Spies and Superspies and SKYFALL

The latest entry into the longest running film series is history was superb.  I strongly recommend SKYFALL to anyone who shares my tastes in Bond films.

Being a penurious writer, and having four kids and zero babysitters, and being able to entertain myself much more cheaply with books, role-playing games, or any number of public domain books or films on the Internet, or stream content on Netflicks, it takes an extraordinary film to crowbar me out of my house and into the local gigamegahyperplex for the big screen experience, and to call the experience worth it.

SKYFALL was worth it.

That said, I cannot recommend the film to all James Bond fans. I can, however, recommend it to all fans of spy films and action films, and all those who are fans of any well-told story of any genre.

There was also a rather attractive Bond Girl in this episode, or two. I am a guy, and more shallow most, so to me, this is a selling point.

Let us stipulate that there are two threads or themes running through the James Bond films: one is the superspy film, and the other is the spy film.

On the one side is GOLDFINGER (the quintessential Bond film), THUNDERBALL, YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, SPY WHO LOVED ME, MOONRAKER and DIE ANOTHER DAY, which, as I recall, starred an invisible spymobile which raced through a palace made of ice being melted by a spacebourn death ray operated by a Fu Manchu disguised as an Englishman.

But let us not allow the excesses of MOONRAKER or other lighthearted absurdities of the dark days of Roger Moore detract from the essential glamour of the formula defined by and perfected in GOLDFINGER: Bond is a superhero in a tux with a redhead on one elbow, a Vodka martini in his left hand, a Walther PPK in his right, and the accelerator pedal of an Aston-Martin sportscar tricked out with machinegun headlamps under his impeccably polished shoe, which either contains a switchblade or a telephone. This is the first thread: the superspy found in high class gambling casinos or exotic locations with a dead blonde found on his silk sheets fighting the sinister agents of SPECTRE, and international terrorist agency about as realistic as COBRA or KAOS or THRUSH.

This is the superspy film.

On the other side is FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, LICENSE TO KILL and the non-satirical remake of CASINO ROYALE. These have more in common with Jason Bourne than Napoleon Solo. Bond is a spy who is trapped in a rail carriage with a bigger, stronger enemy agent, both men awkwardly struggling to kill the other. The plot revolves not around masterminds planning to obliterate the earth with neurotoxins, but about something like a defecting agent, or a missing decryption box, or an embezzler desperate to restore the missing funds to his Soviet masters before they kill him.

The enemy is SMERSH (a real counterintelligence agency of the Red Army from 1943-1946) or some other more realistic villain, such as an international drug smuggler or arms dealer.

This is the spy film.

SKYFALL is a spy film. I cannot give even the briefest description of the plot without spoiling at least some surprises.

Nor will I say it is as good as GOLDFINGER, which, to my mind, is the definition of a Bond film, the yardstick to which the rest are compared. But I will say it is better than any film before or since.

A reviewer is beholden to mention his own preferences and prejudices when he gives his judgment. Forgive a short digression:

I am a fan of spy films and not as impressed with superspy films. In particular, I disliked MOONRAKER. Part of the danger of being a science fiction writer is that one becomes over-sensitive to  even minor scientific mistakes, such as, in MOONRAKER, a space shuttle being able to take off from the back of its jumbo jet carrier with dry tanks, eluding air traffic control, or all the troopers assaulting the space station just so happened, in zero-gee, all to have their heads pointing the same way, but they do not tilt their bodies to minimize the target presented the enemy fire (which considered of laser that were somehow visible in the vacuum.) And the plotline was some silly variation of Dr. Noah’s bacillus, a highly contagious germ, which, when distributed in the atmosphere, would make all women beautiful and destroy all men over 4’6″. Dr Noah (his name was actually Hugo Drax, which is just as bad) planned to wipe out all surface life. Jaws, the single most impressive henchmen of all Jamesbonddom returned in this film as a Herman Munster comedy relief character. I hated it.

Because of this, I was delighted when I saw it, lo, these many years ago, with FOR YOUR EYES ONLY,  the next film in the franchise, which concerned Russians and British spies hunting for a lost decryption machine from a down submarine, while dodging Greek Mafia. I still recall with awe the slow, but unromanticized  underwater fight scene between a bathysphere and a man in deep-sea diving armor, which ended suddenly (and horribly) when James Bond used a core sampling drill to piece the enemy’s faceplate. I also loved the car chase scene near the beginning of the film down the narrow and twisted mountain roads of Attica, and Bond is not in his tricked-out Triphibian Atomicar with laser periscope and folding Chitty-chitty-bang-bang style wings, but in some dinky VW Bug or something. He had to rely on his native wit and courage to escape.

I will also admit to a fondness for ON HIS MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, staring the actor whose name is an instant trivia question, George Lazenby. This is because the Countess played by Diana Rigg was, in my opinion, the best of the Bond women and the only one who could hold her own with him, and could win his heart. That underrated film not only had the best outdoor chase scene that the film making technology of the time could perform, it is perhaps the only one which had plot that changed something permanent about the character of James Bond.

Now you know my likes and dislikes. End of digression. Back to talking about SKYFALL.

I can say without spoilers that James Bond is given more depth, more past, and a greater range of emotion to his character, similar to what was done in LICENSE TO KILL or ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. The action is not romanticized, and the unforgiving harshness of the war in the shadows played out by spies is emphasized.

Nonetheless, all the old and familiar elements of the James Bond formula make an appearance, even if only in cameo: in one scene Bond is in a tux, in a casino, seducing an absurdly gorgeous femme fatale to leading him to her mysterious boss, for example, and there is a komodo dragon in a pit underfoot.

But every element is given a slight twist, a new approach, a new take on the old material, which was clever and engaging.

More than one of the themes repeated in the film questioned the role that characters like Bond and M are supposed to play in the modern postcoldwar world. I was reminded of the second STAR TREK movie, the good one, where the theme of Captain Kirk’s encroaching age in his fitness for command was brought up.

The question is brought up more than once why, in the information age, when computers are practically omniscient, men are still needed in the field?

The film also gave Dame Judi Dench something to do as ‘M’ above and beyond the exposition monologue, which, in the television show MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE was performed by a tape recorder.

SPOILERS BELOW! STOP READING NOW! GO SEE THE FILM FIRST! THEN COME BACK!

At the risk of spoiling your surprise, I’d like to describe the opening scene in the film, and make a comment about the last.

I will say first that the last scene in the film, the final confrontation between James Bond and the enemy agent reminded me strongly of Sam Peckinpah’s STRAW DOGS. Bond has no fancy array of gadgets at his command when the lonely old house on the moors of Scotland where he has been run to ground is approached by the enemy. He is outgunned and outnumbered and has to rely on improvised weapons, mother wit, and a crusty old groundskeeper with a hunting rifle. The scene is awesome. If you are expecting a big-budget spectacle fight scene between two men in atomic iceskates atop a melting glacier during the launch of a spacerocket, this is not it. If you want to see Bond fight his foe to the last grain of gunpowder, the last bullet, the last knife, this is it.

The firs t scene I want to describe merely as a teaser, to let you know what kind of film this is, and in what unexpected directions the plot goes.

The film opens without the expected view through a gunbarrel  of Bond turning and shooting the gunman, which I missed.

It does open with Bond entering a darkened room where two men are dead and the third is dying, his blood leaking out. Bond sees that the McGuffin, a disk drive containing the names of all operatives of all England’s NATO allies, is missing. Bond applies pressure to the wound of the dying man, hoping to stop the bleeding, and calls over the radio for backup. M orders him to leave the dying man and pursue the enemy. Reluctantly  Bond hands his hanky to the dying man, and puts the man’s hand over the wound as if in hopes that the semiconscious man can save his own life without help. Then Bond walks out. Without a word.

There, in the first ninety seconds of the film, is the gripping yet horrible theme of the spy business in miniature.

There follows the typical (and typically extraordinarily well filmed) car chases over the rooftops of Istanbul and fight on top of a speeding train in a tunnel with a steamshovel we might expect in a Bond film.

Then the unexpected happens. Bond’s fellow agent, Eve, is stationed on a hilltop overlooking the train tunnel with a sniper rifle in hand, waiting for Bond and the enemy agent to emerge from a tunnel onto a trestle. The train roars into view out of the tunnel mouth. Bond and the enemy are locked in a wrestling embrace. Eve reports to M that she does not have a clear shot. We see the sniper’s crosshairs slide shakily across the struggling faces of Bond and the foe. M tells the sniper to take the shot. The sniper hesitates. She was flirting with James a moment earlier, so maybe she is a little sweet on him, over and above the natural reluctance to put a fellow agent’s life in danger. This is also Eve’s first time in the field. M says in a voice like steel: “Take the bloody shot!”

Eve’s finger tightens on the trigger. Bang! A shot rings out.

And it is James Bond, not the enemy, who goes over the side of the train, off the trestle, and into the Bosporus.

M demands to know what happened. Dead silence hangs in the air a moment. Then Eve’s voice comes over the radio, only slightly shaky. “Agent down.”

Back in London, the day after M is typing up James Bond’s obituary, she is called before her civilian superior in the Ministry, told that the Prime Minister is very concerned about the recent lapses in her department, and ordered to put her affairs in order. “You’re firing me?!” M asks in cold incredulity.

With perfect (and perfectly English) icy geniality,  the Minister replies: “Not at all. You are going to volunteer to resign in two month’s time, whereupon you will be awarded the CMG*.”

To which he adds, without turning a hair, “Congratulations.”

He then tells her that she is to appear before a Parliamentary committee to answer for her lapse of judgment and mismanagement. The failure in Istanbul, the death of an agent, has consequences.

I lack the superlatives of even my overabundant vocabulary to describe this film. I will settle by calling it fantastic.

If that word does not do, you tell me the last time you saw a Bond film where 007 was shot to death in the opening intro, not a duplicate like FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE or a deception like YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, but because a fellow agent was inexperienced and missed the moving target, the mission is botched, and M gets told she is being fired when the political fallout hits the fan.

You tell me the last time you saw a Bond film with a real honest-to-Bond plot, and the plot kept you engaged and kept you guessing. Got a Bond film in mind? This one does it better.

*FOOTNOTE: Not being English, nor familiar with their acronyms, I misremembered this line of dialog. It was not the MNOG, the Most Noble Order of the Garter, M was being offered. It was the CMG, the Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George, the highest honor given to civil servants after a long and distinguished career. A reader has brought the error to my attention.

About John C Wright

John C. Wright is a practicing philosopher, a retired attorney, newspaperman, and newspaper editor, and a published author of science fiction. Once a Houyhnhnm, he was expelled from the august ranks of purely rational beings when he fell in love; but retains an honorary title.
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16 Responses to Spies and Superspies and SKYFALL

  1. Speaking of spies… you ever watch the TV show Burn Notice?

    I think the show is might be more realistic about it than Bond (poor Micheal, the man goes through a lot).

    Of course, I did like this movie because it had some scenes in Scotland (the country of my ancestors).

  2. gray mouser says:

    I have to admit, Daniel Craig has been the only actor that has been able to make me more than passing interested in the Bond films. I have thoroughly enjoyed them all since he took over, not just for his acting but also (and more importantly) the writing. I am definitely looking forward to seeing Skyfall though it will likely be relegated to my netflix queu since my wife and I are planning on seeing “The Hobbit” when her parents come visit and watch the kids. (While I enjoyed Peter Jackson LotR films, especially the director’s cuts I pray that there are no dwarf-tossing jokes in this one.)

  3. ErisGuy says:

    I liked “Skyfall,” and I’ll watch it again on DVD.

    In the division between the super science Bonds and improbable Bonds, it is wise to remember that in the first Bond movie, “Dr. No, ” the villain had metal hands and a nuclear reactor off (IIRC) Jamaica. “Goldfinger” with its lasers (science 20 minutes into the future in 1964) and nuclear weapon is an edge case. “Goldfinger,” even today, is less believable than Clancy’s “The Sum of All Fears” (the book, not the alleged movie with the same title) though both involve detonating a nuclear weapon.

    The most un-Bondian items in “Skyfall” were two deaths which I hadn’t expected. One was acceptable as a plot element, but gave me a bad feeling like the sick violence in “Enter the Dragon” (which has its climax on a similar island lair*) the other was unfortunate.

    I never saw several of the later Moore films and don’t want to.

    *Come to think of it, lots of Bond’s villains have island lairs.

    • While it was too detailed to go into the article, I want to mention my opinion that DR NO and GOLDFINGER are actually the overlap space, both what I called a spy film and what I called a superspy film. I think GOLDENEYE hit that sweet spot also, as did Bloefeld’s plan in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. So, in other words, yes, you are right and I agree. Dr No was a superspy villain as Auric Goldfinger’s death by laser was a superfuturistic death trap.

  4. rlbell says:

    That car in For Your Eyes Only was not just any “dinky VW Bug or something”, but a Citroen 2CV. What separates the 2CV from other “dinky VW Bug or something” vehicles was that the then-CEO of Citroen would have been proud to be seen driving around in it and even had the roofline raised, so that he would not need to remove his hat. It also had a suspension built to allow it to be driven across a plowed field (farmers were a target market).

    While I have not had a chance to rewatch them since finding out, I have a newfound love for Moonraker and, to a lesser extent, The Spy Who Loved Me, as the man behind the visual effects was Derek Meddings. Derek Meddings developed his craft through his work with Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, culminating in Space:1999. Moonraker is a Thunderbirds type of movie with live actors and a big budget

  5. Sean Michael says:

    While I enjoyed reading the James Bond books, I can’t say I really cared for any of the Bond movies. Most of them, except for GOLDFINGER, did not seem very faithful to the books. So, while I might watch them when they appear on TV, I doubt I’ll ever go to a movie theater to see a Bond movie.

    ALSO, as a hard SF fan, I far prefer my spies set in space and on other worlds than Earth. Which means, to the boredom of many, I far prefer Poul Anderson’s stories featuring Dominic Flandry in works like ENSIGN FLANDRY, A CIRCUS OF HELLS, THE REBEL WORLDS, etc. It’s my belief that Anderson was realistic about how the rivalry of opposing powers will be the driving force behind intelligence/spy work.

    I have two works in particular by Anderson giving intelligent discussions and practical examples of what real spy work is like: WE CLAIM THESE STARS! (usually found in collections such as AGENT OF THE TERRAN EMPIRE) and A KNIGHT OF GHOSTS AND SHADOWS. ENSIGN FLANDRY also has a Naval Intelligence officer talking about the ethics of intelligence work with Flandry.

    So, compared to the Dominic Flandry stories, I find the James Bond books, at least the post SMERSH ones, rather too fluffy for my taste.

    Sean M. Brooks

    • This movie is different and better than the previous Bond films. You may find it to be more like the books. (I have not read the books, and so cannot say.)

      • Sean Michael says:

        Dear Mr. Wright:

        And your views do carry weight with me! So, if you like SKYFALL, then I have to take that film seriously as well. All the same, I do hope you read some of the Bond books as well, when you have time. IMO, the best ones are the books featuring SMERSH and its agents as the bad guys.

        And maybe a commentary on one of the Dominic Flandry books as well? (Smiles)

        Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

  6. Pingback: DYSPEPSIA GENERATION » Blog Archive » Spies and Superspies and SKYFALL

  7. Cambias says:

    I enjoyed the heck out of Skyfall. It’s one of the most visually striking movies I’ve seen since Stanley Kubrick died.

    Making it more of a “spy movie” than a “Bond movie” was necessary. I think one big problem the Bond movies have faced during this century is that the world of espionage isn’t mysterious and glamorous to the audience any more. We can see over-the-top madmen with Bond Villain plots on the evening news — and all too often Bond isn’t around to stop them. We all know a lot about how the CIA and the British SIS operate.

    This puts the Bond moviemakers in somewhat of a bind: if they’re too realistic it destroys the wonderful charm of the adventure. But if they try to live in an imaginary world of superspies and Nehru-jacketed bad guys, the audience just can’t suspend disbelief any more. They hit the right spot in Skyfall.

    And there’s the big elephant in the room: Islamic terrorism. That’s the main intelligence/covert ops issue of the modern era, and the Bond movies have avoided it like it was a Bond Girl’s lawyer with a child-support order. Bond battled Commies during the Cold War, lots of Evil Rich Dudes, and . . . that’s it, really. Even in the Casino Royale reboot the “terrorist” bad guys were all Europeans (with a couple of Scary Black Men thrown in for no good reason). 

    What’s the main geopolitical fantasy of pretty much every person outside the Islamic world? Making those bearded murderous assholes knock it off. Bond offered reassurance that Our Guys would prevail in the Cold War; if he were to offer the same reassurance now you’d have to pay audiences to stay away from the moviehouses. And until Bond tackles that issue, the air of unreality will haunt the series.

    • You make an excellent point, quite excellent, but I do notice that there was at least a nod of the head in the direction of the terrorist bad guys: the spies killed when the first five names on the McGuffin list were outed were killed in the Middle East, by Jihadi. It was in the background, but it was there.

      I also thought that the “do you feel safer?” speech by M in the committee room scene was a veiled reference to the Terrorist threat.

      I agree it is unrealistic to have spy film that does not show the current world drama, and I agree it is unrealistic to expect the establishment films to be realistic. Well said.

      You are right that the film makers are in a bind. If they wrote a Bond film where England, or, as it will soon be called, Englandistan, the country where they strip the cross from the Union Jack and dismantle statues of Boars in reply to Jihadi demands, where it it no longer legal, due to hate speech laws, to discuss Islam except in terms of unctuously fawning political correctness — I say again If they wrote a Bond film where England was shown sending agents to kill Terrorists rather than kneel and kiss the hairy hindquarters of Islam, the audience would laugh itself sick.

      Not just Bond films, but all films are in the same bind. Political Correctness is a monomaniacal mental disease, and it allow for only one enemy — rich white males — and only one plotline — rebellion of the plucky underprivileged victims against the rich white males. PC is as much an enemy of drama as it is an enemy of logic and common sense.

  8. Anthony Tan says:

    John, could you comment a bit more on the theme of tradition vs modernity in the film, and connected to that, the religious references (“Think on your sins”, “Resurrection”, Bond’s Catholic ancestors etc.).

  9. RogerGriffin says:

    Although Goldfinger was a great Bond film, From Russia With Love was, for me by far the best of them all. The least oulandish, most believable plot, characters and action and introduced the Secret Agent Atache’ which every red blooded boy of 12 years of age and older had to have.
    Skyfall was one of the better ones and Daniel Craig ranks second only to the real Bond, Sean Connery but, for the life of me I could not stop thinking about Home Alone for the last 30-40 minutes of the film. I kept imagining Javier Bardem with paint splatterd all over him, his hair on fire and the imprint of a brick on his forehead.

  10. Carbonel says:

    ************spoiler warning********************

    One thoughtful piece of artistry was the way in which the first and last scenes echoed one another. A British agent, shot by the ruthless enemy, will bleed to death if not treated. A ruthless superior commands the agent on the scene to abandon attempts to save him because the cost if Bond takes pity on his comrade will be too high. In the final scene, said superior dies from a similar wound: one she chose to remain silent about, lest Bond take pity on her: the cost would have been too high.

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