by Mark Epstein
Writing about the latest Bond movie may seem like an exercise in futility to many, but having read many positive reviews in the corporate mass-media and a couple of negative ones in CP (Paul Carline has intelligent and detailed comments about the franchise and the world of intelligence; Peter Lee makes a couple of good points about British history and foreign policy: but in my view both really don’t acknowledge Mendes’, and his scriptwriters’, intent), I decided I would jump into the fray, since the negative comments didn’t seem specific to the latest film directed by Mendes (in fact he was barely even mentioned), and many of the positive ones really didn’t seem to have seen the same movie I saw.
In fact knowing that Mendes was the director was the decisive point that made me go to see the movie, since I thought, and still think, that “American Beauty’ was one of the best movies to come out of Hollywood in the last decades.
Below I analyze the movie and try to establish the following points:
-“Skyfall” is not a paean to British patriotism and imperialism
-It is a movie that contrasts encompassing, historical, networked and networking understanding, with blind, mechanical, repetition-compulsion and obedience
-It is a movie that itself requires decoding, decrypting and “human intelligence” in the best sense of the word to be understood
-References to recent episodes in UK “national security,” (over)reactions and escalations are intended to make the viewer(s) ask what should ultimately be on trial
-It is a movie that puts the very foundations of certain aspects of serialized ‘entertainment’ into question, including the most popular ‘hooks’ (and ‘hookers’…) in the Bond franchise..
-Mass-art and mass-culture in very late monopoly capitalism have not infrequently led directors to use forms of Aesopian language. I argue Mendes in “Skyfall” is one important such example
“Skyfall” (although some of the information relating to his ancestral home and parents does come from Fleming written material, the symbolic twists given the name, the purpose of the “return home” etc. are all the scriptwriters’ and Mendes’) advertises its difference from other films in the franchise starting with the title itself and continues doing so for the careful viewer throughout the movie… While superficially, phonetically, it might resemble the titles of other flicks in the series, “Thunderball” for instance, semantically it immediately catches your attention. The “sky falling” hardly has very positive connotations in anyone’s cosmology, and in this case as we shall see appears to echo meanings coming from negative apocalypses…
Already in the movie’s opening sequence Mendes is asking the viewer to pay attention: we see an out of focus Bond in a corridor. As we come closer and the shot comes into focus, we transition to a counter-shot of what Bond sees. Corpses and bleeding bodies, violence and destruction in a room: the sort of handy work that is routine in this genre of “spy” “action movie”, in fact part of the “popcorny” repetition compulsion of these genres and the franchise itself.
We soon find out thanks to the soundtrack, that Bond is actually in constant communication with M, and the object of the search is revealed: a hard drive, with, as we will duly find out, an extremely important encrypted file with the names of agents belonging to NATO countries inside “terrorist organizations”. The fact Mendes chose this as the content for the files is itself very important and revelatory. What is the purpose of NATO having double-agents in “terrorist organizations”? How does that relate to so many important events of the last decades, from 9/11 to the London subway bombings, to renditions, to covert uses of Islamic fundamentalist organizations (Al-Qaeda among them) for the destabilization of other countries? Of course the propagandistic/ ‘official’ answer will always be along the lines of: “defense”, “prevention” and “monitoring”. Careful analysis of events, foreign policy and otherwise, from the break-up of Yugoslavia to the destabilizations of Libya and Syria prove otherwise. As I have argued elsewhere these kind of “double-agents” are literally the kind NATO used in programs such as “Gladio” and the “strategia della tensione” in Italy, as ways to destabilize and attempt to foment authoritarian coups there on behalf of the US, UK and NATO.
But one of the most important pieces of information in helping us to try and decode the film, is that while Bond’s instinct is to help the shot and bleeding fellow agent, compressing his wound, M wants him to leave him immediately and engage in pursuit to recover the stolen drive. As we shall see this initial signal and cue as to M’s behavior and modus operandi will be a constant and a central factor in understanding the “commanding officer”, the end of the (in-house, institutional) chain of command of this particular incarnation of MI6. As I shall argue later, we should contrast it with Silva’s almost obsessive preoccupation and interest in the physical well being of others, or the wounds they have been subjected to (something we will find out is probably connected to the torture and physical abuse and destruction he had to suffer as a consequence of M’s betrayal).
As the chase scene develops in the tradition of many Bond and other “action” flicks, Bond finds himself on the roof of a train with the hired killer who has stolen the hard drive, Patrice. The agent who had been with Bond, Eve Moneypenny, has been following the duo, and now has a brief moment in which she could take a shot, but advises M that she does not have a good shot. M once again goes for it, regardless of the consequences for her agents, in this case Bond. Moneypenny misses the shot and hits Bond, who has already been shot previously by Patrice. He falls into a river from hundreds of feet above, we presume he has died… Preparations are made for his funeral, and the bureaucratic wrap-up of his career, M herself writing his obituary (the glimpse we catch is of an extremely brief, and cold couple of sentences…). In the course of the film we will find that, significantly enough, MI6 has sold his flat and the house of his birth in Scotland, yet another significant piece of information about the system MI6 sacrifices its agents to defend…
Mendes invites the viewer to focus on his movie, not as the killer (Bond) but as the decoder (Bond? Perhaps, not likely, this is not Le Carre’..). So while the plot obviously has to fit into the Bond franchise, and has to obey many superficial rules of the “spy” “action” genre, Mendes complies, but only superficially. He is really inviting the viewer to decode the literalized metaphors that are like a “trail of breadcrumbs” throughout the movie, and to connect them to some key revelatory (“apocalyptic”) moments, such as the monologue about islands and rats, a very striking piece of story-telling which is how Silva (Rodriguez) introduces himself to Bond…
So while superficially Silva fulfills all the required plot roles to play the “villain”, even only the colors he is associated with, the colors of his preferred clothing: white, cream, light, as contrasted with those of Bond: dark, gothic, gloomy, aging, symbolically tell the viewer something more is going in this film than “meets the eye” (golden or otherwise…). Silva obviously sounds like “silver” and his hair, cybernetic abilities, close association with hacking and computers, ability to uncover information the government(s) want suppressed, and some physical resemblances have led a number of critics to make a connection with Julian Assange.
During the course of the entire movie, the information provided by Silva turns out to be correct and corroborated (whether about Bond’s “unresolved childhood issues” or about his not having passed any of the examinations which M, ready to sacrifice him one more time for her career, draped by her ego in the colors of the imperial Union Jack, has, true to what we will find her character to be, falsely stated to Gareth Mallory, and Bond himself, he has passed). The same of course, and crucially, is true about his having been betrayed by none other than M herself: he is a former MI6 agent himself, betrayed, tortured and left to rot in prison. He took the (supposedly standard issue) hydrogen cyanide capsule hidden in the fake tooth to commit suicide to escape his predicament (after he has figured out M’s betrayal), only to have yet another MI6 device and caper malfunction, so instead of killing him, it merely destroys his insides (very symbolically of course in terms of his relations to MI6, i.e BOTH the “physical” AND the “inside” part…).
So although “Skyfall” is not the only film in the Bond franchise in which the villain is a former MI6 agent or affiliate, it is certainly the only one in which M herself and MI6 headquarters are the principal targets. This in and of itself should be another significant clue to tell us that this specific Bond movie is NOT about “external enemies”, but it is a reflection on the “organization”, the activities, the goals, etc. themselves… In her attempt at defense and self-exoneration at the inquiry, M states that one no longer knows who the enemies are, since they are part of the hidden world of the “shadows”… In the opening credits (which of course do not open the film…) the graphics show Bond actually shooting at his own shadows, a very significant other clue about the meaning of the film. M in her incompetence and arrogance tries to mystify the inquiry and oversight into her behavior, by talking about the “unknown” nature of these “enemies.” Yet as the film makes quite clear, both literally and metaphorically, the enemies M is fighting and has to fight have been created by her own actions, bad judgments, incompetence, and pig-headed resolve to continue regardless, without ever learning from any of her mistakes (these are M’s and MI6’s own “shadows,” in other words “the enemy is us”…). She leaves the agent in the opening sequence to die, she has Moneypenny take the poor shot which to all intents and purposes would have killed Bond, she decides to let the hacking of the MI6 system continue instead of shutting it down, causing (indirectly) the explosion at MI6 headquarters and the deaths of many more agents. The drive she is trying to recover, has been stolen, and the names of agents revealed, BECAUSE she had betrayed Silva due to “unauthorized hacking”…. Her decision to decrypt the code in Silva’s computer actually allows the ultimate breach of the MI6 system, enabled also by Bond’s “decoding”… Ultimately even her final moments are marked by the utter selfishness that has characterized her life. She refuses to accept Silva’s invitation for her to pull the trigger and kill them both (an undoubtedly more selfless and perceptive, in terms of an understanding of his ‘superficial’ self/role, act than she ever offers), clearly because she is not willing to engage in any real form of self-sacrifice (even though this would of course be the highest…). Instead, immediately after Bond murders Silva, she passes away… highlighting the futility of her self-centeredness in the grand scheme of things…
So “Skyfall” is also in some sense a test of the viewers’ (remaining…) moral code(s). Will they follow the superficial markers of the ‘action’ and the plot, and accept Silva as the ‘villain’ or will they actually judge both M and Silva by what they do, say and accomplish, what their past has been, based on the information we have from the movie…?
“Skyfall” is also about history, time, origins and aging in a way I believe no other films in the franchise are. This is the only movie in which the relationship between M and Bond is explored in such depth and detail, it is the only Bond film in which we learn about Bond’s childhood, and in which we return to his childhood home. It is the only Bond film in which we repeatedly turn to Bond’s signs of aging and physical fragility, a theme raised to another level by the whole issue of his passing the tests, which he hasn’t, and Silva knowing about this (as M is caught in yet another fraud). And of course nothing is more deadly to the ‘action’ flick than meditations about aging… And Mendes is quite clearly undermining this aspect of the genre, as well as the compulsive drives of the audience who watch them, as he proceeds… Even Bond’s abilities in terms of repartee seem to be drastically (intentionally) curtailed and hampered, as in the exchanges with both Silva and Q, and Moneypenny, which could also be interpreted as signs of aging. Clearly the information Silva provides in the film helps the viewer to reconstruct history, to start building a whole picture, a big picture, from fragments, deceptions, etc. Silva’s parable of the island and the rats is perhaps the most important, trenchant, and key of all the story-telling in the movie, in terms of finding our ethical bearings, as opposed to the ‘hooks’ of action-movies superficialities, glitz, booms’, babes, and gadgets… As deuteragonists to Silva, M and Bond are instead bent on erasing history, as M threatens to do to the traces of Silva’s past at MI6, and as Bond so successfully does to the traces of his childhood past and home in the film’s finale. Silva is decoding and putting together a whole, M and Bond are blowing intelligent connections to smithereens, and fetishistically venerating the most kitschy, meaningless, superannuated, evacuated, symbolic junk of ersatz-‘patriotism’ in the land… The following dialogue between Q and Bond on their first meeting at the National Gallery looking at the painting of a warship is also indicative of the theme of time and history, and the different levels of sensibility and awareness (or lack thereof) the protagonists have (I believe the fact that the dialogue centers on the interpretation of a work of art is not casual): [Q] Always makes me feel a bit melancholy. A grand old war ship, being ignominiously hauled away for scrap. The inevitability of time, don’t you think? What do you see? [Bond] A bloody big ship. Excuse me. [Bond starts to get up] A telling exchange, where once again Bond is shown as not particularly perceptive, since he obviously was supposed to meet Q. But also because the warship symbolically seems to represent British imperialism, its self-importance, and pre-historical barbarism in terms of both ends and means. Later in the dialogue, time, history, age and competence/efficiency, sense of purpose again come into play:
Q: My complexion is hardly relevant.
James Bond: Your competence is.
Q: Age is no guarantee of efficiency.
James Bond: And youth is no guarantee of innovation.
Q: I’ll hazard I can do more damage on my laptop sitting in my pajamas before my first cup of Earl Grey than you can do in a year in the field.
James Bond: Oh, so why do you need me?
Q: Every now and then a trigger has to be pulled.
The line about “efficiency” being of course particularly accurate and telling in the case of this Bond in this movie..
The theme of “going back in time” is quite explicitly a dominant theme for the final part of the movie, after Silva’s first attempt on M’s life at the inquiry. It is also a return that in terms of plot (I believe an intentional decision on Mendes’ part) seems barely plausible. Returning home, using more primitive technology, including the Aston Martin from “Goldfinger”, as well as the weapons and communications (or lack of them) deployed in Bond’s ancestral mansion of “Skyfall”. The line about “leaving a trail of breadcrumbs” also refers to a more primitive, childish, phase of story-telling, fairy tales, though this one is a particularly dark overturning of the genre. As we shall see, “going back in time” also means being aware of one’s cinematic history, and how this knowledge also contributes to the layers of meaning in the movie.
The Multiple Meaning(s) of M
Though the character of M has obviously been a fixture in the franchise, never has decoding very richly layered references to this letter/character been as important as in this movie. Understanding and decoding M is in one sense the most important point of the movie, both in terms of the ‘surface’ plot (Silva’s revenge) and in terms of the viewers’ decryption of the movie and gaining intellectual and moral bearings. The fact that M is a woman obviously works symbolically to Mendes’ advantage in establishing symbolic connections to the ‘supreme’ head of the Empire, Her Majesty, representative of the Monarchy. At a lower institutional level the head of MI6, a central institution in the projection, defense, coordination and projection of Empire.