It’s James Bond’s 50th anniversary this year, and the latest installment in the franchise doesn’t let you forget that, somewhere along the line, Bond got old. He may still look good in a suit, but his marksmanship, stamina, and martial ingenuity are not what they once were. His vices – booze and women – are no longer charming and rakish but worrying. This Bond has to worry about being cleared to work in the field not only on the stamina of his body but also on the health of his mind. In Skyfall it is really Bond’s mind that is diseased, and it is his mind that serves as the setting and subject matter of the film.
It is not just this particular Bond, the Daniel Craig version, who is failing: it is the entire concept of Bond and the society that made him. The fantasy of James Bond lies in the glamorization of his vices and in the uncomplicated supremacy of Britain both as a cultural force and as a superpower. But in the 21st century women can no longer in good conscience be depicted as mere objects of lust, and the Britain that now exists bears little resemblance to the empire of yore. The ground upon which Ian Fleming built his iconic playboy spy is crumbling fast, and has been for quite some time, but Skyfall marks what will hopefully be a new era for the series in dealing directly with that erosion instead of side-stepping it.
In Skyfall, MI6 is, like Bond, approaching obsolescence. Dame Judi Dench’s M remains formidable, but there are cracks in her armor, moments of poor judgment that are more than fatal to a woman in her position. The government is fed up with her and with the entire operation, and sends Ralph Fiennes to deliver the news that she won’t be working for them much longer. In the 21st century, these politicians argue, the threat is technological, and there is no point in agents who are tools of physical destruction when the battle must take place in cyberspace. The future belongs to men and women like MI6’s new Quartermaster (played with charming, idiosyncratic genius by Ben Whishaw), a prodigy of computer technology, while the old guard gets left out in the cold.
The dyad of Bond and MI6 and their simultaneous declines works as a kind of two-way mirror in the film, to utterly brilliant effect. The crisis facing MI6 is Bond’s own personal crisis writ large, just as his personal crisis serves as a literalization of the tragedy and decline of the organization. By playing the large and small against each other so cleverly, Skyfall manages to be both a superb example of a James Bond movie and a deconstruction of the same.
MI6 is not failing merely because technology is pushing its old-fashioned modus operandi out of business. That is a practical failure, and practical failures can usually be addressed and rectified, given time. MI6 is failing because its failure is more than practical: it is moral. And so is Bond’s.
Skyfall dares to ask its audience to evaluate the psychology of its iconic hero, and the results of this inquiry are disturbing. He is, in many ways, sociopathic: he exhibits no remorse whatsoever when he commits murder — he seems, in fact, to enjoy it — and he is constitutionally incapable of forming meaningful relationships with anybody, particularly women, whom he unfailingly sexualizes. The James Bond of Skyfall is not exactly the Bond of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, who actually did fall in love with a woman, and mourn her loss, and familiarity with those films is not a prerequisite for understanding and appreciating this one. This Bond is a harder, uglier thing: the dark side of the familiar, decades-old archetype.
Having established that James Bond is not a particularly pleasant or admirable fellow, Skyfall begins the gargantuan task of rehabilitating him. One of the most impressive achievements of a film full of them is its persuasive and compelling rendering of Bond as a real person with a complex psychological history. He is, we know, an orphan, and the film makes clear that in the aftermath of his parents’ death he chose the worst adoptive parent imaginable: the depersonalizing, destructive machine of MI6. As M mournfully tells him near the end of the film, “Orphans always make the best recruits.” The organization took him in and refashioned him as a killing machine. It took away his personality and gave him a new one; it deleted his capacity to make meaningful emotional connections with people and replaced it with a terrifying facility with murder.
Over the course of the film, we watch Bond confront these old wounds and overcome them. Skyfall is the story of a man who has been living under the shadow of a trauma, a trauma that began small, as a child losing his parents, and grew into something much larger — it became the entire superstructure of MI6. When MI6 goes underground after M’s office is attacked, Bond must go underground, too, back to everything he had repressed, had shoved into the shadows. When M tells a parliamentary hearing that the bad guys in this current technological age are living “in the shadows,” she could just as easily be talking about the “bad guys” of Bond’s psychology. But by doing this — by confronting his past, and his fears, all of the things that make him who he is, that make him the cultural icon viewers across the globe recognize — Bond manages to come out of the movie as a different person, a healthier and happier and less sexist person. The franchise will hopefully manage to do just the same thing.
For an extended version of the review check out Morgan's blog "The Artist as Critic."