Spy Vibe’s 2012 top ten #1: Skyfall. The year was filled with major events and releases celebrating the 50th anniversaries of The Beatles and the James Bond movies. But as historic as many of those highlights were, the most memorable event of the year for Spy Vibe was the release of the next Bond film, Skyfall. For a website project that is dedicated to 1960s Style in Action it is very seldom that we get to see new content created that adds significantly to the canon of a major sixties franchise or art movement. And we didn’t just get a new Bond film, we got a modern classic.
There is a wonderful documentary from last year about the history of the James Bond films called Everything and Nothing. Spy Vibers can now see it streaming on Netflix. The film tells the story of how 007 got to the big screen and about the many peaks and valleys the franchise has experienced over the years. One pattern that emerged can be summed up by some advice that one of the series producers gave: he said they should always go back to Ian Fleming and the novels if they are ever having trouble solving a new film. In fact, every time the series stalled due to actor changes, problems with production, money, or with the studio, they were able to rally their efforts by grounding themselves in the source material and trying to make the very best films they could. It was like raising the stakes and betting everything or nothing in order to save the series. In light of the challenges they faced during of each of those bump-periods, only the best films would help pull the series back into the kind of successful sales they had seen during the great spy boom. The high-stakes effort and that hunger to win resulted in celebrated milestones like The Spy Who Loved Me, The Living Daylights, License to Kill, Casino Royale, and after a long hiatus during MGMs recent hiccup, Skyfall. Regardless of box office returns, these betting moments have resulted in solid, literary storytelling- and that’s what satisfies me as a moviegoer.
“If you’re not engaged with the characters, the action is meaningless, however good it is,” says director Sam Mendes. “To me, you have to put the characters in a credible and believable situation – you have to make it almost impossible for them to survive – and then show how they survive. That’s the challenge.”
Skyfall, more than any Bond film so far, is about character. Instead of the larger-than-life stories of baddies bent on creating new world orders under the sea or in outer space, we now have Bond paired against his shadow self- a fellow agent gone to the dark side. Skyfall is an epic contrast of two men forced to reconcile the circumstances of their lives, the nature of loyalty and relationships, and ultimately why they choose to act. The filmmakers have delivered a super-smart package that elegantly weaves action-adventure with intimate character study. From the title sequence until the last moments, we see gorgeous imagery and production design that constantly serves the characters and their development on-screen. Choices in set design, color, and props are carefully placed to support the major Theme of the story. The title sequence alone with that incredible (Oscar-nominated) song serves as a CliffsNotes edition of the whole story. Can we say that about any other Bond film?
“We wanted to really mine the relationship between Bond and M, because it is the most significant relationship he has in his life,” says producer Barbara Broccoli. “M is the only person who represents authority to him. You have two extraordinary actors, and we just thought – let’s go all the way. It’s worked extremely well. It’s a very emotional story.”
Skyfall leaves us with some interesting questions to grapple with. Bond’s shadow nemesis, Silva, is motivated by his emotional relationship with M. Silva is highly motivated by emotion. His love for M is overwhelming and he constantly refers to her as ‘mommy.’ He is so emotional, in fact, that her decision to sacrifice him during a past mission threw him off the rails and turned him into a murderous monster. Silva was M’s ‘favorite’ before Bond, and he is a James Bond-like agent now determined use that immense power to make M and the world pay.
007 suffers a similar betrayal by M in Skyfall and loyalties are questioned. In order to serve a greater good, she chooses to sacrifice Bond. Unlike Silva, however, Bond makes it clear that he is not troubled by M’s decision. Bond is not hurt that M sacrificed him, he is only hurt that she didn’t have faith in him to finish his mission successfully. As the film shows, Bond is an orphaned child who bounced back from tragedy by following his own hardened path. He is not satisfied merely to face down death and experience pleasure, as we see in early scenes in Skyfall. He may say he was 'enjoying death', but his boredom away from the job is palpable. He is not simply hedonistic. Where Silva is motivated by emotion, it appears that having a target and doing the job is what ultimately motivates Bond. Perhaps this stems from Ian Fleming's own character. Feeling lost after WWII, his niece once said that Ian "needed to know what his mission was. He needed something to do." Fleming endowed Bond with 'acidie', a torpor only relieved by focus and determination. The silent gaps between cases were torture for 007. Writing provided Fleming with a mission. And for his readers, the premise of a 'solo agent against a whole army' proved to be endlessly thrilling.
007 shows some love for his boss, a character who is often referred to as a mother figure to Bond and Silva. M even reaches the climax in the story near the grave of Bond’s own mother and father. But, here’s the interesting fly in the ointment that keeps me thinking about the movie. Though he has emotional presence in the film, Bond is not motivated by emotion around present events. He doesn’t expect M’s loyalty and love, only her faith. He is not troubled by her betrayal. He understands that they are 'all about the job', and that decisions are not personal. This understanding is echoed in his own moment with Ronson, a younger version of himself, whom Bond must sacrifice for the good of the mission. The dichotomy between Bond and Silva makes them really interesting to watch. And it makes me wonder why we root for Bond. Fleming said that he gave Bond two qualities that could be seen as virtues, patriotism and courage. But surely Silva is the more human of the two? Yet, we cheer for 007 and want to see him win. Does this go back to those early reviews of Fleming’s novels, which some criticized for celebrating sadism and snobbery? A wicked pleasure? Or, as M says in her defense of the Double-0 section, men like Bond are needed in the world to keep us safe from the chaos that lurks in the shadows? Or is it the deeper understanding of Bond as a mythological hero, who has come from a life-altering wound that continues to hurtle him forward through life. Skyfall exposes that wound and forces Bond to re-live it. The filmmakers skillfully establish empathy by showing Bond as sympathetic, powerful, likable, funny, and in jeopardy- the five keys to creating a high concept success.
Oddly enough, Silva’s character reminded me of an interesting story that Leonard Nemoy told to Bill Shatner in the documentary, Mindmeld. When Nimoy first started working on Star Trek, he initially saw the cast and crew as a kind of surrogate family. But when he kept feeling disappointment about his relationships with his co-workers, he grew angrier and angrier. He couldn’t reconcile the circumstances with his need for family and community. Once he finally changed his expectations, however, he was able to make peace with the situation and just enjoy working professionally with his team on the set. In a more dramatic way, Silva’s fall from grace in Skyfall serves as an interesting mirror in which to explore Bond’s own motivation as secret agent. *Mirrors were traditionally made of silver, by the way- another point for Theme by the filmmakers! Not since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service have we had such an intimate and evocative Bond story.
“We were very hard on stuff that didn’t seem necessary, or outstayed its welcome, or in a way fetishized the action. I think there’s a great tendency to be bigger, louder, faster, and to sort of forget the story, almost as if the story stops and the action begins, and then the story doesn’t start again until the action is over. “ –Sam Mendes (about editing the action sequences that build through the opening of Skyfall)
Skyfall also delivers a fun ride. The moments of humor and panache have returned. The action is exciting without being traumatic or gratuitous. The movie is tightly organized into an essential flow of action. We are brought to some exotic locations, as 007 adventures promise. One of the most visually stunning scenes is Bond’s fight with an assassin in a glass skyscraper in Singapore. Bond faces another ‘shadow’ of himself, an opposite number, and the two men constantly merge and separate in a ballet of reflections and colorful light. Again, the filmmakers don’t miss a chance to weave in Theme.
Throughout the story, characters express how the ‘old ways’ are often the best, and this mantra shapes the film’s use of technology and gadgets. By keeping the pressure on the characters themselves, we see them pushed to be more resourceful. Deadly gadgets are crafted. Bond uses his trademark pistol, but often needs to improvise and utilize his surroundings (One friend complained that this introduced too much MacGyver into the character, but I disagree). I don’t think I’ve ever seen 007 run so much in one movie, reminding us that BOND is the super agent, and that he will prevail on the steam of his own power. As an extra bonus during the 50th anniversary year, they also managed to add some well-placed nods to classic 007 movies that got huge ovations from every audience I was in. Look for the Aston Martin DB5 and music cues from Goldfinger, among others.
2012 was great for its many anniversary events and releases that helped us to look back at 1960s pop culture that still looms large in our lives today. But thanks to Skyfall, we got to see that the legacy of the Bond films is actually thriving and growing, and still able to reach higher grounds in storytelling. Everything or Nothing! Thanks for making that gamble. Skyfall acts as an origin story and re-established all of the key players we often associate with the franchise (M, Monneypenny, Q). I hope that, as they embark on the next story, the filmmakers continue to keep us close to character and Theme and not go the easier road toward spectacle and parody. Keep grounded in Fleming and keep gambling!
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