Skyfall: The Best Bond (James Bond) Film Ever Made
I will confess that I have wanted to write this article for a long time but was able to come up with a proper format. Those of you who have followed my columns know that I actually started a separate series on James Bond movies in which I claimed a) that I found them all fundamentally flawed growing up and b) that the Daniel Craig version resolved every problem I had with them. Now I am finally ready to write about it.
When Skyfall came out, I thought it would be fitting for the Academy Awards to nominate it for Best Picture. There were many reasons to do so, the most obvious being that it was the 50th anniversary of Dr. No and the Oscars was already planning to celebrate it. What better reason to do so then to nominate a Bond film for Best Picture?
And it would have been a decision that not only fans of Bond would have celebrated. In dealing with the Oscar nominations for 2012, Entertainment Weekly putting a word out for Skyfall in its For Your Consideration box. Roger Ebert and Leonard Maltin had each given it four stars (for Maltin that’s a harder bar to reach). And few who have seen the film before or since can argue that it is not one of the premiere action movies — if not among the best films period — of the 21st century. To call it the best James Bond film of all time is a high bar for some to make, but in my opinion it’s not a close question.
While some will quibble about the idea that Daniel Craig is the best James Bond, I don’t think I’ll get much debate that he is by far the most realistic one. Craig has nailed every aspect of Bond since the opening moments of Casino Royale in which we literally saw him become 007. He doesn’t make jokes about the killings he commits; he is cold and angry in a way none of the other Bonds have been and he is capable of loving the most deeply. The fact that from Quantum of Solace on Craig had to be dragged kicking and screaming into every Bond film actually helps his performance; you can sense his reluctance every time he is called back into action, and he has no patience for any of his superiors and few of the agents he works with. This is true in all of his film but never more so than Skyfall.
Any discussion of the film justifiably begins with the opening, considered one of the greatest opening sequences of any film in history. It plays like an action film itself as Bond goes through the streets of a marketplace chasing a man who has names of key MI6 operatives. He’s accompanied for the first time by a fellow agent who we only know as Eve most of the movie. Naomie Harris tears into this role as the first woman you’re actually rooting for Bond to hit it off with. (The Craig films did a much better job with female roles overall than the previous forty years had.) The sustained chase of the agent leads to what very well may be the quintessential Daniel Craig moment as James Bond: in the midst of a train car that is decoupling, he leaps from one, and as the back of it disappears behind him, he briefly pauses to roll up the sleeve of his coat that got mussed when he was jumping.
The sequence unfolds with more than just Bond, of course, throughout Eve is chasing him and in the midst of all the action there is a moment of tension when Eve has a shot to take out the enemy but could hit Bond. M listening in London keeps ordering her before she finally loses patience and says: “Take the bloody shot!” We hear the bang and see Bond fall. We cut back to London and her a disconsolate Eve say: “Agent down.” M walks to the window and folds her arms. It’s one of the few times in her tenure with Craig as Bond that she actually shows emotion.
And of course then we get the single greatest Bond song and opening number in the history of the franchise, at least in my opinion. Countless James Bond films have won Best Song over the years and I don’t question the ability of many of the quality of the artists. Ever since Shirley Bassey electrified us with ‘Goldfinger’ (she did the same thing at the 2013 Oscars) they’ve been some of the most memorable moments in film history. But few have had the power of Adele’s voice in the context of what we are seeing in the opening and the nature of the film that is to come.
Craig’s performance is a masterwork because we are seeing a James Bond we never have. Bond has survived countless near death experiences over the decades, but this is the first one that genuinely seems to have counted. From the moment the film begins in earnest Bond is clearly going through PTSD and time and again throughout much of the film, he doesn’t seem like the Bond we know. We know he’s failed his physical and psychological screening before he does and in so many of the sequences (I’ll get to a couple) he is shakier than we have seen him. Even the banter when people die in front of him seems like a man who is just not up to the challenge of being back. You get the feeling very early on that M has sent him after the target not because she thinks he’s capable of it but because she thinks he isn’t. She wants to catch Silva and if they both die, so much the better.
Silve is in my opinion the best villain that we’ve ever seen in the history of Bond and this is an opinion that was shared at the time and beyond. In the same article that suggested Skyfall be nominated for Best Picture, Entertainment Weekly suggest Javier Bardem be nominated for Best Supporting Actor. The SAG Awards actually did just that. It would have been a difficult argument to make that the five actors who did get nominated did not deserve their nominations but Bardem’s work was at the level of all five. Roger Ebert remarked on Silva’s blond hair and that his first major attack is to expose the names of MI-6 operatives who are working undercover and compared him with Julian Assange. I don’t know if the three screenwriters of the film did so deliberately but there is a style to Silva’s behavior as well as the fact that we first see him in exile in a foreign country that makes us think this is a deliberate choice.
It is a matter of how James Bond movies work that the plans of the villains are always ridiculously convoluted and complicated; indeed Q and Bond actually discuss this very fact at a certain point in the film. The reason we don’t think this way is because, at it’s core, Silva’s plan is brutally, painfully simple. He was a former MI-6 agent who was taken prisoner and who M exchanged with a foreign government. All of his actions are directly as an attack as her: he intends destroy her home (the attack on the base of operations) cripple her professionally and finally kill her. It’s worth noting that unlike almost every Bond villain in history, he actually succeeds at all of his basic goals, and the fact that he does not destroy the institution she believes in may be due to pure luck than nothing else.
If Casino Royale rebooted James Bond, for all intents and purpose Skyfall reboots the Bond movie. This is clear in the fact that this is Judi Dench’s final appearance as M. On a side note, I thought that Dench deserved to be nominated for Best Supporting Actress that year (I chose her over Jacki Weaver who was nominated for Silver Linings Playbook.) One would be hard pressed to say that Dench has not received a fair amount a love from the Oscars in my lifetime: by 2012, she had received six Oscar nominations (the first when she was 62!) and has gotten two more since. Yet I still believe she deserved recognition for her work as M here.
In her first appearance as the character in Golden Eye she referred to Pierce Brosnan’s Bond as ‘a Cold War relic’. In Skyfall, this term could far more easily apply to her. Dench’s M has always seemed more cold and ruthless in Craig’s film but she reaches a whole new level from the start of the film when she orders Bond not to attend to a mortally wounded man’s injury. She seems more concerned throughout both the attack and the personal messages that Silva sends her over the film as to job security than anything else. She is rigid to everyone she deals with, not just when it comes to Bond, but everyone who might help her. When Malory comes to her and tells her she has to go before a public inquiry, she barely seems to have use for the democratic process (most intelligence people feel that way) and she shows no remorse for Bond in the aftermath of his attack or repentance for what she did to Silva to force him that way. Part of me almost wonders when she learns about the fact that Silva has escaped and she gives her speech to Parliament that she knows her life is in danger but she wants to make very clear her point about how necessary her agency is. What better way than to have them shot at? Even when Bond saves her in the final act, she seems more annoyed that she has to risk her life than this might end the threat.
It’s pretty clear given how prominent Ralph Fiennes is as Malory that the movie is setting him up to be the next M and its also clear how much more suited he is to the world of today’s intelligence that Judi Dench. He has a background in intelligence in a way that makes everybody initially suspicious and its clear he’s also a more adaptable both to the politics of today’s surroundings and the methods of intelligence. In subsequent films he will become just as ruthless as Dench when it comes to destroying the enemies but there’s always a sense of guilt to his actions that we don’t see in Dench in her appearances until the very end.
Skyfall finally finds a way to reboot Q. When Desmond Llewelyn died, replacing Q did not seem an option. Having seen Ben Whishaw, I now can’t imagine a better choice. Llewelyn seemed like an elegant aide; Whishaw leans in to a young nerd that we all really thought Q is these days. The first meeting between Craig and Whishaw is hysterical and has just the right amount of flirtation to it. (Was anyone surprised when we later learned this Q is gay?) Q is wry and has such enough self-knowledge to know how to behave. (The joke about the exploding pen is priceless as is his reference not to damage the equipment.) Whishaw has enough of a career that he will always be busy on other projects; but I will love seeing him play Q for as long Llewelyn did.
Because a Bond movie is known for extraordinary action sequences we get a lot of them, but in Skyfall they show a Bond for more shattered. In an exception ten minute set-piece we see Bond in Hong Kong tracking down a target from the airport to a balcony that unfolds with no dialogue until the very end. Throughout Craig is shown as one step off, missing stunts the old Bond would make easily, bumbling shots he used to make and at the end, losing the grip of the target by accident rather than on purpose. In his initial scene with Silva (which like with Q has a flirtatious vibe0 Bond seems more at a disadvantage than he does when he’s usually taken prisoner by the bad guy. He seems more shaken at the death of the woman he seduced who Silva chooses to kill and he doesn’t manage to win by any physical feat rather than an action that he’s learned on his own. When Silva is captured, he’s far less patient with Q than he usually is even as he follows Silva into the underground. (There’s a fair amount of deadpan humor here too.)
And in the final half-hour Bond returns to his origins what amounts to the home where he was raised as an orphan. (This would be the final screen appearance of Albert Finney who truly relished the role.) Bond clearly seems to have come back here not just because it is a territory he knows he will have an advantage on but because his loathing of it as a child means that he can lay it to ruin with no remorse. His last line before he blows it up is: “I’ve always hated this place” and we know given his actions he means it with every fiber of his being.
The final minutes seem to be both an end and coming full circle. We learn, with little true surprise, that Eve’s last name is Moneypenny and she’s no longer going to be in the field. Malory has taken over as M and his last words were if he wants Bond to get back to work: “With pleasure, M,” Bond says, even though we’re not truly sure if Bond means it.
Spectre and No Time to Die both clearly had the methods of wrapping up the Bond franchise for good, even though as we watched the final minutes of the latter we knew it just wasn’t going to happen. Replacements for Craig had been discussed as far back as 2010, with luminaries such as Idris Elba being mentioned. (Jeopardy actually did an entire category devoted to it in 2013.) But it will be nearly impossible in my opinion for anyone to come close to the majesty of Daniel Craig’s work in these films and Skyfall particular. In a review of Layer Cake a 2004 action film Craig appeared in, Roger Ebert reacted to the idea of Craig as the next Bond as saying: “Who would wish James Bond on anyone?” He changed his mind after Casino Royale. Going forward any future Bond will have to answer to the role the way that Thomas Jefferson was told he was replacing Ben Franklin as ambassador to Paris: they will succeed Craig; no one will replace him.