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Film Review: Skyfall

Skyfall (2012; Directed by Sam Mendes)

It cannot be said that Skyfall does not make itself very clear. In the middle section of the latest instalment of the long-running James Bond franchise, 007 (Daniel Craig) races against time through the London Underground to prevent a threat to the life of his boss, an unaware M (Judi Dench). As the danger approaches and the tension ratchets ever higher, M stands up to the doubtful questioning of a parliamentary inquiry into MI6, which has suffered a deadly terrorist strike to its headquarters on the Thames and had many of its undercover agents exposed and killed.

Backed up against a figurative wall and forced to defend her agency’s role in a changing world as well as the considerable public funding that keeps its intelligence operations running, the indomitable M has a ready answer. She tells the MPs that Britain’s enemies are unseen, stateless, and dwell in the shadows, and so MI6 must follow them into the shadows and do battle with them on their own terms to protect the freedom of the British citizenry. Like the loyal subaltern of the powerful national security state that she is, M makes a naked appeal to ignorance, fear, paranoia, and above all to her own institutional authority. It’s at once stubbornly old-fashioned and terribly modern.

And so is Skyfall, a Bond film highly cognizant of the painful friction between a fast-receding glorious past and an uncertain, unfamiliar future, especially for the country 007 has served for so long. As the high-profile Bond release of Great Britain’s Olympic year (following hard on the heels of the iconic spy’s appearance with the Queen and her freakin’ corgis during the Opening Ceremonies of the Games, for pete’s sake), Skyfall is probably the most overtly nationalistic Bond movie ever. Though it begins with a dynamic action sequence through the streets and across the rooftops of Istanbul and proceeds through exotic locales like Shanghai and Macau, the film is punctuated by icons of Britishness. The Underground, the National Gallery, Westminster, the mysterious Scottish Highlands, and a spooky stone manor house on the gothic moors are among the settings for its narrative. Its denouement even features a golden-lit rooftop view across at the landmarks of Whitehall and the City, copious rippling Union Jacks caught by the westering sun. Subtle, it ain’t.

The lack of subtlety can be a bit of an issue, now and again. One doesn’t necessarily expect juicy political or social metaphors from the Bond-verse, but director Sam Mendes (working from a script by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan) provides a few such elegantly-drawn analogies only to sledgehammer them into easily-digestible bits for mass audience consumption. Bond’s first meeting with his new Quartermaster, or Q (Ben Whishaw), takes place in the National Gallery in front of J.M.W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, depicting the venerable warship, veteran of the Battle of Trafalgar, being towed to berth to be scrapped. A similar theme has already been introduced as concerns James Bond himself, who is established as being not quite as physically hale and hearty as he once was as well as maintaining and representing an outmoded hands-on mentality in a highly technological age. But rather than trusting audiences to catch this reference to a defining tension of modern Britain, Mendes has Q make the kinship between the Temeraire and Bond painfully explicit, with the youthful techie and the aging field agent as opposing stand-ins for the new and the old.

This dichotomy is further reinforced by another such heavy-handed metaphor, this time in the requisite talking-villain encounter with Bond’s antagonist, Silva (Javier Bardem). Silva, a former MI6 agent who felt betrayed by M and has transmuted the physical, mental, and ideological scars that resulted into an implacable sense of vengeance, paints an exquisite psychological analogy for the captive Bond. He tells of how an infestation of rats on an island he visited with his grandmother in his youth would reduce their coconut stocks. To solve the problem, they captured all of the rats and gave them no food, so that they ate only each other until just two animals remained, which were then released with no taste for coconut, only for rat. Again, Silva obviously refers to himself and to Bond, forged into pitiless robots of infiltration and murder by their mutual grandmother figure M, but the implication is again not allowed to function without an extra push and a later call-back.

Silva’s story is not quite like that of any disgruntled ex-agent Bond villain (and there have been a few). Indeed, indiscriminate terrorist killings aside, his crusade could perhaps even be understood as a righteous one, a ruthless quest to bring the ruthlessness of M’s secretive government agency out of the shadows and expose it to the light of public consciousness (his bleached hair immediately suggests WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange). Bond doesn’t understand it that way, of course. He is ever the paean to British fortitude as expressed through faith in its venerable, stony-faced institutions (represented as well by Dench’s forbidding M, and by a heavy-handed bulldog paperweight on her desk, emblazoned with the Union Jack). But, particularly in his Daniel Craig manifestation, Bond is also vitally the avatar of the morally-compromised covert operations that maintain the world’s oldest parliamentary democracy, the ambiguous shadow-play that allows the lights to keep shining brightly (if disingenuously) across persistent Albion.

All of this figurative talk of light and shadow begs for a segue into discussing Skyfall‘s most genuine cinematic triumph: the cinematography of Roger Deakins. The masterful veteran of astounding filmic photography (he shot the Coens’ late-’90s classics like Fargo and The Big Lebowski) achieves his trademarked visual richness throughout Skyfall, but a few sequences are jaw-dropping stand-outs. The climactic last stand of Bond and M at that old mansion on the moors (boobytrapped against enemy incursion like an adult version of Home Alone) is smothered in earthy greys and browns, the inevitable fiery explosions backlighting the proceedings with a warm glow. Bond’s arrival at a casino in Macau is lit by crimson oriental lanterns reflecting off of golden carved dragons. Most astonishing is Bond’s stealth pursuit of an assassin to the upper floor of a Shanghai skyscraper at night, as the nocturnal urban darkness is broken by an adjacent blue neon advertisement of a swimming jellyfish, its tentacles stringing uncanny light across the frame.

As amazing as it looks, though, Skyfall is hurt by its stubborn insistence on hewing to middlebrow convention. Even Mendes’ attempts to twist the Bond mythos into fresh directions come across as half-measures. The return of Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) sees the prim object of low-key traditional office femininity step down to that role from that of a badass in the field, while the Bond Girl proper (Bérénice Marlohe) is a perfunctory presence who vanishes from the plot after accomplishing her specific purpose. Most buzz-worthy was Silva’s homosexual come-on to 007 in the place usually appointed to a sequence of confinement and torture. Bond’s reply that he had more experience of that sort than his antagonist might think is such a transparent bluff that it defuses the implied orientation of the villain as well; the button-pushing moment comes to nothing, leaving us to wonder why precisely it’s there.

Maybe these complaints are tantamount to nitpicking and over-intellectualizing. Skyfall is rather entertaining product, for the most part. But the implications of M’s defence of her agency and, by extension, of the Bond franchise are redolent of an authoritarian sentiment that creeps into the film like a deadly chemical fog. The willingness to be open to moral hazard is mistaken for political seriousness; privacy is only protected by pervasive surveillance, the transgression of individual freedom is the only thing that can preserve it. And we must not only create and unleash clandestine monsters like Bond to neutralize the monsters we cannot see, but we must also immortalize them and their deeds as reflective of an essential popular heroism. When Bond finishes off the crusading Silva, it’s with a knife in the back (and come on, now; don’t act like that’s a spoiler of any stripe). Skyfall completes (or at least continues) a three-film arc that has embraced the anti-heroic qualities of one of the movies’ iconic heroic figures. But it’s a problematic reminder that rendering all of our heroes as antiheroes prefigures their anti-heroic ideologies as fundamentally heroic, despite their moral lapses, and that Bond’s ideology was always inherently morally lapsed in the first place.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. June 2, 2016 at 2:57 pm

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