A British flag flutters in the wind against a grey sky. It is weary, but resilient, and in the face of everything, it is still flying. This image appears towards the end of both the last two James Bond films, Skyfall and Spectre. Of course, the Bond franchise has always been suffused with British patriotism. But in their latest incarnation, the films have come to embody a more specific strain of British pride. The spirit on display in the two Sam Mendes-directed instalments is defiant, independent, and conservative to the point of being reactionary. In the wake of Spectre, it is worth reflecting once again on the political agenda that is being subtly and not-so-subtly promoted by these movies.
It will be generally conceded that the central theme of Skyfall was the place of a man like James Bond in the modern world. Bond is a man of the past: he represents a code of values, a manner of personal conduct, and a version of masculinity that all belong to the middle decades of the 20th century. So the film shows him being rejected by the world he now lives in, as government bureaucrats – depicted as a typically petty-minded bunch – demand that his place in the intelligence services be justified. In this contest, we are expected to land firmly on the side of Bond and Judi Dench’s “M,” insisting that men like Bond are still valuable. But the battle lines extend far beyond the literal question of whether we still need field agents in an age of digital intelligence. The true question at stake is whether Bond’s defiance of authority, casual willingness to exploit women for sex, and careless disregard of moral responsibility are still an appropriate model for male behaviour. Skyfall’s answer to this question is pretty clear. And it’s not a good one.
“To the past,” says Bond, when M asks him where he’s taking her before the final confrontation. For the past, he believes, is the place where they have the advantage. They are facing down a quintessentially modern enemy of the conservative establishment: the peroxide-blonde computer mastermind who undermines Western governments by hacking into their systems and exposing their secrets to the world. (Yes, Silva is a Julian Assange figure.) The only way for Bond to defeat the villain, the film tells us, is to make his stand in the territory of rugged individualism and enduring national heritage that the Scottish family estate so clearly represents. The symbolism in all this does not need much illuminating. The original Daniel Craig reboot, Casino Royale, accepted Bond’s flaws as genuine flaws, and showed him working to accommodate himself to a newer, healthier paradigm. It’s no coincidence that Casino Royale gave us perhaps the most complex, most interesting female character in the history of the franchise. Skyfall, by contrast, is a film with a chip on its shoulder. It wants us to accept that Bond’s delinquent attitude and emotional stuntedness are actually qualities to admire. It resents the fact that the world needs him to change.
So where does Spectre position itself within this ongoing argument? Essentially, the new film stays firmly inside the political territory defined by its predecessor, but with one major difference in tone: where Skyfall aggressively promoted its reactionary politics, Spectre just takes them for granted. The same conservatism is on display, but there’s a weird kind of innocence about it. This has a lot to do with the film’s broader shift in approach: of the four Daniel Craig Bond films, Spectre is the closest in tone and spirit to classic, 20th-century Bond. It is funnier, more relaxed, and less introspective than Casino Royale or Skyfall. Correspondingly, therefore, it takes its politics much less seriously.
So the 007 division is once again under threat from modernising government agents, but this time the contest feels repetitive and almost perfunctory. There is a fair bit of talk about the need for Britain to retain its independence from a trans-national authority: we are introduced to “C,” a bureaucrat who wants to merge British intelligence with a new international surveillance initiative called the Nine Eyes Committee. As Ralph Fiennes’s new M reminds us, this body is unelected and unaccountable. A definite hint of Euroscepticism hangs around the proceedings. But the film’s heart isn’t really in it: Ralph Fiennes’s pithy pronouncements on democracy seem timid after Judi Dench’s impassioned, fiery polemic in Skyfall. Meanwhile the movie revels in female sexuality – and in its hero’s coercive approach to seduction – more openly and more cheerfully than any Bond film for a long time.
At the end of the day, Spectre just wants to have fun. Skyfall is the rebellious teenager being deliberately provocative. Spectre is its younger brother, enjoying the same thrills that its older sibling has shown it, but not particularly caring if they are dangerous or controversial. In a way this makes it less problematic: it’s full of the same right-wing messages, but at least it doesn’t go out of its way to push them onto its audience. Nevertheless, one is still left wishing for a return to the spirit of Casino Royale, and for another genuine attempt to remake James Bond into the better, healthier hero that he has the potential to become.