Saturday, November 10, 2012

007 Skyfalls into Our World

One thing was on all Americans’ minds this week: His pressed suit, his disarming smile, his love of public service and whether he would be up to face new challenges in the world after a difficult four years.  I am of course talking about James Bond’s long awaited return to the big screen!  <Unless I’m forgetting about something…..>

Yes, after a four-year absence from multiplexes and a long affair with the ever-collapsing MGM that makes tussling with Goldfinger look pleasurable, Bond has returned to woo American audiences (he’s already been pumping the UK box office for two weeks) in the now playing Skyfall.  With his latest adventure, Daniel Craig’s 007 shakes off a botched mission by going after a villain from M’s past whose dark forgotten secrets force Bond to confront his own.  The knee-jerk reaction on the Internet so far has been this is a rip-off and pale imitator of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies—but what isn’t these days?—and is nothing more than The MI6 Agent Rises!  There is no denying that, like most Bond movies, it is influenced by other contemporary films.  After all, who can forget Craig dong his best Matt Damon impression in the shaky-cam savant flick, Quantam of Solace?  Skyfall’s director, arty Sam Mendes, even credits The Dark Knight with influencing his decision to wade into the world of 00’s.  Still, one of the many things being glossed over about this spy-thriller is what a pivot the film is for Bond’s producers.  While James has always had larger-than-life big bads who dream of either ruling or destroying the world, this is the first 007 flick to truly address our post-9/11 one with a villain who represents what terrifies western audiences in 2012.  Bond, a product of the Cold War, has for the first time in 20 years moved beyond it and into the terror of today.

In 1989 (the same year as the final and little-remembered Timothy Dalton Bond entry), the world was changing.  All signs pointed to the inevitable collapse of the Soviet Union.  On November 9 of that year, the East German government announced all GDR citizens could visit West Berlin and the rest of democratic Germany.  Within a year, the Berlin Wall would be gone.  A sense of hope was in the air.  In that era of Western good feeling and optimism, The National Interest published Francis Fukuyama’s infamous essay, “The End of History?”  His point, which he expanded upon with the book The End of History and the Last Man in post-Cold War 1992, was that liberal democracy had triumphed over the failed communist experiment of the Eastern European states and in the soon-to-be globalized world, all states and major players would share the same economy and friendly government relations.  Writes Fukuyama:

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

So in a nutshell, every nation will be some form of a democratic-republic in the future and have no ideological inclination to blow another one up.  Ergo, we citizens of the world have nothing to fear.  LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL!  It was certainly an idea that hit home to the Broccoli family (stewards of the Bond franchise).  It forced them to spend all of Pierce Brosnan’s tenure as Bond (1995-2002) defending the continued existence and need of the character.  In 1995’s much-loved GoldenEye, the series returned to the silver screen and tackled this problem head-on by featuring Bond flying into a post-Soviet Russia and teaming with ex-KGB and Russian patriots to stop a leftover monster from the Cold War.   

The rest of Brosnan’s films featured him fighting the horrors of the 1990s—North Korean communists, oil barons and Rupert Murdoch, oh my!  Of course, the starry-eyed dream of a liberal democratic utopia populated by peaceful Western states, one that had become a near religion for neoconservatives fixated on the 1980s, inevitably and tragically ended on September 11, 2001.

After 9/11, nobody thought they had reached the epilogue of World History.  The United States and much of the West became driven by the need to stop the existential threat of terrorism.  U.S. President George W. Bush famously dubbed this conflict as a “War On Terror.”  The war is fought as nebulously as the ever increasing TSA security measures in airports and as massively as the decade-long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Many mainstream Hollywood films grew darker and more cynical over this period in the last decade.  The cheeky humor of the Brosnan films suddenly seemed quaint and inappropriate in our culture and the Broccolis opted for a back-to-basics approach when they rebooted 007 with Craig in 2006’s Casino Royale.  Still, for his first two entries, Bond primarily fought smarmy European moneymen who worked for shadow-states as traditional and redundant as the ones Sean Connery defeated in the 1960s.

Enter Skyfall.  In the newest movie, Bond faces a deliciously evil villain known only as Silva.  The character, played broadly and brilliantly by Javier Bardem, features many of the hallmarks of a Bond baddie: He has bleached blond hair, a predilection for grandiose speeches and seemingly poor dental insurance.  However, he is the first Bond nemesis in a long, long time that is a reflection of our real fears today.  His goal is not to take over the world or even just accumulate money and power through evil deeds.  His goal is chaos and revenge against a state that did not even know it was in the crosshairs of an ideological madman.

Undeniably, there are some similarities between Silva and Heath Ledger’s iconic Joker in The Dark Knight.  But, Mendes and the writers are going for something more than following the cue of another in-vogue movie.  They are addressing why they think 007 is truly still needed.  In our “post-history” world, the threat is less-and-less other nations and states.  It is the non-state actors, driven not by the need to empower or protect a citizenry, but by an ideological desire for destruction.  Bond finds his boss, mentor and “mum,” Judi Dench’s superb M, besieged by politicians from the British Parliament in the wake of Silva’s terrorist attacks on London.  They are grappling with the same problems we are right now.  How do you confront an enemy who hides in the shadows?  Does invading a country stop an enemy who can simply slip across borders to evade capture?  What role does the security state and intelligence community, such as MI6, play in this “war?”

Silva acts alone for much of the film and confirms our anxieties in the modern world.  He will blow-up chunks of the London Underground as al-Qaeda horrifically did in 2005.  He uses cyberspace to dismantle MI6’s defenses in the kind of attack that former U.S. National Security Advisor Richard Clarke, the man who warned of Bin Laden’s determination to strike within the U.S. in 2001, dreads of in the book, Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It.  Silva even uses our interconnected world and media as a tool to endanger British lives when he leaks undercover MI6 agent names onto Youtube.  One doesn’t have to look abroad to see how non-state partisans with their own agendas can use technology and free speech to pursue goals while ignoring consequences, such as when a Florida pastor burned a Koran, despite being begged not to by the U.S. Secretary of Defense.

Silva is the face of chaos and fear in 2012.  In Skyfall, the Bond producers are announcing that their hero is not dated in the past, even as the franchise celebrates its 50th anniversary, but more relevant than ever.  When M stands before a Parliamentary hearing to be berated for her and the 00’s usefulness, she none-too-subtly announces the film’s real mission:

Today I repeatedly heard how irrelevant my department has become.  Why do you need agents, the 00 section?  Isn’t the world quaint?  Well, I suppose I see a different world than you.  And the truth is that what I see frightens me.  I’m frightened because our enemies are no longer known to us.  They do not exist on a map.  They’re not nations.  They are individuals.  Look around you.  Who do you fear?  Do you see a face?  A uniform?  A flag?  No, our world is not more transparent now.  It’s more opaque.  It’s in the shadows.  That’s where we must do battle.  So before you declare us irrelevant, ask yourselves, how safe do you feel?

The answer obviously is less so than before.  The threat is no longer the Soviet Union, a state whose pragmatic self-interests can be used to and even worked with on occasion as seen in the Roger Moore Bond films.  No, the threat is something insidious, hidden and unpredictable.  In such a world, it is comforting to be reassured by one predictability: It’s nice to have James Bond around to save the day.  Skyfall ensures he will be for a long time to come.

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