James Bond: Skyfall part 1
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.