‘Skyfall’ And The Resurrection Of James Bond

This post, obviously, discusses plot points from Skyfall.

I. The Bulldog

Skyfall is supremely British movie. M writes Bond’s obituary with a bottle of whiskey and a china bulldog painted to look like the Union Jack as company at her desk. After the bombing of MI6 headquarters, Bond grouses “The whole office goes up in smoke and that bloody thing survives?” “Your interior decorating tips are always appreciated,” M tells him tartly. When MI6 relocates, it’s to Winston Churchill’s old bunker: “Quite fascinating, if it wasn’t for the rats,” M’s aide Tanner (Rory Kinnear) says. During a free-associative exercise as part of his field assessment, Bond’s asked to respond to the world “Country.” His immediate response, of course, is “England.” When he and M return to Skyfall, the family estate Bond hasn’t visited since he left for school, they’re met by a fabulous old-school retainer, Kincade. “Some men are coming to kill us. We’re going to kill them first,” Bond informs him. “Then we’d better get ready,” Kincade replies stoutly. When the first henchman meets Kincade’s shotgun, he dispatches the man with a hearty “Welcome to Scotland.” Even the language of daily conversation feels more staunchly English than usual, whether it’s Bond telling M “Just changing carriages,” as the back half of a train is violently torn away behind him, or M sourly suggesting, on Bond’s return from a long absence that “I suppose they ran out of drink where you were.”

That vigorous emphasis on cultural signifiers of British national character makes sense. Skyfall is a film that’s explicitly concerned with the blowback to British imperialism, and implicitly structured to bridge the gap between the UK’s two great contributions to spy culture: the bureaucratic knife-fight and the secret agent with the Walther PPK.

“England. The Empire. MI6. You’re living in a ruin,” Skyfall’s antagonist, Silva (Javier Bardem) tells Bond when he finally arrives on-screen. Much more so than a traditional Bond film villain, Silva is a photo-negative of Bond, a man whose faith in MI6 has been shattered, who abandoned British soil to live on a Japanese island that looks like a dreamscape in Inception, complete with a tumbled Ozymandian statue, who wears white and cream to Bond’s black, who fights his battles with server farms instead of his fists, and whose sexual ominvorousness extends even beyond Bond’s own. It’s possible he’s meant as an allusion to Julian Assange, who recently caused the UK some measure of annoyance, in both physical presentation and weapon of choice. But Skyfall makes the interesting choice to give Silva grievances against his government more legitimate than any Assange suffered personally. When M ran him as an agent in Hong Kong during the transition of control from the British to China, she handed him over to the Chinese government after he was discovered doing offensive hacking outside his brief. “I got six agents in return, and a peaceful transition,” M explains to Bond without sentiment. Silva was tortured, and when he tried to take his cyanide capsule, it failed to kill him. “Life clung to me like a disease,” Silva tells her, revealing the destruction of his dental plate, the ruined face he conceals with prosthetics. “Do you know what hydrogen cyanide does to you? Look upon your work.” Hong Kong isn’t the only element of British foreign policy history that Skyfall alludes to: as Silva stalks M through London, the movie brings up the dreadful specter of that city’s subway bombings. Who needs doomsday devices when you have reality?

The chase ends, where it has to, in a Parliamentary hearing room at Westminster. John Le Carre, the creator of some of the greatest heroes of bureaucratic British spydom, has explained that he dislikes James Bond because “It seems to me he’s more some kind of international gangster with, as it is said, a license to kill… he’s a man entirely out of the political context.” Much of the best of British spy fiction has responded to Bond in the same way, from George Smiley’s disinfection of the Circus, to the men and women working inside the Grid in Spooks. And among the other work of the Daniel Craig era in the Bond franchise has been the reconciliation of that “international gangster” with British politics and bureaucracy. In Casino Royale, M is disgusted at being called in to testify as to Bond’s conduct after he shoots up an embassy in Africa, both because she has to deal with the oversight, and because Bond’s given Parliament reason to demand it:

Who the hell do they think they are? I report to the Prime Minister and even he’s smart enough not to ask me what we do. Have you ever seen such a bunch of self-righteous, ass-covering prigs? They don’t care what we do; they care what we get photographed doing. And how the hell could Bond be so stupid? I give him double-O status and he celebrates by shooting up an embassy. Is the man deranged? And where the hell is he? In the old days if an agent did something that embarrassing he’d have a good sense to defect. Christ, I miss the Cold War.

In Skyfall, she’s back at it again, this time on even more serious grounds. After Bond fails to stop Patrice, a terrorist who managed to steal the encrypted identities of NATO agents embedded in terrorist organizations, M finds herself called to heel by Mallory (Ralph Feinnes), a former soldier-turned bureaucrat. “Are we to call this civilian oversight?” M asks him. “We call it retirement planning,” he tells her. “I’m here to oversee the transition period leading to your voluntary retirement in two months’ time.” After those agents are unmasked and begin to be killed, M is called before an inquiry to explain herself, an act that both makes Bond and his colleagues answerable to a political context and gives M an opportunity to explain why the kind of political context Le Carre called for is less clear-cut in a post-Cold War era. “Our enemies are no longer known to us,” she tells the minister. “They don’t exist on a map. our world is not more transparent, now. It’s more opaque. That’s where we have to fight. In the shadows.” As Silva makes his murderous way towards her, she quotes Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses”:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; 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.

II. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

That question of what is taken and what abides is made more subtly in a brilliant visual joke in Skyfall. When Bond meets Q, the younger man finds him on a bench at the National Gallery, looking at a portrait of a tall ship being hauled away by a steam tug. “Always makes me a little melancholy,” Q tells him, in a conversational gambit that Bond mistakes for a pass. “A grand old warship being hauled away for scrap.” The two men quibble about whose approach is superior, with Q insisting that “Age is no guarantee of efficiency,” with Bond riposting that “Youth is no guarantee of innovation.” They meet at a moment when Bond’s fitness for the field is in doubt. After a series of grueling exams, an inverse training sequence that lets the Bond franchise invert a trope of the superhero movies that have risen up as its competition, M lies and declares that Bond has passed. Mallory gives Bond an opportunity to opt out, even given M’s verdict, telling him “there’s no shame in admitting you’ve lost a step.” Q is sending him out into the field armed only with a Walther that will fire only when it verifies Bond’s palm print and a tiny distress radio. Whether he’s actually seaworthy remains an exceedingly open question.

But by the end of the film, Bond has come back to himself. He’s killed Silva, exorcised the demons of his childhood in part by facilitating the destruction of Skyfall, said a dignified farewell to M. When he and Mallory meet in Mallory’s office, the camera captures them standing face to face across Mallory’s—now M—desk. In between them? Another painting of tall ships, this time gliding under their own power.

In the Daniel Craig era, the Bond franchise has moved away from doomsday devices and silly gadgets—“Were you expecting an exploding pen? We don’t really go in for that anymore,” Q tells him at the National Gallery—and emphasized industrial technology and transportation instead. To a certain extent, I’ve come to consider Casino Royale and Skyfall companion pieces, given how deeply they are in conversation with each other, and how much Quantuum of Solace seemed unengaged in the collective project of the two other films. And when it comes to transport in particular, the parallels between them and within them are remarkable. Where Casino Royale opened with a chase through a construction site in Africa, the rising third world, Bond’s body clanging against cranes and busting through drywall like a piece of construction equipment himself, the opening chase in Skyfall has Bond and Patrice crashing through stained glass and tearing up ancient markets in long-developed Istanbul. Where Bond tries to protect an airplane prototype in Casino Royale that his antagonist wants to destroy as part of an effort to manipulate the stock market, in Skyfall, a helicopter comes to destroy him personally. As he chases Patrice in Skyfall, Bond uses a steam shovel to hold a train—the vehicle he took across Europe in Casino Royale—together, and later to rip the back off a car. It’s no mistake that Bond catches the Underground to chase after Silva, or that Silva blows a tunnel later in the movie and uses a subway train to try to kill Bond.

The ordinary can become a tool of enormous destruction. And the same is true for Bond himself, as a creature of the body, and as an agent of MI6. After all, he’s just a man, and it’s that quality that Craig’s so powerfully restored to the character. During some of the more ridiculous Bond eras, Bond seemed less human than magical, someone who could surf a glacier without any sense of effort or even distinctive style:

Q promises Bond that his new Walther is “Less of a random killing machine, more of a personal statement.” But it’s true of Bond in Skyfall. In the Shanghai fight sequence, both Bond and Patrice appear only as outlines against luminous jellyfish that float across a skyscraper’s glass surface. Their faces are invisible, their clothes blacked out. And yet both men remain utterly distinctive. It’s a remarkable bit of fight choreography and just one of the examples of the ways Roger Deakins’ cinematography elevates Skyfall above most action movies. In making Bond a piece of machinery rather than a miracle, and in daring to ask whether he’s become broken or outmoded, Skyfall completes the process of making Bond specific.

And in a way, the travel to, planning and fight sequence at Skyfall are a miniature of that arc. Their trip starts with Bond seizing control of M’s Jaguar, then switching it for a vintage Aston Martin. “It’s not very comfortable, is it?” M asks him. “Are you going to complain the whole way?” Bond wants to know, threatening to eject her—he’s chosen the car because it doesn’t have tracking devices. “Where are we going?” she asks him when they pause in Inverness. “Back in time,” Bond explains, meaning into his past, as well as into a less technically sophisticated environment. As he prepares for battle, Bond begins with a pair of shotguns, several pistols, and Kincade’s hunting knife, much as he began his visit to Casino Royale with a pistol in a manila envelope. He, M, and Kincade fortify the estate more with ingenuity than with technological goodies, whether it’s M breaking lightbulbs and pouring them into bags with screws and nails to create miniature bombs, or Bond sawing off his father’s hunting gun. During the fight, Bond picks up progressively larger guns from the men he’s killed, much as he graduated to a bigger weapon for his final confrontation with Mr. White, and his announcement of himself with the “Bond, James Bond,” catchphrase that’s become almost a noble title in the context of the franchise:

But in Skyfall, he goes a step forward, marshalling the resources not just of the suave, MI6 agent, but of the boy who Kincade greets as “James, James Bond.” He won the right to use the gun and the name, but the essence of James Bond is to be a man who can bring a knife to a gunfight and still emerge victorious.

III. Guys and Dolls

It’s also in James Bond’s nature to seduce. And while Skyfall is one of the least sexual Bond movies in recent memory, it also opens up new possibilities for Bond’s sexuality, and for the nature of his relationships with women.

On the first count, Bond’s first encounter with Silva raises the question of whether his sexual history includes encounters with men. “She never tied me to a chair,” Bond tells Silva, who is trying to convince him that M has less than his best interests at heart. “Her loss,” Silva tells him as he caresses Bond’s thighs, unbuttons his shirt, touches his counterpart’s scars. “We are the last two rats. We can either eat each other. Mmm? Or we can eat everyone else.” Bond’s responses to these advances is a show of sophistication, asking “What makes you think this is my first time?” Silva never answers him. The audience’s, of course, would be that we’ve never seen Bond with anyone but a woman. But we don’t know for sure, and our interest in the question will surely last longer than Silva’s. In Casino Royale, when Le Chiffre wanted to torture Bond, he damaged his genitals. Silva’s interested less in gelding Bond than in demonstrating his irrelevance, his heterosexuality—and perhaps his hypersexuality, as the kiss Silva plants on Severine seems rather more performative than genuinely interested—further proof of Bond’s allegiance to outdated norms.

Where Silva’s demonstration is flamboyant, the much larger challenge to our understanding of Bond’s relationships with women come from M and the woman we will come to learn is Eve Moneypenny. The opening chase in Skyfall presents us with an unusual scenario: Bond’s fight with Patrice on top of a moving train (the most exciting moment of which is a defensive one, when Bond and Patrice fall to avoid being crushed by a tunnel) is not the most important thing happening in the moment. Rather, it’s a decision-making process between two women. “Can you get into a better position?” M asks Moneypenny. “No, there’s no time,” Eve tells her. “Take the bloody shot,” M orders her. In terms of reconciling Bond to a political context, it’s hard to think of a starker, if less literal, illustration than this in Skyfall: Bond made visibly part of a larger bureaucratic apparatus, and deemed an expendable element in it. Bond’s life is full of women who, if not disposable, are disposed of after he’s had sex with them, from Jill Masterson, who is suffocated for the crime of sleeping with him in Goldfinger to Severine, who becomes a pawn in the chess match between Bond and Silva, attired in the black and white that mark them as mirror images. To treat Bond as disposable is both to treat him as part of a larger organization, and also to a certain extent, to treat him like his franchise treats certain women.

The question of disposable women is particularly vexed in the case of Severine, who becomes one. Bond identifies with her, and establishes a connection with her, by recognizing the tattoo that identifies her as a former commodity of sex trafficking. “You belonged to one of the houses,” he tells her. “How old were you? 12? 13?” And yet, he simply wanders into the shower with her without asking for her consent, in a moment that was both sexually charged, and yet, for me, felt like an example of the inappropriateness of Bond’s sexual profligacy. When Severine asked Bond How much do you know about fear?” me may have told her “All there is.” But there are areas of fear, and human experience, that Bond, and the Bond franchise, have never understood particularly well.

Skyfall, to its credit, plays with Bond’s default to seduction mode by letting Moneypenny toy with Bond much as he toyed with previous Bond girls. “My official directive was to help in any way I can,” she tells him in Macau, setting herself up as a sexual service, but refusing to actually behave that way. When Bond begins unbuttoning her blouse while she shaves him with a straight razor, Moneypenny stops him, explaining that she has to finish the final stroke on his chin, and the most likely to cut him open. She killed him once, and she could do it again—as Moneypenny tells Bond in Churchill’s bunker, the bullet she knocked him off the train with “wasn’t close to my best shot.” If sex with Bond kills women, Moneypenny has an unusual amount of power in her interaction with the man. She is not the Moneypenny of yesteryere, fumbling for Bond in a virtual reality. Eve may enjoy toying with Bond. But it’s not clear that she wants him.

Unlike Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, who neither enjoyed, nor approved of, gambling, or Severine, who abstains because, as she puts it, “I’m not very lucky,” Moneypenny is something more of a risktaker. “I like a little flutter now and then. Who doesn’t like to take chances?” Eve tells Bond in Macau, after refusing to compliment him as effusively as he’s complimented her. But that she first defends Mallory and then chooses to stay and work with him emphasizes the extent to which Bond’s work in the field is a choice, and further highlights the validity of working inside the Grid as well as outside of it. The Bond franchise may not know yet how to tell stories about people like Moneypenny and Q, who fight their battles from offices and computers, rather than in the field and with their fists. But Skyfall does more to establish different kinds of fighters as critically important to the British cause than any Bond movie before it. We now have a Bond who’s capable of telling Q “I need help” and of developing things that look like friendships with women. Old dog, new tricks, indeed.