Why all the swooning over “Skyfall?” Because, oddly enough, after 50 years we’ve only just begun exploring James Bond’s troubled psyche, and because director Sam Mendes has brilliantly made up for lost time by engineering the best possible conceit: an existential crisis for our iconic superspy. Thus, Mendes not only makes the case for Bond’s relevance in a world held captive to cyber terrorism (“Sometimes the old ways are the best”), but he’s also raised the bar for what we now expect dramatically from a Bond movie. There are even the inevitable whispers of Best Picture Oscar consideration.
However, Mendes readily admits that he couldn’t have made “Skyfall” without “Casino Royale” returning to Ian Fleming and without Daniel Craig as the best possible post-modern Bond. But after Craig demystified 007 in his first two outings, the great challenge was organically reintroducing some of the classic mystique to round out the character while giving us more fun.
“The main job that we had when we started with the writers [Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and John Logan] was to find a way to make Bond the story,” Mendes explains. “What you do is break him apart as a character and watch him put himself back together again. The idea of him dying, disappearing, and when he comes back finding everything different and himself a dinosaur: the past, in a sense, and even being unsure if he has a right to come back.
“That was something that really appealed to me. And here we borrowed to a large degree from ‘You Only Live Twice’ and ‘The Man with the Golden Gun.’ That sense of Bond as someone who disappears and becomes somebody else — what Fleming called ‘acidy,’ that deep sense of self-loathing and lack of respect for his profession. And the idea of trying to assassinate M, which is all rooted in Fleming, but you’re not playing with the same tropes over and over again.”
What’s become abundantly clear is that Connery and Craig now represent the two pillars of Bond: one effortless, the other conflicted, with the other Bonds somewhere in between. And by “going back to sea level” with “Casino Royale,” which removed pastiche completely as Mendes suggests, they’ve been able to weave back in a pleasurable sense of nostalgia in “Skyfall” with the classical wit, charm, and glam.
Indeed, up until Craig, Bond remained the unchanging constant (with the exception of the more personal and heartbreaking “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”). But that’s where Mendes seized the opportunity to advance Bond’s characterization by bringing together his inner and outer worlds into sharper focus. Indeed, Judi Dench’s M alludes to Bond as a present-day “Ulysses” fighting evil in the shadows by quoting Tennyson (“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”).
In addition, Bond has finally met his equal in baddie Silva (played flamboyantly and disturbingly by Javier Bardem). Talk about a doppelganger. Like a fallen angel, Silva represents the dark side of what Bond could become. “It’s also mirrored in the way he looks because he is Bond’s negative image,” Mendes adds about his favorite moment. “Bond arrives dressed in black and Silva arrives dressed in white.” The way Silva saunters into his lair to taunt Bond (who’s helplessly strapped to a chair) during this bravura six-minute dialogue scene –everyone at their best — even recalls the threatening grace of Connery. The much talked about sexual flirtation, though, shouldn’t necessarily be taken literally: it’s really part of the power struggle between them.
And there are so many layers to this Bond. I love early on how he’s more compassionate and M’s more ruthless. He stops to try and save a fellow agent dying in a hotel room in Istanbul while M orders him to forget it and move on. Mendes says Bond sees a reflection of his own mortality in his MI6 colleague and would hate to be in his position someday — alone and forgotten.
The director’s also proud of the introduction between Bond and Q (played by the young and nerdy Ben Whishaw) in the National Gallery. Elegantly written by Logan, the exchange drolly sums up “Skyfall’s” old school vs. new school conflict. “When Q says, ‘Every now and then a trigger has to be pulled,’ and Bond says, ‘Or not…it’s hard to know which in your pajamas,’ that in a nutshell shows why it’s not possible to operate in a remote way,” Mendes enthuses. “That’s why the true evil is drones and cyber terrorism. That’s the fucking end of the world.”
So while Mendes has set the table for Craig to continue as Bond with MI6 as his extended family for at least two more movies (it’s unconfirmed that Logan is scripting a two-part story), he’s uncertain he’ll return, but says he would be crazy to say no at this point. “I certainly have an interest, but I have to feel the same sense of ownership.”
But what does Mendes think about introducing an arch-villain (whether it’s a realistic incarnation of Blofeld or someone new)? “I think that there are all sorts of possibilities about things and people who could come back from the past. If I were them, I’d be thinking about that.”
Meanwhile, I will intensify my below the line awards coverage (including “Skyfall”) beginning November 19, with three columns a week plus an email blast of my Immersed in Movies newsletter on Indiewire.