Sunday, December 09, 2012

Skyfall: places of shadows and people who pull triggers

There's plenty that's been written about the new Bond movie Skyfall in the last month.  By now if you don't know it's Judi Dench's last film as M then, well, er, spoiler alert?  ;-)

A bit has been made of the observation that the new James Bond movie depicts an older, depressive Bond who dislikes the nature of his work and has become too old to pass field work tests and probably has substance abuse issues.  Yet Bond shows up for duty even after he's identified as dead during a battle in which a field agent attempts to shoot a data thief and, through her own failures in aim, shoots 007.  Cue one of the few actually decent Bond songs in the last ten years.

Bond returns, like an old Bruce Wayne comes out of retirement to deal with an evil that the new generation of cops can't understand or defeat.  James Bond Returns.  But he returns to an MI6 that is positive it doesn't really need him any longer.  Mallory, whom Bond describes as "a bureaucrat", makes a blunt petition to M (Judi Dench) about her team's failure to prevent the data theft.  He says M has had a good run and that there's no dishonor in retiring early and getting a pension and that after such a big failure it's okay to retire and retain some dignity.  To this M replies indignantly, "To hell with dignity! I want the job done."  This becomes a thread through the film in which there are people who work in and with MI6 who consider personal standing or renown or welfare and those who say "to hell with dignity ... ."

But an equally obvious theme in the storyline has to do with "the shadows".  Mallory tells M that she and Bond are, basically, relics from a Cold War time, a bygone era whose methods and tools are no longer relevant. Working in the shadows doesn't make any sense when, thanks to modern technology and information resources, there aren't any shadows.  When Bond is equipped with a gun and radio by Q, the young man mentions, "I can do more damage in a single day with a laptop than you can in a whole year out in the field" (I paraphrase).  Bond retorts with a question of why on earth he even needs to be around at all.  The obviously strictly indoor Q says, "Eventually somebody has to pull a trigger."  Later in the film Q will unwittingly let the necessary villain (Silva) break into the data systems of MI6 and Silva attempts to assasinate M during a hearing on problems in MI6 security and policy. 

It is during the hearing that M explains why MI6 still needs to exist, because the changing nature of the enemy means the adversary is no longer a nation or an army but those who dwell in the shadows.  This is possibly the first James Bond movie that has a theme and at least one potential theme in the film is the question of what the shadows are.  Mallory believes the shadows don't exist and M is certain that they not only exist but that both the evils that face society (like Silva) emerge from there and that Bond has lived within the shadows and is the sort of person who can fight men like Silva.  At length Silva turns out to have been a former agent of MI6 who overstepped his authorization and clearance, risked compromising MI6's operations, and was given over by M to Chinese authorities during the 1997 transfer of Hong Kong to China.  Some have written that this backstory is implausible.  Okay, so what exactly is supposed to be "plausible" in a James Bond story can be discussed at some other time.

M's point in the film about the shadows invites a question (for those who actually feel like asking these sorts of questions), what are the shadows and where are they?  Even after Mallory said there were no more shadows MI6 is blindsided by an attack from a former agent.  The shadows are not merely some place or places but gaps in attention.  The shadows are where the people in the light are not looking, even if everything might otherwise be bathed in light.  The shadows are in the details you missed, the people you overlooked, the directions in which you were not looking.  This is the world in which James Bond, in pretty much any incarnation, has always lived.  The shadows, again, are not merely where there is no light, the shadows exist where there is some light (even) but you're not looking.

In a gun fight in the hearing room the younger generation that would see Bond and the old M kindly on their way into some dignified retirement are all attempting to make killshots on Silva, who has come into to kill M for what he believes was her treachery toward him.  As people like Mallory and the field agent who will turn out to be the famous desk agent Eve Moneypenny attempt to shoot to kill and fail Bond pulls out his gun.  He shoots to confuse, using his famous Walther PPK to saturate the courtroom with fire retardants from the fire extinguishers in the room.  Silva ends up being thwarted, of course, not by the youngsters who have said there are no shadows anymore and that M should step down, but by the man who is considered physically, mentally, and emotionally unfit to be in the fight, our dear old James Bond.  As Q put it, eventually someone has to pull a trigger and Bond's reticence about his work is how often and why a trigger has to be pulled.  Having been shown unable to make easy shots after being wounded in the moment of real crisis Bond, of course, comes through and has true aim. 

Of course the usual blandishments of the Bond franchise are present but the Bond girl motiff takes a tertiary role to the aforementioned themes.  The most important Bond woman in this film is M and it's fitting that after being in the franchise so many years Judi Dench is given an actually significant role.  Severine ends up being almost purely incidental, the path to Silva.  It's the agent revealed in the end to be Moneypenny who ends up being the second most important woman in Bond's travels in Skyfall, a well-meaning younger agent who has bad aim and taunts Bond about being the old dog who somehow learned new tricks. Unlike the other generation of youngsters Moneypenny is willing to take Bond's frank and unflattering advice that with the kind of aim she has he'd feel awfully safer knowing she wasn't firing guns out in the field and that she's not cut out for field work.  By film's end Moneypenny turns out to accept Bond's blunt advice and Q has been humbled by the discovery that Silva was able to best his technology and defeat his laptop.  This being a Bond movie that's no surprise. 

Having said all that that's about as much as I think needs be said.  The new Bond movie is a veritably solemn affair but it seems that Sam Mendes is better off giving Bond movies some actual themes than cranking out self-congratulatory films like American Beauty.  Sometimes taking a big dumb movie franchise seriously and giving it some themes to play with is more fun that attemtping to be above genre trappings and being stuck in the most hoary convention of all, the shallow suburban existence in which dissatisfied people questing for meaning and personal fulfillment do ethically questionable things.  After all, you can get that stuff in Bond movies and throw in a few chase scenes. 

No comments: