Skyfall – Art 2/5 Ent 5/5 Worth 4/5
For all the burdensome weight of being the latest in a long-running glamorous and harebrained spy film franchise that spans well over 40 hours of screen time, 6 lead actors, 50 years of history traversing massive ravines in geopolitical and cultural history – a history at times defined by this very series – Skyfall lives up to the best that came before it, and is a deeply impressive genre film. While the subjective question of how it rates in that series is answered variably, invariable is Skyfall’s aesthetically crisp exterior. But the interior being a dreadfully common revenge thriller, only made distinguishable from thousands of other films pitched to the bored studio princes by its iconic hero, some touches were necessary to avoid redundancy, and to regain the icon’s lost coolness, still yet the only true legacy of James Bond.
GoldenEye, the first in the series to feature Dame Judi Dench as M, was a stern departure from all that came before it. The new female M, a strongly contrasting foil to the misogynistic legacy of the icon shaped by Sean Connery (an actor who expresses little compunction over wife-beating), was in a way the avatar for Barbara Broccoli, who inaugurated a new era after inheriting the franchise from her father, with a James Bond hewn for the ’90s. Pierce Brosnan’s Bond was a reined in boy’s club adventurer who was forced to atone for his mindless chauvinism of all varieties: Rule Britannia or his serial philandering. Atonement as a theme would be key here, and return again numerous times up til Skyfall. GoldenEye was a meta-comment on the rest of the series, and the Cold War culture it emerged from. In the disappointing follow ups, Brosnan’s Bond retained the wry boy’s club demeanor, but slowly Dench became a matriarch instead of a rival. This role was necessary to anachronistically reboot the series, so that her matriarchy could be more firmly established on a younger Bond, who unlike the debonnaire Brosnan, actually lived up to her comment in GoldenEye that he was little more than a blunt instrument.
As is natural for many people my age, I compare every Bond film to GoldenEye. Much like the contemporary New World Order spy thriller Sneakers, its atmosphere and purpose in the wake of the Cold War – a period where we all had to grow up ostensibly and stop overthrowing developing world governments in a grand chess game over ideology – was far more interesting than any of the suave emptiness that preceded it, or followed, for that matter. And there was that Nintendo 64 game, of course. Retaining the producers and writers through much of the later Brosnan films, as well as the selective amnesia concerning the sinister aspects of Anglo-American intelligence services (how much did The Good Shepherd earn at the Box Office?), the Daniel Craig reboot trilogy is an altogether different beast. For one, it’s profoundly influenced by the Bourne trilogy’s frenetic pace and embrace of the darker psychological and physical effects of the cloak and dagger profession. But in Skyfall, Judi Dench is guilty of subtly breaking the unsaid barrier between the overthrown Mosaddeghs and Allendes of our real past and the Connerys and Moores of our frivolous past.
While facing a parliamentary inquiry over her failure to protect the identities of NATO agents who’d infiltrated jihadist groups, Dench’s M quotes Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses“, which is influenced more by Dante’s sinner Ulisse in The Inferno, singularly seeking knowledge and reason, than Homer’s heroic trickster Odysseus of the Iliad and Odyssey. Tennyson’s Ulysses, growing a case of cabin fever, feels equally marooned at the completion of his journey in the domesticity of ruling the “savage race” at Ithaca. He calls for his mariners to brave the eroding effects of time on their aged bodies and cut out again for more adventures, his lone sense of irrepressible purpose. The final line, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” delivered by M in her defense, is no mere mea culpa for her character’s failure in the film. It serves as a metaphor with Bond’s weathered body, mirroring that of Ulysses. In eerie entendre with Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost, “courage never to submit or yield”, it serves also as a metaphor with the evil that one must embrace, for better or worse, in the most purposefully maniacal of government services, those that operate in the shadows.
As a matriarch of the field agents at MI6, M must at times kill her children for the benefit of those outside the shadows. Her willingness to tell an agent to take the shot while Bond is in hand to hand combat above a moving train, and her willingness to betray a megalomaniacal agent gone rogue isn’t as surprising as the humanity she expresses in coming to decisions that rip out one’s heart. Playing the result of latter example, Javier Bardem’s colorful Bond villain Raoul Silva, a former MI6 agent turned cyber terrorist, is obsessively transfixed with revenge to haunt his adoptive mother’s necessary sin of betrayal. M’s playing of the game is more easily forgiven by Bond, who sees her less a Medea and more a close student of moral hazard. One child’s death is worth dozens of children’s lives. After being shot off the train and wallowing in peace, Bond’s return from the soggy drunkenness in a Greek afterlife is wrought from ennui among the savage race at Ithaca, and his loyalty to mum, who’d recently survived an attack by Silva.
Bardem has an incredible gift of making unsympathetic characters endearing, to such an unsettling degree that he creates his own miniature narrative that demand your moral judgment. The notorious Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men is a demonic brute, sure, but his psychopathy operates within the limits of a code. Uxbal, the main character in Biutiful, is a deplorable criminal and human trafficker, but his embattled conscience ineptly tries to always effect a virtuous outcome. Raoul Silva, a villain with dyed blond hair and a supervillain genius, recalls Bond’s antagonists of old. Cut from the same cloth as Bond, he also has a more sympathetic tragedy, akin to the betrayal faced by Sean Bean’s Agent 006, Alec Trevelyan, whose parents were Lienz Cossacks, traitors turned over to Stalin by the British. In the Hong Kong turnover of 1997, M turned Silva over to the Chinese in exchange for captured agents, whereupon his cyanide capsule failed to kill him, instead mangling his jaw bone and inflicting agonizing torture, adding a bit of vividness to the stakes to an otherwise more adventurous caper franchise.
Silva’s elaborate plan to wreak his vengeance on mommy dearest has received a deal of flip criticism. Some remark on how convoluted the plot is, and reminding them that this is still after all a James Bond movie isn’t enough, because it’s not as convoluted when you parse out how Silva didn’t plan Bond’s involvement, and despite a connection with Bond over their shared painful upbringing, he couldn’t comprehend Bond’s randomly selected genetic disposition towards a loyalty loose enough to protect M at all costs, but still use her as bait. If anything, M’s knack for addressing moral hazard rubbed off on her would-be son. Another remark is how Oedipal either Bond or Silva’s relationship to ‘mum’ is. No, you don’t have to credit Freud whenever there’s drama and a mother involved. It’s a backwards implication anyway, Dench’s M is far from a Jocasta.
One of the very true remarked upon connections was how this was the Dark Knight Rises of the Bond series. Our heroic icons, as a symptom of the post-Great Recession blues, need to seem breakable, fallible, and outmatched by an imperceptibly powerful foe who operates in the East. Unlike Batman, however, Skyfall at least is under no illusions that the film’s substance takes precedence over its style and easy mythology. In this case, Bond is saved from ostentatiously getting too big for its britches by a niche history of vodka martinis and backless dresses, rather than virtuously knowing itself, I think. But the mythology ties in with as much smoothness as the rest of the picture. Ben Whishaw takes the place of Desmond Llewelyn as the series’ comic relief quartermaster Q, a character not seen since the Brosnan era. Later on, Ralph Fiennes and Naomie Harris wrap things up by finally revealing themselves in very familiar surroundings as the dispassionate male M, and the playfully ridiculing Moneypenny.
If the story isn’t a competent match for the latest Mike Leigh film, it’s running with the best of any Bond film, at the very least. But devolving once more, if the story isn’t the point anyway, the incredibly sleek aesthetic design, flowing from the most gorgeous of any Bond intro featuring Adele’s tie in song, makes the shaky-cam Bourne movies look positively ancient and low-budget. One of the benefits of Hollywood appealing to slobbermouths over-intimate with laser guns is that they get to soak up some of the world’s best visual artists, and give them high tech shit to work with. The jet-setter tenor of Connery Bonds lingered well into the Brosnan era, if only because of habit, but the Craig Bonds feature a retro kitsch style only in ever so small doses as an homage, and especially in the third act of the character’s dark origins trilogy we get a brilliant explosiveness of a new style, similar in spirit to what made Bond so cool in 1962.
It isn’t a work of genius, it’s a dark adventure film with a tinge of John le Carré, and yet for all that it wants to be, it is. Javier Bardem and Judi Dench are both exceptional in their roles, and once again, Daniel Craig is the sinewy but broken hero that Bond was always meant to be, inhabiting a cold and indifferent film universe he was always meant to inhabit, albeit with the same ending and upswing we know to expect. This is, after all, just a Bond film.