On Skyfall

Spoilers galore ahead

The greatest Bond movie ever made – I think that, and I don’t particularly like Daniel Craig – and a necessary anti-Bourne corrective. Its themes pick up directly from Goldeneye: Is there a need for spies in the post-Cold War world? What is patriotism if the nation-state makes trained killers from orphans?

The extreme skepticism of the Bourne movies leads to thinking that all the government does is kill people and erase memories in the name of an abstract security and liberty. Quite frankly, it’s hard to see what we stand for when we increasingly fire missiles from drones and consider that and only that counter-terrorism policy. I’m not saying we should ram our values down other people’s throats. Just that it takes something more to see why evil is evil, to see why we need to pay tremendous, ironic costs for safety, justice, our way.

It’s a very thin line and Skyfall addresses it directly. M, for all practical purposes, has Bond shot in the opening as Bond is fighting for her and country. There is no reason for Bond to go back or care for MI-6. Yet he does when he sees MI-6 attacked.

It’s an open question whether this is just Bond’s instinct kicking in, whether he can be tempted by what a former agent turned villain promises. That former agent doesn’t just want revenge. If he outs all the NATO agents in the world, he can literally stop the system that spawned him. He will show it useless at even defending itself, not to mention others. If he goes further and kills M during a hearing, he can show intelligence useful for only nurturing grudges.

Bond doesn’t get tempted by the villain, despite the fact it isn’t clear M should be saved by anyone. The villain was basically a child-soldier, as are all the agents. Why shouldn’t he be angry? Why shouldn’t this system be dismantled? Bond needs to convince us that he stands for something worth standing for. He needs to justify himself. M argues before the MP questioning all of espionage that there are forces in the shadows which cannot be denied. She’s right, but it isn’t the whole truth.

The truth is that M isn’t a leader as much as a symbol. She’s incompetent to stop her former agent, who knows all MI-6’s tricks. Javier Bardem’s character has his best moments in the final battle at Skyfall. He uses a first wave of mercenaries to make Bond and company use up all their tricks in defending the manor. Then he calmly starts setting the house on fire after machine gunning it. The only way people get out is through a tunnel underneath the house, once meant for practitioners of a secret faith. The only way Bond turns the tables is that explosive substances were left in the house to keep it warm.

The metaphor is actually pretty subtle. Bond cries when M dies. It’s hard to see why duty for duty’s sake matters, especially when it seems an infinite regress. Bond loses his childhood home and the person he was supposed to protect. In material terms, all he does is kill the bad guy. Is that really a good? Or even anything just? The bad guy was simply part of a cycle of revenge, no?

Tradition – “our way” – is the infinite regress of duty. You can look at it as a cost you’re always paying or a source of near infinite strength. It sounds ridiculous to say the latter, especially since our greatest heroes stand up to bad ideas, bad traditions. But that’s just it: they start somewhere, they establish something. Now to look at literal costs gives one tremendous power. Like Javier Bardem’s villain, you can use computers to get others to cause explosions in the strangest places or rig elections. You just need to find the price for what you want and pay it. Tradition as a perpetual cost is priceless, for better or worse. It does create child-soldiers and horrific casualties.

But tradition has a power which matters in a positive sense. Bond’s patriotism is real. He does remember his childhood home; Scotland and England and the people in it matter to him. To a degree, he can sacrifice them because he knows they too stand for something. That’s the real power of tradition: trust. You can establish trust another way – Socrates certainly does – but it is unclear that can reach all men. Weirdly enough, there’s something univocally universal about patriotism. In declaring one’s own limits, one sets the stage for seeing others who are different.

There’s more. Smarts aren’t enough to deal with others, especially socially. Tradition makes one a leader more than a planner. Bond demonstrates this best with Moneypenny. He’s not telling her to stop being a field agent because she shot him. He tells her this because there are good people who can contribute best without being in the line of fire. You want to fight for as many as possible. The alternative is only fighting for oneself, all the time.

Again, this is a very thin line. Bond sure as hell looks like he’s fighting for himself, that he’s a rat who eats other rats just as much as the bad guy. And the bad guy’s revenge might even create a better world. The issues of establishing trust and fighting for others are matters of degree. It is difficult to know right from wrong. What’s funny about M talking about the shadows where evils need to be fought is her moral relativity stemming from a moral absolutism. Not that there are absolutely right answers, but that we need to start somewhere. Bond sees that exactly in Skyfall and draws his strength of will from it. Evil is real not because the bad guys don’t have a point, but precisely because they do.

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