Simon Schama on Skyfall's Leaner, Meaner James Bond
Schama, Simon, Newsweek
Byline: Simon Schama
Shake us. Stir us. James Bond is back and cooler than ever. The iconic spy at 50.
50 years of excitingly detonated hardware and women breathing "Jaaames" in states of postcoital gratitude, thousands of air miles clocked en route to tropical lagoons where villainy lurks among the ravenous barracuda--and where has it gotten Bond? Trafalgar Square, that's where. There he sits in Skyfall (released Nov. 9), the latest, cleverest, and most psychologically gripping of all the Bond epics--in London's National Gallery, in a mood of uncharacteristic pensiveness. A geeky tousle-haired 20-something joins him on the bench, and to Bond's incredulity claims to be the new Q, the master of all those boxes of tricks that have gotten him out of impossibly tight spots over the past 50 years. He hands Bond the usual elegant leather case. But this time it appears, mystifyingly, to be ... merely a leather case. Inside is a gun. And that's it. "Not exactly Christmas, is it?" the agent says, looking like a small boy who has just been handed a present of socks. "What were you expecting," asks the baby Q with an expression of condescending pity, "an exploding pen? Sorry, we don't do that anymore."
Conscious of having to mark the half century of Bond without compromising the pure adrenaline rush of entertainment, Skyfall's director (Sam Mendes, born anno Thunderball, 1965) has packed the movie so full of memories that watching it almost feels like experiencing the whole cycle of the films from the time when JFK (predictably an Ian Fleming fan) and Harold Macmillan were in power, through the death pangs of the Cold War, and into the age of cyberterrorism. At one point in the new movie Bond unearths his most cherished antique: the Aston Martin DB5 first unveiled in 1964's Goldfinger. "Not very comfortable, is it?" complains Judi Dench's M, who herself has gotten to the point where creature comforts matter: "Where are we going?" "Back in time," replies Daniel Craig's Bond, looking bony and haunted like the lone gray wolf he has become.
Time travel, as anyone who watched the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics (with its droll pageant of the Industrial Revolution) will know, is a British obsession. There was a point in the middle age of the Bond films (roughly coinciding with late-period Roger Moore) when mindlessly robotic futurism set in: all whooshing monorails and lame displays of whatever British techno-inventions--the (doomed) vertical takeoff Harrier Jump Jet in The Living Daylights (1987), for instance--could be wheeled out to advertise to the world that Bond's Britain was more than just an academy in advanced social deportment. But these sweaty efforts at rebranding missed the beating heart of Bond's enduring appeal, which was an updated personification of the British "gentleman" in a world of murder, terror, and imminent nuclear annihilation. Perfect tailoring and clipped wit, maintained even as Bond was either being tortured by, or dishing it out to, some sadistic monster. Brit brains could beat doltish megalomania any day.
In James Bond's universe, the delusions of common little people aspiring to be Masters of the Universe would always be their undoing. "Little fish pretending to be bigger than they are," Sean Connery sneered at the title character's heavily magnified aquarium glass walls in the series's first film (Dr. No, 1962). In Goldfinger, Oddjob perishes from the steel-tipped bowler hat he so presumptuously wears along with his inexcusably ill-fitting suit. Commander Bond of Scotland's Fettes College (Tony Blair's alma) is not for a minute fooled by the old-school-tied psychopathic strangler Captain Nash, played by the great Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love (1963). With every grating "old man" Nash sends Bond's way, the less likely it is that he is really the British agent he claims to be. Ordering (O horror!) red wine with his fish in the dining car of the Orient Express just clinches the unmasking. …