In Skyfall, Bond is British in a way he hasn’t been in a long time, maybe ever. The film is so British that to me, an American, watching Skyfall almost felt like watching a foreign film about the political concerns of a distant land, as if Sam Mendes and company are saying to Britain, “Here is a Bond film meant for your eyes. Only you will truly understand its ethos.” That the national histories and futures of both Britain and the U.S. seem so linked makes it all palatable, even if it does seem strange that Bond is doing so much without consulting with the Americans.
I realize the previous paragraph reeks of American exceptionalism, but that sense of exceptionalism has only been forged diamond hard over the past fifty years by Bond movies which have forever pandered to American audiences.
In almost all of the previous twenty-two installments in the Bond series, Her Majesty’s most famous Secret Service agent was working with Americans, saving American cities (and gold deposits), and preserving American power in a Cold War-era world. That the American superpower was always having to call on old Britain to bail them out of trouble was something of a omnipresent joke throughout the first twenty-seven years of Bond’s existence.
As Eastern and Western hearts warmed toward one another in the more peaceful Nineties, Bond began saving the world. Those movies grew so big, however, it sometimes seemed that even the world was not enough for Bond’s talents. Bond began to seem irrelevant.
Fortunately for Bond (and unfortunately for us), the real world soon found another enemy – terrorists, small bands of specially trained, singularly focused agents with self-minted licenses to kill bent on world destruction, the yin to James Bond’s yang. Suddenly Bond was needed again, only this time with blonde hair and less of a sense of humor. The Daniel Craig-era Bond films have been smaller, more intimate, and more appropriate for an audience more afraid of having their identities stolen rather than their space lasers.
Skyfall, the latest Bond installment and the third in the Craig-era, is as cinematically moving a Bond flick as has ever been crafted. Roger Deakins’ epic cinematography and Sam Mendes’ love of saturated images and saturated emotions combine to create a Bond film that shines above the others. It’s as if they have raked the moon of its splendor and deposited it on the screen.
Bond and company are so large and framed so iconically, they become almost god-like. The colors surrounding them, draped upon them, and at times, dripping from their wounds are so rich, the images begin to seem more real than reality. These are Cinemajestic Beings made of light, being illuminated by lights, and finding both their destruction and salvation in those same lights. Any cinematic experience is nothing more than the interplay of light and shadow, but never before have those lights and shadows seemed so absolutely alive, like living daylight in human form. See Skyfall, and bathe in the beauty of light projected, reflected, embodied, and obscured.
Ultimately, Skyfall is a vibrant argument for why we need a hero like Bond in today’s world and, by extension, why Great Britain still matters. Gone, apparently, are the easy geopolitics of the Cold War, the live and let die bravado where the need for a hero like Bond was generally accepted, and the politics could be taken for granted. Now, we need to be convinced. Skyfall is like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy but with the mask removed and its politics unobscured. We need a hero like Bond (or Batman) in the shadows because our enemies emerge from those same shadows, or so the movie contends.
Much has been made of the way the Bourne movies have influenced Bond tonally, shifting the stories away from fantasy and toward realism. However, Skyfall is ultimately a view of James Bond on the other side of the ideological divide from Jason Bourne and kills any emotional cache earned by Casino Royal and Quantum of Solace, the films in which Bond has twice-lived post-Bourne.
The Bourne films criticize our “need” for black-ops agents to do society’s dirty work, wrestling with the psychological cost of such militarism on individuals and on society. The previous two Bond films starring Daniel Craig were also mindful of this psychological toll. Skyfall embraces this need with gusto. The film features a Bond who admits the need as well, calling forth both ancient poets and past protectors in its defense, a protector who was probably meant to be played by Sean Connery, who, hopefully, if he sees this film and the roll that could have been his, will never say he’ll never appear in a Bond film again.
While I personally prefer Jason Bourne’s insistence that the world’s governments need to end their policies of secrecy and subterranean political maneuvering, to stop reaching their octopus like tentacles out into as many places as possible, I must admit I’m glad the filmmakers have found a reason for Bond to continue. Truthfully, the real world is a complicated place, and neither those who see the spectre of a falling sky or those who whose eyes are filled with the spender of a golden tomorrow are completely correct. The world does need to a response to terror.
It’s a shame though, that Britain, with all her years of global influence can’t see a better way than subversive spies who love nothing more than killing Britain’s enemies. Britain need not die. Another day is always before her, and the world needs the kind of leadership that she ought to be able to provide. Tomorrow only dies when we lose hope that the world can be made better, that no matter where one is from – be it Russia, the U.S., China, Great Britain, or whichever nations rise to be global powers in the world of tomorrow – that love might prevail over fear.
James Bond, as always, will return, and we can only hope that his next incarnation is as cinematically resplendent as his current one. Whatever that next film is, hopefully it will also be something more than the thunderous ball of kitsch and cliche it looks to be as Skyfall ends.
May the lights that make this Bond so beautiful be more than flash. May they be like golden fingers that point us to a better way to live, a better way to interact globally with one another, and a better way to believe.