That Which We Are, We Are; One Equal Temper of Heroic Hearts: Sam Mendes’ SKYFALL

In the 50 years that the franchise has endured, there has never been a James Bond quite like Daniel Craig’s interpretation of the character. It was apparent from the very beginning, even in the opening moments of the now-legendary modernization of the series, CASINO ROYALE: cold and brutal, sure, but surprisingly fallible and – at times – even vulnerable. And this vulnerability – something which, once upon a time, might have led to the demise of the character’s integrity – has instead reinvigorated the long-standing espionage franchise. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Sam Mendes’ proverbial hat-in-the-ring, SKYFALL.

SKYFALL is a black sheep of a Bond film – that much is clear. Though large portions of it subscribe to 007’s formula, another, equally large chunk veers violently away from it, leading the character down roads which he has heretofore never traveled. Sure, Craig’s time spent under the mantle has seen him dipping his toe into the realm of a deeper, more humanized and complex Bond in the past, but nothing quite like this. SKYFALL is something else entirely, and Mendes (along with joint writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan) ought to be commended for the risky leaps they take with the character in the final act. Suddenly, Bond is a subtextual, thematically rich character, and he’s all the better for it. In simpler terms, SKYFALL might just be the best James Bond film ever made.

It’s a bold statement, no doubt, though one that seems to have been repeated quite a bit in anticipation of the film’s North American release. And with 23 official installments in the franchise, it’s sort of a difficult claim to back up. Yet stacking up SKYFALL against some of most celebrated entries finds it surpassing many of them in meaningful and substantial ways; most notably, in Martin Campbell’s twin reboots, GOLDENEYE and Craig’s aforementioned inaugural effort, CASINO ROYALE.

GOLDENEYE, for one, holds a special place in the James Bond canon for reasons beyond that of nostalgia and successful reinvention: it’s also the first film in the franchise’s history to contextualize its story (and the character) in allegorically-rich ways. Centered entirely around the literal ghost of the Cold War coming back to haunt a contemporary (and, in many respects, outdated) secret serviceman, GOLDENEYE took the franchise out of the ’70s and into the present day – all while acknowledging just how difficult it is to recontextualize a figure that is, for all intents and purposes, stuck in the past. Likewise, CASINO ROYALE’s hyper-modern take on the character became an instant favorite for really delving into the psychology of 007 for the first time, making him a living, breathing person rather than the caricature he’d been reduced to on so many occasions.

And – without spending too much more time on the past – GOLDFINGER must, of course, be mentioned. Sean Connery’s third outing as the man with the license to kill is thought by many to be the pinnacle of the series – the moment when the James Bond formula achieved true perfection. That may certainly be so, but the truth is that SKYFALL fits into this same mold. It is the pinnacle of a reinvented version of the character; one who is objectively more complex and compelling than the initial interpretation. If GOLDFINGER represents the pinnacle of the Cold War-era hero, then SKYFALL undoubtedly represents the pinnacle of the fallible, modernized hero.

In spite of how much time has already been spent here discussing the merits of SKYFALL amongst the rest of the franchise, where the film truly succeeds is in just how impressive it is as a film outside of the series’ context. Frankly, SKYFALL could probably be enjoyed by people who have never considered themselves fans of Bond films before; they may even benefit from the lack of baggage that the series inevitably carries. It succeeds as a compelling character study of a man who is altogether different from the versions of Bond that we’ve seen in the past (with the possible exception of the rest of Craig’s canon), and that is something that can rarely – if ever – be said for the franchise. At the core of 007’s latest outing is the question that seldom gets asked: “who is James Bond?” Most surprisingly, the film gives us a genuine answer, and I’m not exactly sure it’s the one that people were expecting.

Most of SKYFALL’s thematic weight comes in the form of Bond’s relevance at various, sometimes theoretical, moments in his life: his present, his future and, most importantly, his past. This film delves further into the character’s past than any that I know of that have come before it, all the way back to his childhood. Needless to say, the traumatic experiences of Bond’s childhood factor not only into the necessary unraveling of the character’s psyche, but into SKYFALL’s actual plot. This is a film about James Bond; not James Bond trying to save the world, not James Bond trying to save Mother England – just James Bond. Who is this man? Where does he come from? Where is he going? The answers are, again, surprisingly poignant, resonant and particularly relevant.

Because, yes, this is yet another contemporary James Bond film about the character’s relevance in a modern world. Yet, unlike GOLDENEYE – whose answer to that question lay in an audience-reflective statement about our enduring need for a hero figure, even after the Cold War – SKYFALL’s answer is more internal. There are various (read: copious) references made throughout the film to how sometimes “the old ways are better” – suggesting that, yes, the world still needs a hero like James Bond to protect us from those in the shadows  – but the story itself tells something of a different tale. In spite of M’s (Judi Dench) insistence that the apparently-outdated system of MI6 is still relevant, Mendes makes it clear that the fallibility of this institution is exactly why we still need it. Our heroes may not crack puns as often as they used to (not that there aren’t a few particularly pleasing ones thrown around here for good measure); they may actually take a few bullets in the line of duty; they may actually get killed in the line of duty; and they may be vulnerable, tortured and complex souls which defend freedoms in spite of their lack of indestructible cartoonish-ness, but we do still need them. Now more than ever, it seems. We may actually need them because of those things.

And so we are left with a spectacularly compelling interpretation of a character that has been almost entirely static for nearly 50 years. Delving (ambiguously, of course) into Bond’s past means we can actually begin to discern a few things about what makes this raw, killing machine tick. What was his childhood like? Who were his parents? Why not just “stay dead”, given the chance? M’s self-serving statement (“To hell with dignity; I’ll quit when the job’s done”) may tell something of the truth, but it isn’t the whole truth; at least, not for Bond. What does his incessant, nearly blind loyalty to a matriarchal system (both in his office and his country) say about who he is as a person? And left to linger inside of that system, who does Bond become if he cannot rectify these answers within himself?

The answer comes in the unlikeliest of packages: Javier Bardem’s fantastic performance as ex-MI6 agent Silva. Made up with blonde hair and blue eyes, Silva’s haunting physical parallel to Bond is immediately apparent, and it sets off a kindred that is at once both unsettling and fascinating. Silva’s terrifying psychological relationship to M is uncomfortably similar to Bond’s, and it’s a remarkably poignant peek at what James Bond, left to his own devices and freed from the shackles of perpetual reinvention, might become.

So, Mendes skillfully takes SKYFALL beyond the boundaries of yet again answering how this “relic of the Cold War” could possibly still be useful. Instead, we’re given a look at not just how he could be useful, but why he might be necessary – to keep his country safe from others as much as from himself. All of this is resolved in an incredibly left-field, risky third act which serves to thematically enrich the character on a multitude of levels in spite of its seeming randomness. It’s a bold move, one which will undoubtedly leave many disappointed and scratching their heads – but it’s effective and refreshing enough to close out the film with suitable resonance.

Other noteworthy elements of the film include the introduction of a more ensemble-based cast, similar to earlier entries in the franchise. By the end of the film, all of the pieces of MI6 are put firmly back into place in a way which hasn’t been seen in the series for a decade. Most notably are the inclusions of the always-stellar Ralph Fiennes as Gareth Mallory, Ben Wishaw as the new Q and Naomie Harris as Eve. Performances are strong across the board, though it’s difficult for any to shine too brightly from beneath the shadow of Craig, Bardem and Dench.

Lastly, but certainly not least, is Roger Deakins, the unsung hero of SKYFALL. The nine-time Academy Award-nominated cinematographer sets the bar so high, it’ll be hard to come back from in future installments. SKYFALL is, simply put, breathtaking. It’s the finest camera work ever done on a Bond film, bar none. And though the Macau sequence is of particular note for its stunning imagery, its the Shanghai and Scotland sequences that will stick with you long after you’ve left the theater.

For Shanghai, Deakins provides the usual, mesmerizing visuals that the city inherently provides: neon lights swirl, reflective surfaces trick the eye on a continuous basis and light and shadows intermingle gorgeously. It is here where Deakins establishes Bond as a figure of the shadows, a visual (and literal) motif which is stated and repeated throughout the film for both him and Silva. The fight scene which takes place amongst these shadows is some of the most elegant action ever performed in a Bond film.

Meanwhile, Deakins’ shots of Scotland’s landscapes are absolutely unbelievable. It’s hard to imagine that you’re actually watching a 007 film during those brief moments of sweeping vistas. It’s really something special, and fans should be proud to have had the legendary cinematographer lend his talents to the franchise.

All-in-all, the film isn’t perfect. The last act is mildly troublesome, but certainly not a deal-breaker – especially considering what comes out of it and how bold of a direction it is for a film in this franchise. It’s hard to nitpick the little things though, when SKYFALL might just be the finest outing James Bond has ever embarked upon. For fans and non-fans alike.

9/10

d.a. garabedian

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