The flag which braved the battle and the breeze,
no longer owns her.
Okay, it’s naff, but here it is: the distillate wisdom from the latest Bond installment. I am looking at the film not as a piece of art, but rather as a prism through which we might gauge some signs of the times. If the cliché holds true that art imitates life, let’s look at what is being imitated in order to get a different perspective on it. In Skyfall we can see a continuation of the trend started out in 2006′s Casino Royale: a tougher, more gritty portrayal of our hero. But we can also see some novelties, and not the kind that Q normally serves up.
Human Agency: Warts and All…
Gone are the gadgets that so often dominate Bond films. Instead, we have a cyber-violence element running as an undercurrent in the film, which is interesting, if not particularly well developed. It is along this trope, though, that we can detect some tensions, tensions behind human agency (pun very much intended) and technological wizardry. The choice is made very stark in the film. The wet-behind-the-ears Q asserts that ‘we don’t go in for [exploding pens] anymore’, as so much more can be accomplished with just a keyboard and some 1s and 0s. The Baddy (Mr Silva), too, lectures Bond on the ease with which he can wreak havoc from behind his computer. As a foil to this ’pure-play’ technological option, Bond presents the polar opposite–human activity. We see this plainly in the exchange between the new Q and 007:
Q: I can do more damage on my laptop in my pyjamas than you can do in a year in the field.
Bond:Then what do you need me for?
Q: Every now and then a trigger has to be pulled.
Bond: Or not pulled. It’s hard to know which in your pyjamas…
While this can be taken as read, there are some more subtle aspects of this supposed dichotomy that are of particular interest to me.
The first is that while Bond seems to be championing the role of the human in spy work, he is a recent victim of it himself. Ms Moneypenny, his partner in the opening chase scene of the film, pulled the trigger alright (after a moment of doubt, egged on remotely by another human–M) resulting in James taking a bullet and falling to his death. Yes humans may be needed to make judgements, but it must be remembered that they sometimes make lousy ones. It is not quite as simple as two legs goooddd, no legs baaaddd.
Second, while we might be persuaded to agree with Q–given the havoc wreaked by Mr Silva and his hacking (as an aside, was his terrifically bad dye-job supposed to conjure up images of any other real-life computer baddies, I wonder?)–we can see that the computer mischief is limited to the manipulation of physical (or at least tangible) things (gas valves being opened, secret identities being broadcast on YouTube). What we see is not ‘pure-play cyber violence’ but rather physical events which cause the real harm.
And, of course, the cyber world has its own double edged swords. Networks may allow Q to do a great deal in his PJs, but they also contain the very vulnerabilities that others can exploit.
To fight on, if necessary for years, if necessary alone…and on the cheap.
In the film, all the ‘Good Guys’ are under attack: England, MI6, M, Bond himself. And there is no one there to help. Missing in action, just when James might need him most is Felix Leiter, the CIA ‘supporter’ so often on hand to provide 007 with some key piece of ‘intel’, heavy machinery, or cold hard cash. There are no drones to do the dirty work, no ten minutes grace, no cut-outs, fall-backs, or hand-offs. Is this a reflection of the UK today? Its European allies are drowning in their own debt, the other half of its Special Relationship is increasingly pre-occupied.
Then again, perhaps this is fitting, since the enemy this time is also homegrown…a former British agent who has become radicalised. He is a left-over from Hong Kong days, something from the past come back to bite. He knows the system, and its weaknesses. But Silva is not the only enemy…bureaucrats and politicians who ‘just don’t get it’ are also threats to survival for M, for MI6 and maybe to Britain itself.
Besides the isolation, we detect a whiff of despair in the Britain of Skyfall. Something once great (like the old country house of Bond’s childhood), hunkered down, boarded up, a shadow of its former glory. So while Q tells Bond that “exploding pens” are something passé (so 1983!), we get the impression that UK, plc just can’t afford them anymore. Bond is sent out to do a job for which he is unfit, unsteady, and unsure. His–and Britain’s–finest hour feels like it happened a long time ago.
Though much is taken, much abides
So where do we go from here? We are left with the unmistakable message (from both the late and present ‘M’s) that there is no shortage of work to do. James–shaken, stirred and bruised–has a ‘to do’ list that goes on and on. The late M’s impassioned (and slightly corny) use of Tennyson in her parliamentary testimony, serves as the leitmotif for what is to come next. It is not so much the hackneyed final line of Ulysses which sums up Bond (and Britain, too). Yes, yes…not to yield and all that. Good, good. A few lines before the end of the poem better captures the essence of the Bond of Skyfall–and I would say the Britain of today, too:
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are