Given the rich panoply of films available this year, I may just turn this into a full-time movie review blog until Oscar season is over. We saw Skyfall last weekend (the new James Bond, third in the Daniel Craig era for those of you who aren't big fans) and enjoyed it a lot. I don't recommend it as heartily as Cloud Atlas (which you should see while it's in theaters, and then come over to our place the day it's released on DVD for the first of many communal viewings), but it's still a fine piece of action filmmaking. It reminded me of this summer's Batman movie in its use of a sympathetic villain with extra-monetary motivations. And, of course, it contained cogent discussions of workers' consciousness and how capitalism exploits us all. There are spoilers in the text below.
In Skyfall, a near death experience prompts Bond to question his own role in the order of things and leads to a questioning of the state monopoly on violence that pervades the film. When he's in a classic "battling the bad guy" stance on top of a moving train, M encourages a colleague to aim at the villain; she orders, and the agent shoots, despite the fact that doing so risks Bond's life and health. Somehow, he survives the bullet, but the service presumes him dead. He drinks away the betrayal in classic fashion with a beautiful woman on an island somewhere before returning to the service. But the Bond of the rest of this film is wiser than he was before. He made an devastating discovery--that the same state that uses him to kill others sees him as acceptable collateral damage.
For James Bond is a worker. Capitalism tries to glamorize the workers who do "important" work maintaining colonialist relations (like spies). However, those glamorous workers are no less expendable than the workers whose fruit stands and delivery mopeds were demolished in that first car chase.* Alas, Bond has grown addicted to the work, and allows MI-5 to start using him again because of patriotism or something. On his re-entry he receives not a hero's welcome, but an insulting battery of tests to demonstrate his fitness to keep on risking his life. These tests squarely align our hero with the working people in his audience--who doesn't have to endure such tests just for the privilege of performing the labor that sucks the marrow from our lives?
Lots of spoilers coming up.
This discussion of the exploitation of spies as workers continues when we meet the real villain, a clear foil to Bond. Like James, Silva (played oh so creepily by Javier Bardem and reason enough to see the movie) experienced pain and suffering as the byproduct of MI-5 goals (and specifically the actions of M); unlike James, he didn't return for more but struck out on a life of cyber-crime which threatens to bring down the whole system of secret agents. Silva has become the logical and perfect result of the spy agency, but he's stripped off the veneer of public interest to pursue pure capitalism. He hoards information and uses it for profit. He recognizes that humans aren't particularly secure embodiments of that information, though, and keeps it all on crazy-secure computers. The humans in his organization serve primarily as bullet absorbers, not information processors. He's taken in the values of the bureaucracy that screwed him over and now devotes his time to screwing over other people. And, naturally, he wants revenge on M, on whom he blames his months of torture.
M's character shades pretty darn ambiguous at this point. For Silva reveals that Bond was not really healthy enough to go back into the field, that she deceived him and ignored protocol (he failed those silly tests) because she needed an adrenaline junkie to take on this threat. M put him in harm's way for some nebulous greater good, just as she had put Silva in harm's way to gain the release of other agents. Both of them looked up to her and thought she was looking out for them; whether she was in fact defending the greater good or her own career is unclear.
Anyway, it turns out that Silva is also mad at Bond for replacing him as M's favored agent, so a big battle at Bond's childhood home ensues. The last third of the movie is none too consistent or believable, but lots of stuff blows up and the inscrutable master spy gets a back story.
Most importantly, M dies at the hands of this assault. We mourn her death, but we are also left asking if her end was, perhaps, just, that she used people as ends and deserved to die an unnatural death . Her extinction on the decaying altar of Bond's family chapel represents the end of the old hierarchies that have governed his life: his church deserted, the old family home and lingering parental presence turned to rubble, his beloved boss/mother figure/mentor killed both in body and in reputation.
An ending credit promises us that James Bond will return: but can he? Will he ever be the same after recognizing his disposability? Can he swear undying loyalty to an organization that does not return the favor? Can he ignore the corruption in which he's ensnared? It's up to the next director to sort this out, but I suspect he cannot continue his life without becoming more like Silva. He will emulate those he kills more than those that he protects.
*This opening chase highlights the lack of concern colonialist information industries have for their host cultures. Bond lays waste to fruit stands and delivery mopeds alike in pursuit of the villain, the livelihoods of many people a small price to pay for the thrill of fulfilling the needs of the state. One wonders if he will be so willing to hurt innocent bystanders after he himself becomes an innocent bystander.
N.B.This summer I reviewed "The Dark Knight Rises," a film than genuinely infuriated me and required me to read it against the grain. I do not mean to insinuate the same for Skyfall, which succeeds on many levels and which I enjoyed. It is an effective action movie and celebrates the Bond genre even while questioning M's motives and the justice of spying. Unlike Bane, Silva is not a class warrior. He is the end which exposes the evil of the means. The above is intended not as a demolition of the film, but an attempt to read the film through the lens of labor.