Review: Skyfall

Published December 18th 2012 | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Skyfall, the latest film in the James Bond franchise has so far been a huge commercial and critical success.  Heralded by many as the best Bond film ever, it has made over $950 million.  Adjusting for inflation, this makes it second only to Thunderball, the only Bond film to, in relative terms, top a billion dollars.  It is to be expected that Skyfall will cross the billion dollar threshold both in absolute and relative terms.

In fairness, it is a very entertaining film, written with good humour and a straightforward if somewhat thin plot that rolls along at a good pace.  All of the holes in the plot are left behind before you have time to really care about them, and in particular the range of settings chosen for the film was highly impressive.

All of the plot holes, except one, and it is a big one.  Bond, James Bond, the protagonist of the entire film and franchise, dies in the opening reel of the film.  In typical superhero fashion he is not killed by a antagonist who is stronger or faster or smarter, but is killed by accident, shot by the new Moneypenny while struggling with a bad guy atop a moving train.  Bond then falls several hundred feet down into deep water and isn’t rescued.  Bond them comes back to life and – after brief stint drinking and seducing women – returns to service at MI6.

Fallen Angels

Just as in the climax to the third Batman film, the hero in Skyfall dies but is resurrected, without explanation.  The similarities between these two movies, perhaps the most-watched and discussed mainstream films of 2012, do not end there.  The protagonists in both are also shown to be struggling with the physical limits of age, lacking the vitality of youth.  This has particular consequences for the watching audience.

Most simply, it encourages sympathy with the main characters.  They are struggling not just against evil, against the bad guys, but also against their own limitations.  In particular in Skyfall this is part of a running theme whereby the security services are shown to be the victims, rather than the perpetrators, of terrorism and conspiracy.  The MI6 building is bombed, their systems hacked and they are forced to go into hiding in underground bunkers.  The script even made the obligatory reference to Churchill.  At the end of the film the character of M, the head of MI6, is killed.  This not only provides a narrative reflection of Bond’s death at the start, but also encourages further sympathy for the secret services.

It is also a sign of the times.  When economies and governments across the Western world struggle with the realities of their decisions and many are struggling to maintain their quality of life a hero who is likewise finding his limits and having to struggle is a powerful emblem.  In The Dark Knight Rises it helps draw a parallel between Batman, a billionaire vigilante, and ordinary people struggling to pay their bills.  In Skyfall the same parallel is drawn between a secret agent of the state and those feeling the cold of the Northern hemisphere winter.

Rogue Spooks

The main bad guy in Skyfall falls into a category of characters that is well-rehearsed in spy culture, that of the rogue ex-spook hacker.  The same basic character appears in two different episodes of Spooks – one as the son of a former agent who has been killed, one as a jealous GCHQ maths genius who goes rogue out of jealousy.  In other episodes proficient hackers, including one 14 year old boy, are recruited by MI5 to carry out operations.  The latest incarnation of this particular meme, played by Javier Bardem, consolidates a lot of evocative ideas.

First, the idea that the security services is struggling against the blowback, the detritus of its own past actions.  This helps to anthropomorphise what is in reality a faceless, covert institution of power.  After all, everyone has a few skeletons in the closet, everyone has a past that could come back to haunt them, and if MI6 is just the same then it makes it seem more normal.  The fact that when the past comes back to haunt them it usually ends up in chaos, destruction and death is, like the plot hole of Bond’s death, left behind before you have time to reflect too much on it.

Second, the imminent threat of cyber-warfare.  While Islamic mass casualty terrorism is still a frequent presence in news reports, the focus has shifted somewhat from where it was a few years ago.  Today the terrorist threat is multiform.  We are warned about everything from Arab jihadis to homegrown nationalist extremists to computer hackers to members of fringe political movements.  Again, it is a context that shows the security state and the state in general as being subject to great pressure, therefore engendering sympathy.

This is emphasised in particular when the adroitly mischievous Bardem puts a video on youtube, publicly outing several MI6 agents.  I have seen several such videos on youtube in recent years and they are always promptly deleted.  The idea that this would be a major threat to the security services, as it is portrayed in Skyfall, is ridiculous.  At that point, the film overplayed its subtext and descended into crudity.

Third, looking at the longer story, it is something of a resurrection of the spook stories of old, where instead of insane warlords and terrorists it was largely spy vs spy, one secret agent against another.  The discovery of a major Russian sleeper spy ring in the US in recent years was a noisy echo of the Cold War that took many by surprise.  In Skyfall, it largely boils down to Daniel Craig vs Javier Bardem, no laser-watches or secret underhand dart-pistols or invisible cars, just a battle of will and wit between two men.  This is perhaps one of the main reasons the film has struck such a chord and been so successful, it was reassuringly familiar in so many ways.  Even the Aston Martin made a comeback.

Intelligence and Security

The secondary antagonist, or at least an obstacle that M and Bond have to overcome in Skyfall, is the real-life Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC).  The ISC was founded in the early 1990s, when the existence and operations of the British spy agencies were first formally put into law.  This was several decades after the agencies were founded, and 30 years after the first Bond film was released.

M is shown as being in trouble with the ISC, getting a grilling over problems caused by the rogue Bardem.  M’s presence at a wood-panelled low-security session in Whitehall is then exploited by Bardem who attempts to assassinate her while she is arguing with the ISC.  The implication is that the Committee is just a bureaucratic waste of space, getting in the way of the exciting business of watching Bond figure out how to get the bad guy.

In reality, the ISC is indeed a bureaucratic waste of space, unable to do its job.  In particular its performance over the 7/7 bombings, echoed in one moment in Skyfall when a bomb blows a hole in the wall of a tube tunnel, has been shameful.  The ISC’s first investigation took place in the months after 7/7.  They looked at what MI5 knew and when about the four men assumed to have been responsible for the attacks.  MI5 told them that some of the four had turned up on the fringes of an operation in 2003-4, so that is what the ISC put in their report.  They never even saw the pictures and video of the alleged 7/7 bombers that were taken by MI5 during that operation.

When it became clear that MI5 had a lot more than they were letting on, the ISC went back and asked them again.  The result was another report that gave a timeline of what was known and when, and why decisions were taken or not taken.  Several years after this second report, the documents and testimony at the 7/7 inquests contradicted this timeline, and provided evidence that MI5 knew a lot more and was in a position to make far more informed decisions than they had made out.  A third ISC report followed, where MI5 put this all down to poor record keeping, accidental mistakes, and the ISC concluded that there was no deliberate attempt to mislead.

The chairman of the ISC during its first two investigations was Paul Murphy MP, a man who is most famous for the notorious expenses scandal in the British parliament.  Murphy claimed £3,419.25 in public funds to replace the boiler in his Westminster house because the original one made the water too hot for his liking.  That such a man failed to win in a struggle with MI5 is not at all surprising, yet in Skyfall M is shown as being in fear of the ISC, compromised them, at threat because of them.  This totally unrealistic portrait not only conjures up more sympathy for M, played by the highly popular Judi Dench, but also makes the ISC look like a poorly designed administrative farce, rather than a critically failing mechanism of oversight.

Perhaps the most evocative aspect of the Bardem character’s attack on the ISC is that he carries it out in police uniform.  This use of false flag tactics is perhaps a not to Anders Breivik, who obtained access to Utoya island to carry out his gruesome slaughter by likewise wearing a police uniform.

Sky Falling?

The title of the film does imply the sort of cataclysmic threat one might expect of a Bond film though such scenarios have largely been avoided in the Daniel Craig part of the series.  Instead the term ‘Skyfall’ refers to Bond’s childhood and ancestral home in the Scottish highlands.  While the magnificence of the mountains almost makes up for the near-total lack of cleavage in this film, anyone familiar with Scotland would marvel at such a name being used for an estate property.

The Bardem character is lured up to ‘Skyfall’ by Bond for their final showdown.  Of course the good guy wins and the bad guys loses, but not before the house is completely destroyed.  The moral of the story appears to be that the best way to cope with the repercussions of your actions is to be destructive.  Given that this appears to be a Bond film for a recession, and overtly seeks to engender a lot of sympathy for the security state, seeing someone’s family home destroyed is a curious image to use at the movie’s culmination.

That the implicitly catastrophic title boils down to a reference to Bond’s childhood shows the extent to which Skyfall sought to humanise the drama in the plot.  For decades the Bond films have been the primary source that the British and world public draw on for their impressions of MI6, an institution that remains largely secret.  In this time of perceived instability, this hugely successful and extremely well made film has at its heart sympathy for a malign, secret institutions and its operatives.

This is not the first time this year that the iconic Bond character has crossed over from fictional entertainment and been used to help shape perceptions of the establishment in the real world:

No analysis should be necessary, but the melding of the fictional Bond character with the Queen, the real embodiment of the British state, who then arrive from above to grace the Olympics with their presence is potent symbolism indeed.  Just as this sequence served as both a promotion for the film and a promotion of its implicit values, so did Daniel Craig (James Bond)’s recent visit to Afghanistan:

Daniel Craig James Bond in Afghanistan meeting the troops

Skyfall has, like its protagonist, risen again and is back at the top of the box office charts.  The superspy has seen off the threat from Santa and the Easter Bunny in the form of animated kids flick Rise of the Guardians, and the threat from vampires in the latest chapter of the Twilight Saga.  The dream factory is alive and kicking this Christmas.

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