The spy movie is the chilliest and sleekest of movie genres; the Jaguar to the Landrover; martini to the whiskey shot; grey trench coat to the ripped shirt. By chance in one week I had the opportunity to view the alpha and omega of literary spies: George Smiley, real life spook John Le Carré’s stolid, dogged middle aged detective of human nature, on the hunt for Karla, his USSR opposite. And James Bond who shoots first, fucks second and bears no relation to reality whatsoever. Both of the movies viewed—Gary Oldman in Tinker, Tailer Soldier Spy and the new Skyfall—brought each icon a bit closer to one another however.
As a huge fan of Le Carré’s original Smiley trilogy—TTSS, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People—I already admired the 70s TV version starring
ObiWanSir Alec Guiness. However the prospect of watching Oldman and the finest gallery of Brit character actors—Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Hurt, Toby Jones and, oh yes, Tom Hardy—wander around snooping into each other’s files sounded delightful. And Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) did not disappoint with a smart, stylishly grim homage to 70s drabness. With a cast like that, you could watch them read a UNIX manual and it would be good fun.
However, I found that the script by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan had fallen prey to the modern “expositios-phobia.” The books and the TV adaptation are full of people talking and pondering and showing character as they talk and ponder and debate. We also learn more about their world as they talk and ponder. In the TTSS film, as in the book, Smiley is charged with finding out which of the top operatives at British Intelligence—the Circus as it is called in spy lingo—is actually a Russian spy. (It’s based on the real life ring led by Kim Philby.) The suspects are all played by top flight actors—Firth, Hinds, Jones and David Dencik—but instead of giving us any suspense over which it might be all are introduced with silent nods, and Smiley goes off and silently nods at his helper Cumberbatch, and later that it’s all tense silent nods for scene after scene. Smiley does pay a visit to the one female operative we meet—Kathy Burke as Connie Sachs—and she does get a bit more chatty over tea, but it’s the exception.
I don’t know why so many moviemakers are terrified of exposition. Damon Lindelof is the worst, but it’s typical these days. BREAKING BAD shows that exposition, when well written and delivered by characters we care about, is just fine. It’s really a shame here, because watching these actors talk about exposition would have been far more interesting than watching them read a UNIX manual, and we already agreed that would be great.
It’s also a shame because the books are full of exciting scenes of people going through paper files (1974 is way before the computer revolution). Even The Honourable Schooboy, which stars Le Carré’s take off on Bond—Jerry Westerby, am erratic womanizer who was formerly a journalist—is full of page after page of sleuthing through files and old newspapers and so on. As in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, it doesn’t make for the most riveting cinema, but the new Tinker, Tailor has no sense of detective work to it. In one scene Cumberbatch has to sneak into MI6 and steal the crucial files, but the scene’s payoff is Cumberbatch’s feeling of dismay after betraying the group he worked for.
In short, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was great fun to watch, and Gary Oldman deserved his Oscar nomination, but it wasn’t particularly engaging because the characters were so inscuable. And I don’t mean the cryptographic kind.
I wish someone would make a movie of The Honourable Schoolboy, but I’m guessing its “middle chapter” place in the trilogy means it is out of the question.
Instead we have SKYFALL the new James Bond movie, the third in Daniel Craig’s oeuvre and one of the best looking action movie ever shot.
I’m just going to cut to the chase here with two things.
#1: Skyfall is Jason Bourne meets the Joker from The Dark Knight. If you like the sound of that you will like Skyfall.
#2: Skyfall has all the things that make a great Bond movie—thrilling set pieces, beautiful women, a memorable villain, a storyline with a bit of heart to it—but it also is the only Bond movie to be shot by one of the greatest cinematographers of all time, Roger Deakins, best known for his work with the Coen Brothers, as well as Skyfall director Sam Mendes’s previous The Road to Perdition. A nine time Oscar nominee and never yet a winner. Deakins is a great storyteller with his shots and every frame is not only beautiful in its own right, but stylistically in tune with the emotions of the scene.
The film opens with a Bourne-like chase over the rooftops and alleys of a foreign metropolis, in this case somewhere in Turkey. Bond and his associate from MI6, Eve, are chasing a dastard who has just grabbed a hard drive containing the names of every undercover NATO agent on the planet. Just a guess, but creating such a list was probably not a very good idea. And taking it to Turkey was really bad form. The chase is a thrill, with those two never fail propellants—a motrocycle and a train. It is worth noting (SPOILER) that Bond fails in the Supercop jump of riding a motorcycle onto the back of a train. Only Michele Yeoh could do that one. The whole sequence is perfectly paced, and the stakes are ratcheted up by having both Bond and Eve in contact with M (Judi Dench) back in London who directs their actions. Mendes, best known for brutal battles of the living room like American Beauty and Revolution Road, shoots the action minus shaky cam and keeps all the elements in their place, along with escalations like fruit carts—overturned in seconds—and a backhoe.
At last, Bond and the bad guy are fighting atop a moving train, M tells Eve to take her best shot, even if it must be through Bond—the hard drive must not fall into the wrong hands. As we’ve seen before, Eve (Naomie Harris) is spunky but actually not a very good driver or shot…and what happens next leads into the Adele-warbled them song and opening credits.
M’s asking Harris to risk Bond’s life chimes with an earlier scene where M orders Bond to leave a dying MI6 agent to chase the hard drive. We’ve already learned twice in 15 minutes that any individual agent’s life is not worth the greater good to M, and as the movie unfolds she’s going to be haunted by this devotion to duty. (Or “Dyooty” as Dame Dench usually pronounces it.)
We also learn that James Bond is just a man…when recovering from a gunshot wound, he gets out of shape (although not so much that he possesses an ounce more than 3% bodyfat) and when he’s on a treadmill he sweats. Bond goes off in pursuit of the hard drive even though he has failed both physical and psychological fitness tests, and armed by the new Q—a mop-haired computer genius played adorably by Ben Whishaw—with only a gun and a radio. “It’s not exactly Christmas, is it?” says a glum Bond. M has her own problems with a government inquiry and Ralph Fiennes as a new MI6 overseer who at first seems to be the Principal Rooney of the piece but evolves into something much more.
From there it’s off to Shanghai for one of the most amazingly shot fight scenes of recent years—a vertiginous fist fight in a glass building surrounded by giant screens covered with jellyfish—and then Macau, a golden hazed casino where we meet the dragon lady of the film, played by Bérénice Marlohe. And then it’s off to the island lair of the villain, Silva, played with delicious craziness by Javier Bardem. With his badly died hair, abrupt mannerisms and love of chaos, Bardem’s villain is poured directly from the bottle of Heath Ledger’s Joker, but who cares. It works wonderfully, especially in a scene that expressly questions Bond’s steadfast heterosexuality.
At this point, you may think, oh it’s going to be another blow up in the villain’s base, but…NO. A whole new third act emerges back in the UK, with Bond, M and Silva all wrapped up in a game of vengeance and hatelove. The story consistently tacks in directions different enough to make you feel this is a bond movie that’s brekaing the mold. Some critics have said the third act—a firefight in a bleak Scottish mansion—is out of character with Bond films. I feel it IS Bond’s character. Skyfall is about reinvention and facing the past—sometime laughing at it, sometimes trying to set it right. We’re back in the territory of both Bourne and Batman, stone faced heroes who must face the abyss of their own identity. It might seem odd to put the slick cartoon of Bond in that category but we’re fifty years on and we expect our heroes to bleed. Instead of a cartoon, we’re given a plausible flinty wasteland that might produce a sociopath like James Bond.
Just as Bond movies must evolve, Bond the character must evolve, and Skyfall sets up the next generation of Bond films with a new status quo that will leave you eager for the next one. Craig and Dench lead an exemplary cast, but the choice of top notch filmmakers Mendes and Deakins vaults this film to a whole new level. I was ready to sit down and watch it all over again the minute it ended. When it joins the Bond-athons on Spike and TNT in year’s to come, you’ll revel in every gorgeous frame of it.
BONUS: For more on how Deakins shot the film, using miniatures, digital and so on, here’s a good interview.