I recently wrote an article for the University of Warwick Knowledge Centre in anticipation of the release of Skyfall and the premiere of the new BBC spy series Hunted. In it I concluded that they both ‘appear set to continue the development of conspiratorial tropes within the spy genre, challenging its tendency towards optimism and closure.’ Having since seen Skyfall, I think I will have to modify that position. I’ll come back to the issue of optimism and closure later, but the first thing to note is that, to my surprise, the emphasis on institutional conspiracy is much reduced by comparison with Casino Royale (2006) and Quantum of Solace (2008). This is, I feel, not insignificant; the presence of a new sinister conspiratorial organisation (‘Quantum’) was one of the most notable features of the first two Craig films and, as I suggested in the article, the revelation in Quantum that they were deeply enmeshed within the British Establishment is the first true use of conspiracy thriller components in a Bond film and part of a growing convergence between the spy and conspiracy genres.
But in the four-year hiatus leading up to Skyfall, there seems to have been a change in the series’ approach; the Establishment conspiracy, unresolved at the end of the Quantum, is now left hanging. Skyfall instead reinstates the patriotic code of the traditional Bond film. Whereas the trajectory introduced in Quantum threatened, if extrapolated further, to undermine the very state institutions which Bond serves, Skyfall is more resolute about the fundamental honour of the British state and the right and necessity of Bond to protect it. Those skyline shots of London landmarks, bleak and grey as they may be, are to be viewed with admiration, a cautious revival of the ‘Cool Britannia’ spirit which underpinned the more optimistic Pierce Brosnan films, the colour palette suitably muted for Skyfall’s colder, bleaker worldview. The worst thing you can say about the Establishment here is that it has its share of meddling, deskbound pen-pushers who challenge Bond and M’s engagement with their patriotic mission, but these characters are naïve, not the shadowy, ultra-competent conspirators found in more paranoid depictions of the state.
Yet there is a difference between the patriotic code of Skyfall and earlier Bond films, which is, fundamentally, that Skyfall wants to talk about it. In films of the Connery and Moore eras, the notion of ‘queen and country’ is usually little more than a plot device to get Bond into a battle with eccentric millionaire masterminds, whose politics generally consist of little beyond the explicitly self-serving. However, emerging in the Brosnan era and accelerating in the Craig era is an oft-expressed anxiety; does a Bond-type character have a place in the modern world? Are his methods truly justifiable? Looking back on GoldenEye (1995), it’s striking how much it demonstrates awareness of and verbally critiques the Bond clichés (such as when Alec Trevalyan asks ‘if all those vodka martinis silence the screams of all the men you’ve killed… or if you’ve found forgiveness in the arms of all those willing women, for the dead ones you failed to protect?). In 1995 the series was content simply to comment on rather that than disrupt the usual Bond narrative devices, though it’s not insignificant that director Martin Campbell’s return engagement a decade later on Casino Royale would be the most concerted effort to break with them.
Skyfall, on the other hand, contrives a substantial sequence around a government inquiry, basically putting Bondian ethics on trial in the most self-conscious manner to date. Naturally, despite a supposed deeper engagement with the issues, this threat ultimately (as with GoldenEye) ultimately offers nothing more than total vindication for the main character. What I find odd about this sequence (although maybe I shouldn’t) is that it justifies Bond’s role in the 21st century primarily in relation to the ‘War on Terror’. The specific hysteria this counjours up seems somewhat outdated: Spooks and 24 are long since over, Bin Laden is dead and the current US president pretty much never uses the term ‘War on Terror’, suggesting exactly how poisonous it has become.
The Bond films themselves have arguably never truly done a War on Terror instalment; 2002’s Die Another Day is the Bond series caught its pants down by 9/11, still pushing a late-1990s ‘Cool Britannia’ spirit into the realm of invisible cars, whilst crowbarring in a ham-fisted ‘gravitas’ and the dubious use of North Korea as the villains in order to match the new international mood. I could imagine that 2003/4 would have been the optimum time for a truly Bushian Bond, but instead the series disappeared for a while and when it returned in 2006, there is, to me, a subtle impression that the moment has passed. There’s a sense of weary obligation with the use of a ‘terrorist network’ as the baddies in Casino Royale, as if that’s just what everybody expects nowadays. Defined in relation to global terrorism they may be, yet they still seem more at home hanging out in glamorous casinos like the revamped SPECTRE they blatantly are. Quantum of Solace is so disinterested in the terrorist threat that it recasts them as an Establishment conspiracy, joining the honourable tradition of late-War on Terror conspiracy thrillers in which terrorism is reliably a front for devious Establishment plots (see, for example, the recent Channel 4 serial Secret State).
But in Skyfall fighting the terrorist threat is suddenly thrust into the foreground as Bond’s raison d’etre like never before, though one that is crucially absent from the film itself; ironically Skyfall is far more paranoid about terrorism than the previous Craig films, yet unlike them doesn’t actually feature any genuine terrorists on-screen. All the boring hyperbole of the Bush era is back with a vengeance; the War on Terror is, implicitly, the most dangerous conflict the world has ever known, in contrast to the cosy, loveable Cold War when you ‘knew your enemy’ (apparently). It’s as if the spy film genre has taken its own sanitised depictions of the Cold War from the time as being ‘truthful’, and the Bond producers genuinely believe that the Cold War was just like the Roger Moore films because the Roger Moore films said so. And that’s before we get to the common amnesia that international terrorism was invented on 9/11 and has no notable precedent. Elsewhere the film tells us that Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) has a backstory of being tortured by the IRA, yet when M (Judi Dench) assures the inquiry that terrorism is a scary new thing he is oddly silent.
The film ultimately validates M’s perspective with action rather than words, as Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) bursts in and starts shooting at the people who are interrogating her. Thus, clearly, her tough, no-nonsense worldview is necessary to combat people like him. Yet, whilst her case is built around the ‘shadowy’ threat of ideologically abstract terrorists, the rest of the film presents Silva as an unfortunate side-effect of the very system which M and Bond are working to uphold. Invoking him as a justification for the system to exist is nonsensical circular logic. I’m reminded of a survey somebody conducted of Torchwood episodes which found that around 80% of the threats faced by the protagonists were ones that they were at least partially responsible for themselves, thus the world would probably have been better off without them defending it. It’s a whimsical example, but one which I think taps into another developing trajectory in broader action-adventure fiction; a growing obsession with personalising the threat. Looking back on both the Brosnan and Craig eras, a substantial majority of films are either about Bond getting revenge on somebody or somebody getting revenge on Bond and/or M. In fact, the only Bond films of the 1990s and 2000s to give an idea of what an ‘average’ mission would be like are Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) and Casino Royale, and the latter is based on a book from the 1950s. Skyfall ends with the new M sending Bond on an apparently ‘typical’ mission, but I found myself thinking that I simply can’t imagine what such a thing would be like now. What exactly is an average workday for Craig’s Bond?
Some people who read my Knowledge Centre article commented on my omission of the Bourne influence, the thing which perhaps most obviously bears down upon the first two Craig films. To be honest, I was struggling with a tight word-count, wanted to focus on the domestic British chain of influence, and thought that Bourne was an obvious factor which had already been adequately pointed out. But I think it is worth bringing up now as a context for understanding this new shift. I talked in the article about a convergence of the heroic spy and conspiracy genres in the British context and the Bourne films are certainly one of the deftest examples in the American context, with a super-powered action hero who resists the corrupt institutions rather than serve them. The first two Craig films are certainly aesthetically indebted, and Quantum goes some way towards importing the cynical Bourne perspective on the Establishment, though is ultimately limited in this by Bond’s state-employed nature.
Yet the influence of Bourne seems to have receded somewhat, and Bond is now channelling a rather different contemporary influence; the ‘dark’ superhero film, which aggressively thrust its way into the limelight as the way these things should be done with The Dark Knight (2008). I’m not a big fan of Nolan’s Batman, disliking its pompous self-absorbed heroes, reactionary politics, contrived moral dilemmas and apparent distaste for the public. ‘The people’ are typically there as justification for the hero’s actions yet don’t know what’s good for them, and when they develop any of sort of agency, as with the mob rule in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), this is a bad thing and they must be saved from themselves with a curious mixture of authoritarian policing and vigilantism. With ‘the people’ treated with such suspicion, the world flattens into the backdrop for personal grudge matches between charismatic heroes and villains. It’s even there in the lighter superhero films, such as Iron Man in which the Afghanistan War becomes the backdrop for a spat between rich American businessmen (obscure trivia: the Afghanistan War is a real thing ). Much as I have no idea what a typical Bond mission is now, I have no idea what Tony Stark gets up to between Iron Man films; the narratives are so organised around his charisma and self-absorption that they have to bring the ‘exceptional’ movie-scale threats to him, because there’s no way he’d willingly engage with them. At least The Dark Knight Rises clarifies that Bruce Wayne sits staring at a wall feeling sorry for himself between films.
(This kind of attitude emerges in Skyfall’s most unintentionally funny scene; Silva explodes part of the London Underground, causing a tube train to crash spectacularly into the underground tunnel where Bond is standing. Despite the narrative establishing that this sequence takes place during the rush hour, the train is completely empty, conveniently avoiding the disturbing sight of Bond and Silva’s feud resulting in mass civilian causalities. Yet the film is unable to ignore the fact that the train would at least have a driver, and so some unfortunate fucker in a high-vis orange jacket is briefly glimpsed as the front carriage plummets to its doom. Poor guy. Maybe he was just a crash test dummy.)
So in the tradition of the ‘dark’ superhero film, two masculine egos smash up cities in a constant game of one-upmanship. And yes, this is not new in the action film per se, yet I would argue that the specific emphasis on masculinity in particular has increased. It’s also tied to a growing fear of moral equivalence between hero and villain. I think that this comes out of some earlier and basically admirable efforts by action-adventure fiction to interrogate some of the problematic politics on display, the morality of heroes, the effects they have on the world around them and suchlike (as evidenced, for example, in the Trevalyan quote from GoldenEye). Often this is a strictly limited analysis, limited by the need for an optimistic resolution, but it’s interesting at least that it’s there.
Yet after 9/11, this has blended into an uncomfortably reactionary panic about a supposed new crisis of masculinity; are our men manly enough to fight in the War on Terror? This rears its head most vividly in the sudden obsession with male torture as rite-of-passage and validation of masculinity that spy fiction develops post-9/11; the male hero must prove himself worthy with the physical endurance of his body. In Bond, we see this first thrown in unconvincingly in Die Another Day with the North Korean capture sequence at the beginning. Subsequently a more measured and assured depiction of torture is a key validating component of Casino Royale’s origin story. Even in Skyfall, Mallory is initially viewed with suspicion as a potentially naïve, meddling desk-man, and it is the revelation that he was tortured by the IRA that encourages Bond (and us) to view him as a man of substance, and eventually worthy of becoming the new M. Thus this interest in moral questioning has, in a more reactionary climate, been diluted down to a relentless interrogation of masculinity and masculinity alone. For all the talk of terrorism that floats in the background, a gritty Bond film is much more interested in how gritty Bond himself is rather than the world around him; that’s just the excuse.
Such an emphasis, combined with the ‘serious’ tone, threatens to foreground the misogyny of Fleming’s literary Bond. The previous two Craig films have, fortunately, been diligent to build in ‘new man’ moments to offset this, and have been able to sell his Bond as, at times, reasonably sensitive in contrast to his ruggedness. (The best bit is, of course, the reversal of Ursula Andress’ beach emergence in Casino Royale, which puts Bond as the object of the gaze. It’s great.) Yet Skyfall actively rolls back the clock on the advances of the Brosnan and Craig eras. Surely the clever part of making M a woman was that for once there was a prominent female character in the series that didn’t have to either sleep with Bond or die? Oh well, she’s dead now. Dench’s M is basically blamed for everything that goes wrong, killed and replaced by the traditional, paternal version of the character, something I actually thought was unthinkable before seeing this film. I recall Campbell describing the casting of Dench as getting briefing scenes away from being (paraphrase) ‘a bunch of white men talking’. And yet that’s exactly what we’re back to.
Worse is Miss Moneypenny (Naomi Harris), a character so thankless that the first two Craig films definitely made the right call in leaving her out. (And, come to think of it, surely the character played by Rory Kinnear has basically been playing a male version of Moneypenny for the last few films anyway?) After introducing her as a field agent of some evident skill, Skyfall demolishes her, making jokes about her driving and general competence, blaming her for failing an impossible shot, side-lining her after a promising introduction, then shoving her in a secretarial role which she gratefully accepts. It’s true that earlier scenes with Q and Silva had talked about the power that could be wielded from office technology, but there’s little sense that Moneypenny is a part of that world; I can’t even remember if she had a computer on her desk. By the conclusion, we are back to a model of the regular cast unseen since the 1980s; men in the powerful roles of M and Q, and a woman as the office assistant. (And if they wanted to shake up the gender dynamics, another possibility could have been a female Q?)
The supposed depth of characterisation in Skyfall and its ‘dark’ superhero bedfellows is what is so often acclaimed; yet I think it’s this that makes them shallow; the focus on male angst prevents them from having anything else to say. In the case of the villain, Silva makes an interesting entrance and is initially impressive in his ghost city headquarters (a great villain’s base, sadly underused). He wanders around suggesting ‘typical villain plans which he could undertake, most of which, frankly, sound like premises for more interesting films. It’s terribly humdrum and disappointing when his motive turns out to be revenge, because in Bond and elsewhere, that’s all anybody seems to be interested in these days.
It is also demonstrated in the broader narrative trajectory of Skyfall. It begins with the usual globetrotting focus off the Bond films, yet the ‘exotic’ locations seem sketched in the broadest shorthand imaginable. There’s a bit set in a Shanghai entirely consisting of glassy skyscrapers and arty lighting, and curiously devoid of Asian people. Even this is, at least, in tune with the increasing blandification of international locations over the last 20 years of Bond, as directors seem increasingly self-conscious about the problems of the full-blown orientalism in earlier films. The subsequent depiction of Macau, however, is the most shameless Oriental Theme Park since Octopussy’s India (1983). Given how ostentatiously, self-consciously ‘beautiful’ that Skyfall is striving to be, one could try to argue that this stylisation is simply its view of the world as a whole. Yet when the action returns to London, the contrast with the Asian sequences is striking. Although still highly stylised, London is permitted to feel much more life a real, inhabited place; ordinary members of the public appear and even get to make jokes. In this regard, Skyfall is more like Die Another Day than anyone is prepared to admit: an angsty, nihilistic take on Cool Britannia that’s so overawed by London that, by comparison, all other locations seem superficial and vacuous. This setting allows for a standard War on Terror ‘seige mentality’ conception of terrorism; instead of travelling the world, Bond must remain on the home front in this apocalyptic clash of civilisations.
Having retreated to London, the narrative shrinks in scope even further, culminating in the battle at Bond’s childhood home, the global scale collapsing ultimately into the completely personal. This is a deeply peculiar setting. I remember when I first saw Casino Royale being struck by how little origin it contained for an ‘origin story’, being essentially an ordinary Bond case in which the protagonist is a bit grumpier than usual and doesn’t know what drinks to order. There’s a whole backstory-before-the-backstory, I thought to myself. Where did this 21st century Bond come from before his recruitment by MI6? I felt certain that whatever it was, it could no longer be the original aristocratic conception of Ian Fleming… surely? As I understand it, the Bond’s Scottish heritage was added by Fleming in the later novels to explain Sean Connery’s accent and accommodate it with the original upper-crust characterisation. Yet I’ve always felt that it was a wise decision for the filmmakers to avoid this backstory, as omitting it helps to make Bond into a more identifiable ‘everyman’, at least to some extent. It’s been said that Connery’s accent, in spite of Fleming’s intentions, enabled him to bypass the English class system and appear as an appealingly classless outsider, who’s ability to flit between knowing fine wines one minute and making fun of a stuffy, old-school M the next was part of this mystique.
In Skyfall, we finally find out where Bond really camefrom before Casino Royale: Mordor. Not only is he from the landed gentry of Scotland after all, but the film’s over-stylised aesthetic casts this ‘Scotland’ as terrifying, blasted alien planet where it’s difficult to imagine anybody human growing up, let alone Craig’s Bond. It says a lot about the influence of ‘dark’ superhero fiction that a backstory originating from novels in the early 1960s still manages to feel like a knock-off of how Nolan characterises Bruce Wayne. So why has the Bond film series, after 50 years, finally decided to abandon the everyman potential of the character, casting his narrative importance so literally in a background of remote privilege? It seems a particular waste in the case of Craig, who seemed potentially to be one of the more grounded Bonds. I fear the answer might be provided by The Dark Knight Rises, a film in which the overthrow of the rich, powerful classes inevitably results in chaotic, murderous mob rule, which must be put down in order to restore the status quo. Skyfall avoids seeming quite so reactionary, by saving its suspicion for a shadowy off-screen terrorist threat rather than the tribal idiocy of the public itself, yet in the regressive confirmation Bond as an aristocrat, it seems to be making the same connection between wealth and privilege and the right to wield power.
So the obvious hole in this argument; surely the Bond films have always been sexist, orientalist, politically incorrect reactionary fantasies which, as somebody once put it, ‘might have been written specifically to wind up angsty liberal academics’? Surely complaining about this is like complaining that the sea is wet? Aren’t they just the action film equivalent of Jeremy Clarkson’s screen persona? Well yes… I would at least say that the playful and ironic qualities certainly helps me to enjoy the old films (and are why I’ve always preferred them to the Fleming novels and have been suspicious of calls from fans and producers to ‘get back to Fleming’), though I’d hesitate to stretch that too far as a serious defence. I suppose I have to hold my hands up and admit they are a guilty pleasure. So why am I taking Skyfall seriously?
The difference is that when it attempts complex meditations on the role of government, the citizen, the hero, capitalism, modern terrorism and the kitchen sink, when it contrives self-conscious inquiry scenes just to put its own ethics on trial and find them not guilty, a film like Skyfall, or for that matter The Dark Knight Rises, actively begs you to take it seriously. It swaggers into the multiplex declaring, ‘I am a serious film, I have important things to say!’ With scenes like the inquiry or the contrived moral dilemmas of Nolan’s Batman, we are asked to believe that the writers and other creative personnel have now properly thought about the politics and how they relate to the real world. So I find it a little disturbing than in many respects the politics seem to wilfully be getting worse. In Skyfall we find reductive, dismissive attitudes towards history, women and the world outside of Britain, which all seem like little more than devices to reassure the wealthy, powerful, male British action man that he continues to occupy the central role in the modern world. And, unlike in the 1960s, it’s pitched as serious, deliberate, meaningful and profound, and contained within the Bond series’ greatest bid towards artistic credibility to date. This time, it seems, they really mean it.