Film | Skyfall: A Bond Out of Time
Film & TV, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Saturday, November 24, 2012 0:00 - 3 Comments
By Tony Mckenna
[SPOILER ALERT: Some elements of the storyline are discussed in this piece]
Despite all his glamorous women, James Bond is now officially a lonely figure. For Bond’s latest incarnation, realised by Daniel Craig in Skyfall, has the whiff of the tragic about it. In the film, of course, that’s because Craig’s Bond is getting on a bit – no longer at the top of his game, the audience is made to witness the disconcerting spectacle of a haggard and hung-over 007, a Bond who fails the physical and mental tests which a modernised MI6 requires of its secret agents. The premise of the film is both provocative and intriguing because the typical and almost superhero status of the cult spy is, from the outset, brutally called into question. Bond – the film makers seem to suggest – is now out of kilter with his time.
It isn’t just Bond the character who has aged, though, but also Bond the concept. In the 60s and 70s the film franchise picked up steam; the rich, sexy brogue of Sean Connery, or Roger’s Moore’s right eye-brow raised provocatively in the moments before he dispatches a sinister but lumbering henchman – such mannerisms were expressive of a cock-sure sense of certainty which pervaded not only the films, but also, more generally, the politics of an epoch.
At that time, the notion of Empire – either in its guise as an old fashioned, British imperial past framed in terms of quaint brigadiers with bristling moustaches – or a more contemporary vision involving lantern jawed American politicians determined to protect the free world from Communist evil; for the popular consensus – Empire, or its western variant at least, could still be regarded as in some wise benevolent; it seemed to fulfil a necessary role – that of international policeman struggling to impose legality on what was otherwise an uncertain and chaotic world-order. And this, despite the sheer, frenetic pace of its murderousness; despite the Vietnams and the Koreas and the Nicaraguas.
In the current climate, though, the atmosphere has altered irrevocably. Empire is more visible and more accountable for its crimes than ever before. In the early twenty first century – post September 11th and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – in light of the political machinations of certain slippery lawyer-cum-politicians and the dossier of lies they have compiled; for of all this, the popular sense of imperial power fulfilling a progressive role has been largely eradicated, replaced by an underlying anxiety and collective suspicion. Most of us today believe, to a lesser or greater extent, that the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, have more to do with oil and territory, than with freedom and democracy.
In the arena of the spy movie thriller, this shift in perspective is expressed in the transition from Bond to Bourne. Whereas James was fun loving when bandying his licence to kill about, Jason Bourne murders the bad guys with a haunted, harried gravitas. More importantly, while Bond is out cutting down sinister foreigners and their halting, Slavic accents, the character of Bourne is menaced by those on the inside – the same forces which have set him into motion in the first place – specifically the CIA. In the Bourne films, therefore, the danger comes from the very Imperial power which purports to guard and protect the world order.
Consequently the figure of James Bond can’t help but appear as gauche and gaudy, as something of a cliché, especially when set against the backdrop of a darker and more ambiguous political reality. The challenge Bond presents to the contemporary writer is one of how to situate 007 in a reality which has long since left him behind.
The writers of Skyfall respond to the contradiction with the unconscious awareness and finesse of artists. They do so in two ways. Firstly, as already mentioned, they emphasise the character of James himself as an older, more out of touch figure whose aspect displays the ravages of time. In dealing with a more contemporary sense of political threat – the notion that the danger lies not in a constellation of sinister foreign elements, but in imperial power itself – the writers of Skyfall also respond admirably. Rather than portray the bad guy as an external, alien element, they create a character who was himself betrayed by the same institution of imperial power from which Bond emerges. The villain of the piece, played by Javier Bardem with a deliciously camp malevolence, is an ex spy who returns to wreak vengeance on the very British establishment which has unleashed him.
Bardem’s character provides the vehicle by which the values of the establishment can be called into question. One of the key scenes occurs when Bardem’s ex-spy interrogates a 007 strapped to a chair – is Bond sure that M has his best interest at heart? Is Bond certain that he is not merely the puppet of broader political wheelings and dealings? There is a singular moment in which Bond, provided with evidence of his superior’s lies, really does seem to think, to inflect – to question whether his untrammelled devotion to duty, his blanket adoration of the Union Jack, is really worth the price.
Of course, Bond is being interrogated by a grimacing madman, but more importantly still, the genesis of the Bond character lies in its unflinching (though cheeky) devotion to Queen and Country. Both elements – Queen and Country – are synthesized in the figure of M, played by Judy Dench. And just as the most interesting contradiction pans out; just as Bond is forced to consider whether M and, vicariously, the motherland, have manipulated him, the ambiguity is extinguished – the very elements of interest and promise in the film are snuffed out and his ambivalence toward M is resolved, crudely and artificially, in the finale.
In the climax of the film, 007 defends M with fierce, slavish devotion. His fight for her takes place in the bizarre setting of an old farmhouse in the isolated regions of the Scottish moors – as though the villain in the film, with his own seemingly unlimited manpower and technological supremacy – would be in some way thwarted by the rural setting.
However the leap to unreality – from the nuanced and politically conflicted first segment of the film, is far from accidental. Bardem’s character provides the means by which Bond is forced to question his own sense of duty and allegiance, and thus pulls the Bond character toward a more modern archetype à la Bourne. The logic of development seems to hint at the possibility of a unity between 007 and Bardem’s rogue spy in as much as the latter provides a dark mirror that allows Bond to gaze into the more unsavoury, rebellious elements of himself.
The prospect of a dark and damaged Bond, a Bond who turns on his political masters and submits them to the screws, is undoubtedly a delicious one. Alas, it is not to be. If the writers had gone all the way – if they had given us an alienated and estranged Bond, a Bond who reflected the modern political Zeitgeist in the way in which the Jason Bourne character does, then we would no longer be dealing with a creation that was recognisably 007.
And so, in the final part, the ambiguous question of identity and allegiance of a British secret service agent had to be replaced by a vulgar battle between good and evil, in which the sinister nature of Bardem’s character was vanquished by the wholesome patriotism of Bond’s own. In order for Bond to remain Bond the writers were forced to kill everything of interest in the early part of the film by returning the Bond character back in time to a glib and morally black-and-white incarnation of his previous self.
The writers recognise this in an unconscious and delightfully Freudian way in a scene where Bond retrieves the Aston Martin Sports car which bears the same number plate as the one used in Goldfinger. It is telling that the car goes up in flames toward the end of the film; a subconscious acknowledgement that the traditional Bond, no matter how fond of him we might be, simply cannot survive in the modern world.
The finale of Skyfall is preposterously awful. It destroys the foundations on which any remaining belief is suspended, especially as we watch Javier Bardem’s highly militarised army being taken out by Bond, M and a game keeper. If the first part of the film articulates the tragedy of a James Bond out of time, then the second occurs as farce. Skyfall is an audacious film, but a flawed one; it pushes the Bond concept to the point at which it unravels. At some point, one can’t help but reflect, even superheroes must be lost to time.