He’s not just sitting in some control room, issuing menacing commands to underlings whom he later on punishes for failure; no, Silva is willing -- insistent, even -- on being his own trigger man. What I liked most is that there’s no real final confrontation between Bond and Silva; instead, Bond has to get there in the proverbial nick of time. But the cat-and-mouse game between the two has already been foreshadowed by one of the creepier villain monologues in a Bond movie, in which Silva describes how he once took care of a rat infestation problem on an island. Bond and Silva are the last rats, he says, and the symbolism is telling.
Most telling, though, is that although Silva doesn’t get to enjoy it -- he actually wins. His goal is to kill M...and he does. That’s a pretty startling thing to happen in a Bond movie, and I’m pretty sure that this is the first Bond film where the villain actually achieves his goal. Yes, Blofeld killed Tracy at the end of OHMSS, but that was revenge, not his main goal, and Tracy wasn’t the target, anyway. But there’s no real sugarcoating the fact that Silva, in a real way, wins. Now yes, Bond kills him, and that’s necessary as Silva would be entirely too dangerous a person to allow to live at the end. But striking back at M is his only goal in Skyfall, and he accomplishes it, as Judi Dench’s M passes away in Bond’s arms in what’s definitely the single saddest moment in a Bond movie since 007 cradled Tracy’s body...also in his arms. And that brings me to Skyfall and what I think its its main theme, Bond and parental figures.
M is very clearly a parental figure in this movie. You get this almost immediately, in the first minutes, when Bond is talking to M via his cellphone ear-piece, and he calls her ‘mum’. So does everyone else in talking to her, but it really stands out when Bond calls her that. And later on, when Silva is talking to Bond about M’s betrayal, he says, “Mummy has been very bad.” The betrayal isn’t just betrayal. It’s not the betrayal of a friend. It’s probably the very worst kind: parental betrayal, which is worst because it’s so inconceivable. Does Bond see M as a surrogate mother? The film doesn’t come right out and say this, but it’s hard not to draw that conclusion. We know that Bond’s parents died when he was a boy, and M indicates at one point that orphans are often recruited for agents. And at the end, when Bond must take M someplace safe -- it’s to his ancestral home, the Skyfall estate in Scotland, where his parents are buried and where we meet the one person (a groundskeeper) in the history of the Bond films who ever knew Bond as anything other than James Bond 007.
So when M dies, it’s with all this parental subtext, and she dies in his arms (other women have died there, all of them lovers), and she does so in the very chapel outside which his parents are buried, while they are illuminated by the fires of the burning estate where he grew up. Of course, MI6 must go on, so a new M is appointed -- the Defense Ministry official (played by the invariably wonderful Ralph Fiennes, who I’m sure will be a very fine M indeed) with whom M had sparred throughout the film, but who has also been established as not being entirely adversarial in his relationship with M and Bond. Skeptical, yes. But not adversarial. And in the film’s last scene, when Bond enters the new M’s office -- with that iconic leather-cushioned door -- there’s a real sense that we’re there now. This is Bond. It’s time to start saving the world, and in the words of the apocryphal Q from Never Say Never Again, have some ‘gratuitous sex and violence’.
M has always been Bond’s superior, but it’s only in the Daniel Craig films that we’ve seen something more than that. Very rare hints have come as to any kind of life M ever had outside of MI6, or even outside that office of his, and those tended to come during the Bernard Lee era (Lee played M from Dr. No to Moonraker, but died as For Your Eyes Only was heading into production). In From Russia With Love, Bond is heard on audio tape about to discuss a time when he and M were in Tokyo, but M stops the tape before Bond can go on with the embarrassing anecdote. In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond goes to visit M at his home, and interrupts him as he is in the process of maintaining his butterfly collection. Aside from that, though, the only real emotional connection we’ve ever seen between Bond and M are M’s stern supervision of Bond, coupled with his eternal confidence in Bond’s abilities. Not until the Craig films did we get a notion of Bond as M’s protege, and M as Bond’s mentor. M as a parental figure. Daniel Craig and Judi Dench create the relationship wonderfully, and in fact, Craig and Dench have more chemistry together than many Bond actors did with their respective “Bond girls” in various movies. (One thing I hold against Goldfinger is what I see as a complete lack of chemistry between Sean Connery and Honor Blackman. That, and the fact that the film’s story makes zero sense.)
It must be a strange thing, to be an agent; you have to maintain emotional distance, but then along comes a film like Skyfall that demonstrates the clear impossibility of that. Humans aren’t robots, and if we try to make them so, the results can be disastrous. What makes Bond Bond, the film seems to be saying, isn’t the sum total of the scores on all his various tests. It’s something else. That, ultimately, is what propels Skyfall to lofty heights of the best Bond films, because the best Bonds are the ones that treat Bond as a character, and this one gets that right more than most.
So, where does James Bond go from here? I don’t know, but I’m excited to find out. Hopefully it doesn’t take four years to get there, as Skyfall was delayed by financial problems at the studio level. And hopefully, wherever Bond goes from here, he does it at least half so well -- because that would still be a hell of a movie.