Friday, December 28, 2012

2012 at the Movies #12: Skyfall

It’s unofficial, of course, but if you scrape just beneath the surface of Skyfall (2012) -- the new James Bond thriller -- the designation “M” clearly stands for “Mother” or “Mom.”

Unconventionally, this twenty-third Bond film is a modern action movie concerning a mature woman (played by Judi Dench) who has -- perhaps not fully realizing it -- become the only parent to two grown and needy (or maladjusted…) sons. 

One son, a man called Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), has rebelled against his mother for her sins, choosing to reject all of her lessons because he feels unloved and abandoned.

The other son, James Bond (Daniel Craig), realizes that this powerful mother figure is responsible for giving his life some sense of purpose, and thus goes to extreme, life-and-death measures to protect her from his enraged “brother.”

Also -- and please make no mistake about this fact – the new Bond Girl of Skyfall is clearly M, not Naomie Harris’s Eve, Severine (Berenice Marlohe), or anyone else, for that matter. 

For the first time in Bond history then, the primary Bond/female relationship does not concern sex or romance, but the maternal, mother-son relationship.

On these relatively startling grounds alone, Skyfall distinguishes itself from the twenty-two previous cinematic installments in the James Bond series. 

Delightfully, however, Skyfall also thoroughly re-invents Bond’s place in the world, lamenting the 21st century reliance on computers and unmanned drones over “human intelligence” in the dangerous game of espionage.  The film thereby forges the (the Luddite?) argument that sometimes the old ways -- like a knife in the back -- still get the job done best.

Skyfall also celebrates fifty years of James Bond movie traditions and history.  Therefore, one can readily gaze at this prominently-featured Luddite argument as a rationalization, as a self-justification, in some sense, for the continuation of the long-running franchise in the second decade of the 21st century. 

Even today, in the age or push-button soldiers, we need 007. 

This argument about the primacy of human values in the Remote Control Age is so exhilaratingly presented that Skyfall often feels like a grand revelation.  Everything “old” is new again, and this Bond film brilliantly sends Agent 007 into a brave new world, even while re-establishing all the old characters (like Q and Moneypenny) and old genre gimmicks we’ve come to expect (like the Aston Martin’s ejector seat).

It’s quite a deft balancing act, and Skyfall is at once cheeky and legitimately sentimental in tone.  It would be easy to term so exciting and revelatory a Bond film the best series installment in years, but Casino Royale -- just six years in the past -- must still earn high marks for resetting the series, grounding Bond, and introducing Craig.  Without those accomplishments, the highs of Skyfall might not have been conceivable.

Instead, the arrival of Skyfall forces long-time Bond fans to concretely reckon with the once-impossible-seeming notion that the Sean Connery Era has, at long-last, been surpassed 

Bond is back and -- no hyperbole -- he’s better than ever.

Mommy was very bad.” 

Skyfall opens in Turkey, as James Bond, 007 (Craig) and an operative named Eve (Harris) attempt to recover a stolen hard-drive that contains the files of every undercover NATO operative working in terrorist organizations. 

Eve is ordered by M (Dench) to take a difficult shot against the possessor of the drive, the evil Patrice (Ola Rapace). But Eve hits Bond instead, thereby losing the drive and an agent.

Some months later, Bond -- who is believed dead -- resurfaces when the MI6 building in London is bombed.  M escapes the attack, but feels political pressure from Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) to explain the loss of the hard-drive, and now a terrorist attack on British soil.

Although he is not yet physically or psychologically ready to return to duty, M nonetheless sends Bond out to track Patrice.  The trail leads Bond to Raoul Silva (Bardem) a vengeful former MI6 agent eager to make M “think on her sins.”   

With Silva launching one terrorist attack after another -- all aimed at killing M -- Bond decides to take his superior off the grid, and back to his family’s long-abandoned country estate in Scotland, called Skyfall.

“Less of a random killing machine, more of a personal statement.”

As I wrote above in my introduction, Skyfall primarily concerns a family dynamic.  In this unusual family, M is the mother, Raoul is one son, and Bond -- believed dead but actually out carousing on the beach -- is the Prodigal Son.

Bond finally returns to save his mother’s life after Raoul enters the picture.   Apparently, Raoul has interpreted M’s dedication to duty as a personal statement against him, a mirror of Bond’s situation.  Silva, however, conveniently overlooks the fact that he was the one who first transgressed on a mission to Hong Kong some years earlier.

Given this family dynamic, Skyfall also concerns -- in a strange way -- the value of forgiveness.  Bond is able to remember that M’s stewardship provided him a home and a purpose, and he forgives her for ordering Eve to take a shot that nearly results in his death. 

M is similarly able to forgive Bond’s trespasses and welcome back the Prodigal Son, the boy who went out into the world with the inheritance of responsibility and purpose and squandered that inheritance on booze, sex, and scorpions.

By contrast, Raoul Silva -- who evidently still loves M (or Mom…) -- can’t see his path to forgiveness, and remains consumed by overwhelming hatred because of Mom’s abandonment.

This family dynamic plays out in Skyfall even in terms of setting and locations. Bond -- a boy forever in search of the parents he tragically lost in childhood -- brings M back to his family estate, Skyfall to play house, after a fashion.  There, 007 also re-connects with an old friend and mentor Kincade (Albert Finney), a surrogate father figure.

The three characters -- working and living together at Skyfall -- are, briefly, a family, replete with a home and a hearth.  Bond thus recreates the family home he never had in his youth.  Raoul arrives and destroys that home, refusing to forgive Mom and rejoin the family.

In exploring this dynamic, Skyfall is perhaps the most human and personal of all the Bond films.  It explores not only the elements of Bond’s tragic and lonely past, but excavates the nature of his (violent) life in terms of how he sees his connections to others.  For Bond, M and Kincade are the only family he can count on when the chips are down, though there is the suggestion that Mallory may become a father figure as well. 

Outside this dramatic through-line, Skyfall establishes a roiling tension and competition between 21st century espionage and Bondian-style espionage, which came of age during the Cold War of the 1960s. 

This tension is expressed best in the quips back and forth between the mid-life Bond and his young, new Q (or Quartermaster), played by Billie Whishaw.  Q tells Bond that “age is no guarantee of efficiency,” and Bond’s response is that “youth is no guarantee of innovation.” 

In other words, a person with experience and expertise still has something to offer in the world of espionage.

Q also comments explicitly on a painting in an art gallery where he first meets 007.  The painting depicts a warship’s decommissioning. 

It always makes me feel a bit melancholy,” Q opines. “Grand old war ship…being ignominiously haunted away to scrap... The inevitability of time, don't you think? What do you see?

What Bond sees, of course, is that he is that old warship, and the one succumbing to the inevitability of time.  

He isn’t as young as he once was, and he faces the possibility that he will soon be obsolete, outmoded in the Remote Control Age.  But the events of Skyfall prove otherwise.  There is still room in the world for Bond’s brand of “human” intelligence.

Even M gets into the act of discussing the present and the past by quoting Alfred Tennyson’s Ulysses at a critical dramatic juncture:

“Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho' 
We are not now that strength which in old days 
Moved heaven and earth; that which we are, we are; 
One equal temper of heroic hearts, 
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will 
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

This is Bond’s gift to the world, and perhaps England’s as well.  Bond and England no longer dictate the movement of Heaven and Earth, but their wills remain strong, and when threatened, they will not yield.  They are, as they have been….heroic hearts.

The emotionally-delivered Tennyson quotation above thus permits Skyfall to proudly re-assert Bond’s importance in the cinema, and even Bond’s place in the world. Jason Bournes and Ethan Hunts of the world be damned, there’s still a place for Bond, James Bond in the 21st Century.

The battle between Silva and Bond is not merely one of brothers, but of belief-systems, the film cleverly reminds us.  Silva is the high-tech terrorist hiding behind anonymous servers and diabolical hacks. Meanwhile, Bond is the old-world dinosaur who still enjoys his Aston Martin’s ejector seat, and takes M off the grid, to a brick-and-mortar home he hasn’t seen in years. 

It’s digital vs. analog…and analog carries the day.

The amazing thing is that in our convenient and robust Web 2.0 Age, we root in Skyfall for analog to win. 

We long for the romance and sheer individuality of a character like James Bond.  He calls not upon gadgets, tools, or software to win the day, but some deep internal reservoir of individual will and discipline.  We may be constantly perfecting our tools and gadgets, but Bond has perfected his human mechanism, and in reminding us of that, Skyfall has perfected the Bond formula.

It’s appropriate that the last act of Skyfall involves an all-out siege which is more Peckinpah and Straw Dogs (1971) than Ian Fleming, because the analog world does feel, at times, under siege, doesn’t it?  The Old Guard seems to be crumbling, a brick at a time, and some people view this shift as the End of History, and not as the beginning of Something New, perhaps Something Great. 

In an age of irrational exuberance about gadgets, apps, and computerized military capabilities, James Bond and Skyfall remind us that a reliance on humanity -- on our experience and wisdom -- can be the most potent weapon of all.

Here’s to another fifty years of James Bond and his heroic heart.

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