Skyfall: Bond and Modernity

by Leon Saunders Calvert Volume 17, Issue 1 / January 2013 11 minutes (2529 words)

As I have previously noted in my essay [Bourne essay] on the Bourne franchise, Paul Greengrass 1 and Matt Damon rightly identified Bond as “an imperialist and a misogynist” [Today] a representative of a conservative world order which celebrates the British class system of inherited privilege for the few in which Bond identifies with serving the monarchy (‘Queen and Country’) more so than serving the British democratic institutions that uphold an open society. The Fleming Bond books and the film canon as a whole are notorious (and celebrated) for their overt sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, materialism and wish fulfilment of British geo-political supremacy.

Since Daniel Craig took over the film franchise as Bond some of these more reactionary elements of Bond-lore were played down and even critiqued. Casino Royale especially was somewhat ambitious in its attempts to create something of a three dimensional character of Bond, problematising his love of drinking, providing a female character with whom he developed a genuine sense of intimacy, and even commenting obliquely on the post 9/11 world with the main antagonist looking to profit on the stock market by instigating a terrorist attack on the aviation industry. Quantum of Solace was then less of the same and suffered by comparison with the Bourne franchise to which it obviously aspired in its action and editing techniques. It would be difficult to describe either film as progressive à la Bourne (relatively speaking), or engaged with political and moral issues of import (again relatively speaking) as per Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise. [Offscreen] It was with this in mind that I noted with interest Sam Mendes’ decision to take on the mandate of directing the next Bond film to see if the following questions would be answered– Can you make an ideologically progressive Bond film and if so what would this look like?

Mendes was overt about his intentions to make a film that was both entertaining and also “to say something about the world we’re living in.” 2 Daniel Craig had previously made comments about the political importance of Bond’s role as a civil servant, “He’s this apolitical civil servant who knows exactly what he is doing and is very good at his job. Within our political system we have this organisation, the civil service, where you hope that there are good people making decisions for us, the people. Even though Fleming was an aspiring upper class person, he invented this man for everybody… Somewhere inside Bond he believes he is doing the right thing even though he kills people all the time! But I love that element about him –that somewhere inside him he knows what is morally right.” [Craig Interview] Craig goes on to say, “This stuff is important to me. You have the monarchy, you have government, and then you have the Civil Service… The reason the Civil Service remains a non-political organisation is that if the shit hits the fan like goose-stepping Nazi bastards, you hope the Civil Service will turn around and go, ‘We’ve got it covered.’” 3 Unfortunately, this philosophy was not even sub-textual in Casino Royale or Quantum of Solace, rather it was non-textual. It was not there. The scene was then potentially set, between star and director, for the creation of a truly modern Bond which would carry this message.

On its release Skyfall received largely excellent reviews (95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a score of 85 on Metacritic at the time of writing) and achieved stellar box office performance. 4 It is not hard to see why. Skyfall is a very well made film. Visually it is incredibly impressive – sumptuous and elegant. The story is engaging and exciting, the antagonist a real challenge for Bond, and the Bond character achieves greater depth and complexity than ever before onscreen as his tragic orphaning is shown to inform both his career choice and his intimate relationship with M that runs deeper than the authoritarian/subservient repartee we see on the surface. Mendes’ copying of Christopher Nolan’s cross cutting style, or “parallel action” 5 as he calls it, is phenomenally skilful and comes to a crescendo as M recites Tennyson’s Ulysses at a court hearing, intercut with Silva making a murderous line for her imminent assassination, with Bond on yet another trajectory sprinting down the streets of Westminster to try to arrive in time to protect his boss (and surrogate mother) while all this is cut to an elegiac score by Thomas Newman that plays up the self-sacrificial nature of the protagonist. Our indebtedness is emphasised at the end of the film as Bond surveys London from above much as the Dark Knight overlooks Gotham as its protector. If Quantum of Solace was Bond’s failed attempt to be Bourne then Skyfall is a more successful attempt to make him Batman. Not wholly original but fabulous Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking nevertheless.

Seemingly it is the most successfully made updating and modernisation of the franchise so far. But what of its ideology, the worldview articulated by the film? What does Skyfall “say about the world,” to paraphrase Mendes? I think that when we begin to delve we find that the film comes up disappointingly short.

Now to be clear, I recognise of course that the Bond character is a misogynist, unthinkingly patriotic and rather superficial in his outlook, as well as being a figure of omnipotence fantasy 6 and representing the male ego ideal (Craig is a very effective personal and physical presence in the film and to this end one critic amusingly described his “pouty pistol of a performance” as “intense and driven [as] he thrusts himself around the screen like an urgent penis” [Metro]). It would not be Bond if he were not these things. But that does not mean that a film about Bond need carry the values of its central character. So before I start to critique Skyfall in this regard let us review quickly what one might hope for in a sophisticated Bond film. Can Bond articulate what he fights for politically without simply uncritically following the orders of Her Majesty? In fighting terrorists can the film explore what a strong liberal position might be? For example, one could imagine a film in which the terrorist threat post 9/11 is recognised not as a fight against the things which the West itself critiques about its own societies (exploitative capitalism, abuse of power in foreign policy, etc.), rather against the things which the West must defend (secularism, emancipation, open society, richness and diversity of culture, etc.), and Bond must be at the forefront of this defence. In other words, can Craig’s comments about what he sees as the importance of Bond find themselves translated onto the screen? In the case of Skyfall, I think the answer is largely ‘no’.

Let us look at some examples. Javier Bardem’s super flamboyant portrayal of Silva manages to ensure that the Bond baddie is representative of an ideology of xenophobia (of course he is bad, he is a foreigner who worked for the British Secret Service), and homophobia – the biggest threat to Bond being Silva’s sexual advances which threaten to abuse and undermine his defiant and until now, unquestioned heterosexuality. So too are we assured that physical disfigurement is a clear indicator of moral repugnance – those who look freakish must be evil – not a terribly progressive interpretation of villainy.

And what of the representation of women? It seems that Skyfall holds women in power in a degree of contempt. M is implied to be uncaring, untrusting and incompetent. All of which is hardly undone by the authoritarian portrayal as usual by Judi Dench. M is, as a result, suitably replaced at the films end by the more reliable old school ex-military man, Mallory. The Chief Chair of the Parliamentary Committee (Clair Dower played by Helen McCrory) at the court hearing is equally representative of overzealous incomprehension and needs interjection from Mallory to put her back in her place. But perhaps most tellingly is the arc of Eve, a highly physically capable agent who, through a single error in the field (at the command of M), realises that she really ought to leave all the action to the men and take up a more appropriate role as an office secretary (although I suppose you might argue that at least a degree of racial diversity is introduced with the new Moneypenny). Under examination the film really does feel rather reactionary.

Britain, in the year of the Queen’s Jubilee and the London Olympics, is represented by recalling Britain’s WW2 heroic past with the setting in Churchill’s underground bunker and, as per M’s Tennyson recital, as old but dogged, with M clearly doing her best to instigate a sense of fear, reminiscent of Bush era post 9/11 rhetoric, in order to justify her actions and the role of MI6 – we are clearly still in the world of living on past glory here.

Arguably there are very few blockbuster films in which one is able to articulate what they, or indeed the hero, stand for. 7

However, some of the better action films have at least been able to articulate what the hero is fighting against. Casino Royale is rather simplistic but makes a clear statement to this effect when Bond chastises Vesper when she apologises for not giving him more money with which to continue the geo-political (and literal) poker game with Le Chiffre, “Sorry? Try putting that in a sentence. Like “Sorry Le Chiffre’s going to win and continue funding terror and killing”, that kind of sorry?” [Casino Royal] In relation to the Bourne franchise Ken Morefield makes the case that the films seek “to justify the hero’s actions by vilifying his enemies rather than glorifying his cause,” [1 more film blog] but the films are not devoid of ideology. Bourne represents “the personification of his audience’s doubts and confusion in a post-9/11 America. The first film found its American hero confused about his role in the world, and its sequels allowed him to both atone for his country’s crimes and ensure the system that perpetuated them was brought down.” 8 What does Batman stand for in Christopher Nolan’s franchise? J.A.A. Purves does a good job of articulating this. “In the first film…it was established that he believed in justice AND mercy… he believed both the city and its government were worth saving from the likes of even those who understood what was wrong with it. So he worked “from within,” allying himself to the remnant in the city who still believed in justice. The Batman didn’t overthrow institutions like the Gotham City Police Department. Instead, he helped force the police department to do its job while putting a stop to other vigilantes who would have completely destroyed it along with everything else. In the second film, it is made clear that Batman believes in rules and law (hence, no guns, no killing for him). He believes that his fight for the preservation of society can be taken up by another who always acts within the law. And, he believes in careful restraint in the exercise of power.” In the third film, “Bane represents pure unadulterated power without restraint. Batman is one of the very few who stands to preserve the very restraints that Bane intends to demolish.” 9 So what of Skyfall and how does it stack up? On inspection it turns out that the film’s villain is barely describable even as an enemy of the state. Bond is not defending the country against Silva, rather he is tasked with defeating a man who has a (legitimate) grudge against his boss. It turns out that even the basic storyline of the film is about MI6 defending itself rather than the state. It is hardly ideologically inspiring stuff.

The one area which the film raises, but does not fully explore, that is genuinely interesting and a modern political and moral dilemma, is the question of what is acceptable state secrecy in a modern democracy? In the world of Julian Assange and Wikileaks, what can be justified as closed information for the few versus open information for the masses? To the degree that we acknowledge the requirements for clandestine intelligence, which Skyfall certainly purports to do (M insists that in order to catch the terrorists they must inhabit the same world in “the shadows”), where do we draw the line and by what means in an open society can the people with this intelligence be held accountable? Great questions, but Skyfall does not do a lot with them. Nevertheless, it would seem that this is Mendes’ best contribution to being thoughtful and sophisticated about the geo-political vectors we now live with.

It seems we may still have to wait for a Bond film that truly carries the values of modernity and recognises that defence of the realm is defence of the values of diversity and social mobility through a non-partisan commitment to democratic institutions which protect rather than persecute – not defence of the status quo’s reactionary values of the Fleming era.

I think we cannot expect to see the likes of Mike Leigh picking up the baton from Mendes (nor would we want him to I suggest) but the latter has done enough to demonstrate that hiring A-list directorial talent does create value. Perhaps we will see if a director along the lines of Christopher Nolan, Paul Greengrass, Ang Lee or Kathryn Bigelow can follow in his footsteps and fare better in its attempts to “say something about the world.”

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Notes

  1. Greengrass
  2. Mendes Blog
  3. The Independent
  4. MI6
  5. Sam Mendes Interview
  6. Even Bond’s omnipotence is problematised in Skyfall with his fitness, shooting accuracy, and general physical and mental health thrown into question. Ken Morefield’s comments with regards to The Bourne Supremacy are useful here, “In modern sensibility, omnipotence only leads to corruption or idolatry; we want our heroes to be just powerful enough to protect us from evil but not so powerful as to present a threat in themselves. Oh, and we want them to be wounded enough that we are insulated from our natural tendency to envy them.”
  7. Perhaps Crimson Tide is the best example that springs to mind. The film insists that access to absolute or certain knowledge/truth is unattainable but this does not render our actions free of moral consequence or import. It emphasises that debate is preferable to violence but force may be required in the face of unilateral irrationality and absolutism. It posits rationality and knowledge as superior to gut instinct and compliance with authority and procedure, and argues that “in the nuclear world the true enemy is war itself” – that everything must be done to avoid this irrespective of ideological difference or fear of our enemies.
  8. Film Geek
  9. Redemptio Sehnsucht . I also touch on similar issues in my Batman essay here, and as a suggestion for further reading Ken Morefield creates a compelling argument against this in his reviews of The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises respectively

Skyfall: Bond and Modernity

Leon Saunders Calvert works in a financial information media company in London. He has a BA Hons from the University of Essex in Philosophy and Literature, including film studies, and an MSc in International Management from the University of Reading. He believes that the study of philosophy and culture can be fundamental to providing us with a better understanding of the world we live in and the ways in which it can be improved, rather than undertaken as a kind of intellectual workout, as is so often the case. Leon has published reviews in Film International and The Film Journal.

Volume 17, Issue 1 / January 2013 Film Reviews   action film  

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