Saturday, November 28, 2015

Wearing a Bit Thin (Skyfall)

fig. 1 Not a Bond villain

Spectre, and the James Bond film that immediately precedes it, Skyfall, are of a kind. They share the same cast, the same director, the same anxieties. Part of Spectre's unease has to do with the emerging surveillance state. Though, of course, not because the surveillance itself might be a violation of our basic liberties, but rather that such a thing could be perverted by some transparently evil bureaucrat secretly on the take from a shadowy international crime syndicate.

Similarly, at the heart of Skyfall is Silva, a man who announces his intentions by broadcasting on the Internet the names and cover identities of five deep-cover MI6 operatives. He is the terror of the digital age for a department run on secrets. WikiLeaks was founded in 2006, the year Daniel Craig arrived in the Bond role. In 2010 and 2011, they released thousands of documents pertaining to the US and UK's game of empire in Afghanistan and Iraq, including footage of a US helicopter gunship indiscriminately gunning down Iraqi civilians in 2007.  "We can't keep working in the shadows," Mallory tells M. "There are no shadows anymore." What could be more frightening to an army of spies?

Except, in the end, Silva is not Julian Assange. He is, as the logic of these movies dictate, a product of MI6's own ecosystem, an ersatz double-0 given up by his handler and left for dead. He does all this out of a personal vendetta against M. The little people that get in his way are just collateral damage. He is a stateless despot, a glowering madman in the tradition of the genre. There's no question raised here about the ethics of gathering secrets, or of upending the systems that run on them. For the twenty-third time in twenty-three movies, James Bond fights a cipher.

Silva runs his operation out of an island he took over by manufacturing a fake crisis. He destabilizes multinationals from his computer. He rigs elections. He hacks spy satellites, gas mains, and MI6 itself. Earlier in the film, Q tells Bond "I'll hazard I could do more damage on my laptop in my pajamas before my first cup of Earl Grey than you can do in a year in the field." Thank God Q's on our side.

fig. 2: Still from 'Wes Anderson's James Bond'

Spectre will later rehash the counterargument Bond makes here. When asked what he needs Bond for in this brave new world, Q responds that "Now and then a trigger has to be pulled."

"Or not pulled," Bond replies. "Difficult to know which in your pajamas." It is this tension that animates Skyfall.  While the two computer geniuses, Q and Silva, play tug-of-war with their technological jiggery pokery, Bond absconds with M to his ancestral home, explicitly stating that he's going back in time. Faced with a monster from M's past, Bond retreats into his own, to a looming old house with no wi-fi, no phone, and only the deliberately low-tech defenses they can rig up themselves to aid in their defense. Indeed, Bond escapes through a priest hole, an old escape route dating back to the Sixteenth Century. Sometimes, as we're reminded by different characters throughout the course of Skyfall, the old ways are best.

At fifty years in, this feels like the franchise trying to justify itself, and it would feel even more so if Skyfall weren't such a beautiful, confident film. Bond is positioned again as a throwback, even though this version of him has barely been a double-0 for six years. He's distrustful of Q's youth, drives a car made before he was born, and shaves with an old-fashioned straight razor. The Bond films can't help but be self-conscious about their own age. Indeed, the film puts Bond on his back foot for much of its running time. He's haggard, worn out, the toll of the human dimension of intelligence weighing him down. He's nearly broken by starring in a spy movie in the post-Bourne Identity era.

In fact, he only seems to recover as his status quo grows closer and closer to the one we're familiar with. Moneypenny, in the field at the start of the film, takes a desk job. MI6 moves out of its slickly modern fortress into a cavernous bunker, and M, played by Judi Dench since 1995, is replaced by a stiff upper-lipped middle-aged white man. The final scene of the film is part of the Jungian memory of these movies: Bond in M's office, receiving a file, being sent out into the field. Even now, the landscape is shifting back.

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