James Bond: Skyfall part 1

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Often, a cinematic narrative resolves into a family dynamic.  Soldiers become brothers, teachers become parents, animals become children.  Family dynamics are useful to get at what makes stories universal.  Not many people know what it’s like to hunt a shark, but everyone knows what it’s like to be stuck in house with squabbling siblings.  That’s often our “way in” to the narrative.  Few movies, let alone few spy movies, go ahead and make the family dynamic the foreground of the narrative, but Skyfall does, and by so doing it does something to James Bond that has never really been done before: make him a character.  Or, as my 11-year-old son puts it, it makes him interesting.

Longtime readers of this journal will know that a few years ago I did a sketchbook analysis of all the James Bond movies.  When I started, I was largely unfamiliar with the character — I’d missed every Bond movie from Moonraker to Goldeneye and had only seen Goldfinger before that.  Bond as a character was ever elusive to me, he never seemed like a person, more of a list of attributes: tuxedo, car, gun, gambling, martini, babes.  He seemed closer to a model than a person.  We knew how he would behave but we didn’t know who he was, and, since we knew he’d survive every adventure, we knew there was never really anything at stake for him.  He murdered people, gave a quip and a cockeyed smile, and moved on.  How appropriate that Skyfall begins with a shot of Bond literally coming into focus.  After fifty years it’s a long time coming.

Skyfall has four acts.  Act I involves Bond’s “death” and “resurrection,” his training, assignment and departure into the world.  Act II involves the steps required to fulfill his mission and is divided into three sections recognizable by locale: Shanghai, Macau and Bad Guy Island.  At the end of Act II, Bond has captured the Bad Guy and brought him back to London.  Act III takes place entirely in London and involves the Bad Guy escaping and the flourishing of the family dynamic, and Act IV literally takes Bond home, to Scotland and a last reckoning.

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The great cartoonist Michael Kupperman grouses that when we were kids, Batman and James Bond were awesome, but now the audience demands that they be “weeping failures.”  There is, of course, a pretty direct connection between Batman and Bond, and a pretty direct connection between the Christophor Nolan Batman and the Daniel Craig Bond.  In both cases, the character has been re-booted and re-imaginined on a much grittier, “realistic” level, and, yes, a certain amount of dour grayness has been imposed as well.  The Cold War Batman and Bond showed off their gadgets, fought over-the-top villains in exotic locations had a blast doing so.  And yes, boys dreamed of being both of them.  Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, both heroes have turned introspective and morbid, wondering if being a superhero/super-spy is worth any of the bother.

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Once Bond comes into focus, we see him in his environment — an apartment somewhere in Istanbul.  He’s arrived too late to stop a robbery and a shootout.  One agent is dead, another, Ronson, is dying.  The thing that’s been stolen — a computer-related thing, we gather — is of utmost importance to M, Bond’s boss, who’s on his earpiece.  Bond pauses in his mission to give aid to the dying Ronson.  It’s a rare thing to see Bond as a caregiver, or, now that I type those words, to see Bond as one who cares.  Who is Ronson to Bond?  He’s certainly no one to us.  But to Bond, we will learn, all operatives are brothers.  There was an article on the invaluable Cracked website recently that discusses how the phrase “Blood is thicker than water” is entirely misused these days to mean that family is more important than business, but in fact the phrase originally meant that the bond between soldiers is more important than the bond between family members.  In Skyfall we see that played out over and over as Bond comes to terms with his family, his job, and the kinship of both.

Bond wants to help his brother Ronson, but M, who is mother to both of them, tells Bond to go after the maguffin instead.  Holy sibling rivalry!  Bond is obviously the preferred son to M.  It’s rare in life that a mother must tell one son to abandon another, but in this case M is chasing a list of all her sons, all the operatives out in the field.  Ronson’s death is in the service of protecting all the others.  He is, in the moment, the runt of the litter, the one the mother kills to ensure the resources to protect the others.  “I have to stop the bleeding!” Bond barks, suggesting that M has pulled this sort of stunt with him before.

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Bond leaves this scene of domestic death and heads out into the world, where he immediately meets up with Eve, another operative.  And even though Eve is a peer to Bond, he doesn’t treat her like a sister, he slips immediately into the role of a bickering husband, criticizing her driving and, later, her shooting.  The differece with Eve, of course, is that she’s a woman, and therefore, as far as Bond is concerned, must be considered a possible sexual conquest.  (The chemistry between the two of them is terrific, and I’m reminded that this Bond reboot has uniformly peerless casting — Geoffrey Wright is the most overqualified actor to ever play Felix Leiter, and Naomie Harris easily mops the floor with her predecessors.)

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A chase ensues.  It’s a corker, to stand alongside the construction-site fight of Casino Royale and the marble-quarry chase of Quantum of Solace.  It involves an Audi, a Land Rover (because Bond, like Lara Croft, is British), some police on motorcycles, a crowded marketplace, a bad guy with an unusual double-magazine pistol, two more motorcycles, acres of Spanish-tiled rooftops, a plunge from a bridge, a passenger train, a backhoe, some VW Beetles (VW, who owns Audi, must have been a major sponsor of the movie), a fight on top of a high-speed train whisking through tunnels, several cuts back home to London, where M (or “Mum,” as Bond calls her) presses her need for “that list,” which is apparently the thing stolen from the computer back at the apartment in Istanbul, and, finally, a plunge from another bridge, as M commands Eve to shoot at Bond as he’s fighting the bad guy and she accidentally hits him, sending him to his apparent death.  Mere minutes after being ordered to abandon Ronson, Bond learns that he’s not so much the favorite son as he’d thought.

Bond’s demeanor throughout is stylish and elegant, yet also grim and purposeful.  There’s something at stake here beyond a list or a gizmo or a target — there is a brotherhood at risk, yea verily a family.  Bond takes a bullet to the chest, not from Eve but from the bad guy, but it barely slows him down, it just makes the chase closer to his heart.


20 Responses to “James Bond: Skyfall part 1”
  1. CWW says:

    I’m very happy you’re doing Skyfall, Todd.

    I don’t understand the reference to Lara Croft. Well, I do, she’s the Tomb Raider, but I don’t understand her connection to Land Rovers?

    Bond calling M “mum” is definitely on point for the movie but is also a Britishism. I’ve noticed that the Brits tend to pronounce “ma’am” as “mum”.

    You obviously mentioned the sponsorship of Audi. I saw a lot of grousing about the level of product placement in this movie and I wondered if those people had seen other Bond movies, especially the Bronson bonds. Also, unless it’s awkwardly shoehorned in, I’ve never had a huge problem with product placement because I mean, in the real world, we use real products with brand names. We don’t refer to everything in the generic.

    • Todd says:

      I hesitated putting in the Lara Croft reference, then tried to find a link that would make it clearer, but got lazy. Lara Croft drives a Land Rover, because she’s British, and that fact was heavily advertised when the movie came out. There was a movement at the time, spurred by Austin Powers, to make the UK “swing” again, and connecting Land Rover to Lara Croft was part of that.

      Yes, absolutely, “Mum” is a Britishism, but one that connects to Skyfall on a fundamental level.

      Bond has been about product placement for decades. People are silly.

      • A guy I knew was convinced that M was actually Bond’s literal mother because he called her “Mum” in Casino Royale. I had to point out to him that it’s a common pronunciation of “ma’am.” I don’t disagree about tis thematic resonance — M as a (non-standard) mother figure has been subtext all through the Craig series, and this movie makes it outright text with flashing neon lights — but, er, no, it doesn’t mean they’re related.

  2. As the opening sequence underlined, quite literally closer to his heart.

  3. Greg Manuel says:

    I LOVED the opening sequence…it was as if Bond was having a fever dream/premonition of the whole rest of the movie!

  4. Eric says:

    He does, actually, take a bullet from Eve. The fragments from the villain’s bullet are from earlier, when he was still in the backhoe.

    • Todd says:

      I remain confused about the bullet from Eve. Much is made of the shot from the Bad Guy, but we never see his wound from Eve. She clearly shoots him, though.

  5. BenjaminJB says:

    I’ve been commenting too much here lately, both ignoring my work and not contributing too much of interest.

    But I have to write to say that I’m glad you’re covering Skyfall, a movie I found both intriguing and maddening.

    (For maddening: I was writing up my own summary of the movie and I was about to make a wonderful thematic connection between Bond’s family issues and the list of M’s British spies that Silva steals… when I remembered that that listed spies aren’t M’s/British at all–it’s a list of NATO spies. Why didn’t they just make it a list of British spies, I wonder, emphasizing the failing-mother aspect of M?)

    As for making Bond interesting… well, there’s a whole discussion to be had about displaced main characters (a discussion you started when you noted that Bond is more emcee than MC (http://www.toddalcott.com/batman-the-dark-knight-rises-part-2.html#comments)). But I wonder if your son has seen George Lazenby’s Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which I thought played with the playboy image and made Bond something of a character?

    • Todd says:

      I don’t even know what a “NATO spy” is. Ethan Hawke had to retrieve a list of IMF operatives, why can’t Bond have to get a list of MI6 operatives?

      Skyfall‘s strongest connection is to Her Majesty, no doubt, but my son is still a Bond neophyte, he’s just getting started. (He also didn’t care for Casino Royale — go figure.)

      • Curt Holman says:

        I believe you mean ‘Ethan Hunt’ from the first Mission Impossible feature film — unless Ethan Hawke has an extremely interesting side career.

  6. Doug Orleans says:

    It’s interesting that you say “Christoper Nolan Batman and Daniel Craig Bond” as opposed to “Christian Bale Batman” or “Neal Purvis and Robert Wade Bond”. Is it because Nolan also directed the Batman movies and was more of a singular auteur? And/or that Daniel Craig has more on-screen presence (in several senses of the word) than Christian Bale? Or just that Purvis & Wade are not household names? (I had to look them up, myself.)

    • Todd says:

      Rightly or wrongly, I almost never credit screenwriters, because they rarely have authority in movie production. I honestly don’t know who’s in charge in any given Bond movie, except the producers, Bond being a holdover from the producer-driven era of filmmaking. The “feel” of Bond, which is the whole point of Bond at this point, is completely down to them. “Nolan” and “Craig” I use only as designations.

  7. Curt Holman says:

    ‘The great cartoonist Michael Kupperman grouses that when we were kids, Batman and James Bond were awesome, but now the audience demands that they be “weeping failures.”’

    I would contend both that the more complex, vulnerable Batman and Bond are more awesome than the characters’ more light-hearted incarnations; and that nothing is stopping Kupperman or anyone else from enjoying, say, the 1960s Bonds and Batmans to their hearts’ content. Plus, if memory serves, Bond weeps at the end of ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,’ which was released more than 40 years ago.

    “Bond is obviously the preferred son to M.”

    Or is “the mission” itself M’s preferred son? M doesn’t hesitate when she tells Bond to abandon Ronson, and barely hesitates when she tells Eve to shoot, despite the risk to Bond. It’s probably fair to say that Bond becomes M’s favorite son by the end of the movie, though.

    “(or “Mum,” as Bond calls her)”

    It reminds me of the line in Helen Mirren’s The Queen when someone says “And remember, it’s “Ma’am” as in “ham”, not “Ma’am” as in “farm”.” The funny thing is that the initial ‘M’ arguably better as an initial for ‘Mum’ with a female spymaster than whatever it’s supposed to stand for in Bond lore.

    • Michael says:

      “M” is actually what Ian Fleming called his mother. It all comes full circle…

    • Todd says:

      Bond does indeed weep at the end of Her Majesty, but that movie has always been the exception. The question is really “When did Batman/Bond become something you didn’t want to be?” My personal theory: at the end of the Cold War, when the US turned from being the champion to being the oppressor.

      • Peter Erwin says:

        But Bond has always been idenfitied as quintessentially British, not American, so I’m not sure that idea works for him.

        Apropros of the “US turned … to being the oppressor” idea: I’m wondering if there’s a possible hint of a delayed, post-Cold-War change in that we find Bond acting slightly at cross-purposes with respect to the CIA in recent movies: e.g., in Casino Royale the CIA apparently hasn’t told MI6 that they’re also after Le Chiffre (Bond doesn’t find out until Leiter reveals himself as a CIA agent halfway through the card game), and in Quantum of Solace the CIA actually ends up hunting Bond (and the lead CIA agent is cooperating with the bad guy); Leiter has to disobey his superiors in order to help Bond.

        • Peter Erwin says:

          [Apologies for the wonky italics; either standard HTML tags don’t work in these comments, or I was unusually careless with them…]

        • Todd says:

          Bond is quintessentially British, but his producers are Americans, as is the studio that finances his movies. I hear what you’re saying, I merely fear that Bond is often asked to stand in for American interests.

    • I agree that the complex, vulnerable incarnations of the character are more interesting to me, both as individuals and as incarnations of the power they represent.

      Regarding M, I once made up a completely non-canonical theory as to what that stands for, and now it’s thoroughly colored how I read everything to do with her. In The Sandbaggers, the TV show that’s the other half of the theory, Neil Burnside makes a number of similar choices regarding the relative priorities of a single agent, a group of agents, and the mission objective, and so when watching Skyfall I found myself pondering what Burnside would think of the choices M makes here. I agree that her primary dedication is to the cause, and the interesting conflict is when her affection for a particular “son” threatens to overtake that commitment to the larger picture. At the beginning of the Craig series, she seems entirely willing to treat him as disposable, but by the end . . . .