Monday, September 9, 2013

Skyfall: A Critical View (Part Three)

(This is the third part of a four-part review essay, which is now up in full. Part One appeared on September 4, 2013, Part Two on September 6 and Part Four on September 11. You can read the completed essay on a single page here.)


Striving For More
While a movie like Skyfall is about crowd-pleasing first and foremost, it is worth remembering that the Bond series, even more than most, has a longstanding hardcore following, and that Skyfall was made and marketed as a celebration of Bond's fiftieth anniversary on the screen. And the film does strive to mark that by asserting Bond's identity and place in the second decade of the twenty-first century, proving that he is still vigorous and relevant, while at the same time deepening the figure for us. To make this a story about Bond proving himself to the doubters, the writers go a step further than Goldeneye in knocking him down so that he can stage a comeback.8

Strongly connected with that struggle to "come back" is the incorporation of a measure of the personal drama we are more accustomed to seeing in movie festival prize winners and critical darlings than action-oriented blockbusters. The writers sought to create between Bond, M and Silva a family of sorts, with M as a mother figure to the two men, and Bond and Silva as brothers, which Bond has to deal with (coming home again, confronting a "sibling," protecting a "parent," and then saying goodbye to them for the final time). This is all underlined by the fact that Bond's retreat to his family's titular estate is an occasion on which are told more than ever before about his original, biological family in his half-century on-screen, and the one time when we see him confront that painful aspect of his past--so that he might be said to struggle with two different sets of familial baggage as a part of his return to form.

Analog Heroics in a Digital Age
When it comes to knock Bond down, well, the writers certainly achieve that. His time away from the Service and thought dead is not a period of rejuvenation which sees Bond return home back in form, but an exhausted, aging man's letting himself go. Bond, the "best shot in the service," sees his skills with a gun go to pot, a mark of his generally flagging physical prowess. Additionally, not only does he fail the Service's tests at headquarters, but he is easily captured by Silva's henchmen, and then bested in a shooting match with said enemy, with the result that Severine loses her life, after Bond promised to protect her.

Bond likewise fails to keep the enemy's attack from reaching Britain. Not only does Silva bomb MI 6, but Bond's capture of him (also too easy) is really just Silva duping Bond, after which Silva is running wild and free in Britain, attacking Britain's intelligence headquarters and shooting up Parliament, with the British security state thrown into chaos by his cyber-wizardry. (Certainly no prior Bond film has set so much of its action on British soil.)

However, despite the impression one may get of a man and a world restored from the concluding scenes in which Bond surveys London from a rooftop in that way so many superheroes survey the cities they defend (in a shot simultaneously taking in Big Ben and Parliament and other architectural icons of Britishness); returns to an office like we haven't seen since at least The Living Daylights (wood and leather, a Miss Moneypenny at the desk, a military man in charge); and then faces us through the closing shot through a gun barrel that had been conspicuously missing from the film's opening; the truth is that Bond never actually makes that comeback. Instead of Bond's defeating Silva in the modern world, he retreats to the past--literally, to a bucolic space left behind in the march of technology--to make his stand.

I found the effect jarring. Bond may be a sportsman who loves skiing and diving, but he has always been an urban creature, not a country gentleman. Additionally, the heavy stress on Bond as a figure with aristocratic roots contradicts the less genteel approach seen in Casino Royale (in which he was someone who had no one to teach him how to properly dress), and to an extent, earlier conceptions of the character. As Jeremy Black noted, the appeal of the film version of Bond was, in part, a matter of his conveying a sense of "class" not too clearly or closely connected with money and birth--while in print, he was still a half-foreign exotic who looked out of place at Blades and felt silly being offered a knighthood, replying to the offer that he is, and always will feel at home as, a Scottish peasant.

By contrast, staging the showdown this way struck me as taking that gap between analog Bond and digital Silva too far--so much so that rather than anything really Bondian, it comes off as a weird hybridization of the sniveling reactionary sentiment of an Evelyn Waugh with the antics of survivalist-commando figures like Rambo, or Predator's Alan Schaefer.9 And at any rate, this course of action only half-succeeds. Bond manages to kill Silva with a thrown knife--rather than redeeming himself as a shootist (which would have been all the better since making that difficult shot would have brought a nice symmetry to the film, given how the opening train sequence ended).10 And M still ends up dead as a result of the wounds her attacker gave her, considerable damage to the Service on her watch done--which is to say that Silva has attained his object, even if it was at the cost of his life. (Strictly speaking, the bad guy actually won this time!) And anyway, the estate gets blown up, along with the Aston Martin he used to get there.

All this being the case, he proves himself not the master of the world he once was, going anywhere and everywhere and always coming out on top (in spite of frequently being up against superior technology), but only a tenuous master of his family's grounds, on which he has at any rate turned his back.

After this shaky performance against this movie's forgettable baddie, even in combination with the two down-to-earth predecessors with which we can connect it, this Bond has yet to truly impress us as the larger-than-life figure he has traditionally been on screen.11 He does not even impress us as a man able to deal with the twenty-first century. Instead we have a worn-out, young-old civil servant continuing to come into the office--ostensibly for Queen and Country, but at least as much because it does not suit him to stick by his "still hearth," the only aspect of the evocation of Tennyson's "Ulysses" that works here.12

8. In fact, the closest precedent for this was, again, You Only Live Twice, where Bond went to pieces after Blofeld's murder of his wife in the preceding novel, On Her Majesty's Secret Service--though in general, the Bond of the novels tended to decay after going for too long between missions.
9. Predator in particular seems worth mentioning here, as Arnold Schwarzenegger's protagonist pointedly reverts to the primitive to fight an enemy that is nothing less than an alien from a civilization so advanced that it can use interstellar travel for hunting expeditions--which is not too far from how the film treats the distance between him and Silva.
10. Another plausible reading of this scene is that, when faced with a shot like the one M had Eve take back in Istanbul, Bond simply decided to resolve the situation in another way--perhaps reflecting the difference between M's attitude toward him, and his attitude toward her (or at least, her office). And indeed it may be that the writers intended this. If that was the case, their failure to develop the dynamic between these three characters not only deprived the scene of the power it should have had, but left its meaning much more ambiguous.
11. After all, the epic struggles of the classic films--Bond's battles against SPECTRE and Blofeld and Goldfinger and others of their ilk, which did make him seem larger than life in just this way--have been discarded in the reboot. Since then we have seen a green double-o fight a relatively minor battle against Le Chiffre, and then take up a struggle against the Quantum organization which could have become epic, but which the series aborted after the unfavorable reaction to Quantum of Solace.
12. Bond's rebooted record, after all, hardly seems to merit the intense romanticism of the poem given its substance and brevity (no Odysseus, he), while the image of Bond as an aged king heading out on a final journey ("We are not now of that strength") is problematic, given the heavy emphasis on Daniel Craig's Bond as younger and more contemporary than his predecessors.

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