(SPOILER ALERT: This review mentions specific scenes and themes from the movie, including the ending. If you want to be completely surprised, see the movie first, then read the review.)
Nearly every James Bond movie (Dr. No, the first, was the sole exception) starts with a pre-credit mini-adventure: a life-or-death struggle filmed against some exotic background. The purpose is to get the audience in the proper mood. The pre-credit scene is always fun, but rarely vital to the plot. In Skyfall, however, the 23rd Bond film, the pre-credit scene is vital. It establishes the story’s premise: maternal betrayal.
A villain has stolen a computer hard drive containing vital information. James Bond (Daniel Craig) chases him through the streets and rooftops of Istanbul, finally catching up with him atop a speeding train. Eve (Naomie Harris), a British female agent, follows the chase from a speeding vehicle, hoping for clear shot at the enemy. Both Eve and Bond are in radio contact with their boss M (Judi Densch), who is monitoring and supervising the chase from MI6 headquarters in London. In a few seconds, the train will enter a tunnel, and Eve’s last chance at a shot will end. But Bond and his opponent are grappling closely on the train and Eve cannot get a clear shot. Nevertheless, and fully aware of the risks, M orders Eve to “take the shot.” Reluctantly, she does. And James Bond goes hurtling off the train, falling, falling, to the river below, apparently to his death.
Well, of course, he doesn’t die. This is just the pre-credit scene and there are two hours of action to go. But the rest of the story plays out against the backdrop of betrayal. Bond knows that M is willing to see him die, if there’s even a chance that his death will advance the mission.
And her treachery doesn’t end there. After his apparent death, Bond hides out on a tropical beach, trying to drink and fornicate his misery away. But when MI6 headquarters are bombed by the same people behind the theft of the hard drive, he patriotically returns to London — where M betrays him a second time. Before he can be restored to active duty, Bond must pass a battery of physical and mental tests. After months of dissolute living, Bond is a wreck and he performs poorly on his tests. M reinstates him anyway, lying to him that he has passed “by the skin of his teeth.” Cavalierly returning the unready Bond to the field demonstrates that to M, he is not a man, but a mere instrument.
Every Bond villain personifies evil, and Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) is no exception. He is a terrorist and a sexual predator, and his hair is outrageously blonde. Despite their differences, Bond and Silva share a, well, bond. Silva too was an MI6 agent, and he too was betrayed by M. Years earlier, she handed him over to the Chinese, partly because she didn’t trust him and partly to obtain the release of several preferred agents. After months of torture at the hands of his captors, Silva tried to commit suicide by biting down on a cyanide capsule hidden in a molar. The poison disfigured him but failed to kill him. Now his sole ambition is revenge on M.
Silva and Bond figure as modern versions of Satan and the Son of God in the Paradise Lost of British Intelligence. With his formidable skills and charm – to say nothing of the blonde hair—one can see Silva as having once been the most beautiful of all the angel agents of the MI6 firmament, before his disfigurement and fall from grace. Now, an outcast, he has gathered about him a murderous band, preferring, as did Satan, to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven. Silva informs Bond of M’s treachery with the exams, and tries to seduce Bond ( in more ways than one) into joining the Dark Side. But Bond resists temptation, and proves willing to sacrifice himself to save M and MI6.
The final scene of the movie underscores the duality of the two professional progeny of M, both trained and betrayed by her. Silva has cornered her in a church (where else?). She is seriously wounded. He holds a gun to her head, but gently places her hand over the weapon, rests his head against hers, and urges her to shoot. One bullet will penetrate both skulls, killing them both in a final mortal act of filial unity.
Moments later, Silva is dead, killed by a knife thrown into his back by Bond. In a strange juxtaposition, a tearful Bond cradles the head of M, the same head Silva had just been holding, as she dies in his arms.
Skyfall arrived in theaters 50 years after the first James Bond movie, and 48 years after the death of Ian Fleming, his creator. Fleming might have been bemused by the duality of good and evil in the new movie. The Bond he created was no angel. As he recounted in a 1962 interview in the New Yorker: “When I wrote the first [Bond novel] in 1953, I wanted Bond to be an extremely dull, uninteresting man to whom things happened; I wanted him to be a blunt instrument … when I was casting around for a name for my protagonist I thought by God, [James Bond] is the dullest name I ever heard.” He later described his character as “a neutral figure—an anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a government department.”
Fleming himself served in MI6 during World War II, and his experiences managing spies and agents unquestionably influenced his literary career. He briefly handled a Serbian character named Dusan “Dusko” Popov, whom many consider a model for Bond.
In 1940, during the Battle of Britain, Popov was living in Dubrovnik, practicing law, and conducting affairs with at least four women. He was recruited to work for the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service, but he secretly loathed the Germans and volunteered to become a double agent for the British.
Popov led an interesting – and decidedly amoral – wartime existence. He made a small fortune, extracting money from his German employers, who dutifully paid him for the phony information he supplied. Unfortunately, he spent an even larger fortune, and was constantly in debt.
In 1941, the Germans gave him $70,000 in cash and sent him to the United States to spy on the Americans. The British informed the FBI in advance of his mission, and encouraged the Americans to use Popov as they were doing: as a vehicle for transmitting false information to the Germans. Within a few months of his arrival, he had spent the German money on a Park Avenue apartment, a Long Island summer house, a red Buick convertible, and ski trips to Sun Valley, Idaho. He also hired a butler, a Chinese man servant, and a team of gardeners. He conducted affairs with a French movie star and an English divorcee.
When he ran out of money, he requested, received, and quickly spent $10,000 more from the Germans. When the Germans refused to send more, he demanded a loan from the FBI, eventually running up a debt of $17,500. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover never trusted Popov. According to Double Cross, Ben Macintyre’s masterly history of the Britain’s double agents, “Popov was exactly the sort of person Hoover loathed: dissolute, extravagant, sexually voracious, and foreign.”
By the summer of 1942, both the Germans and the FBI were fed up with supporting his profligate life style. So Popov flew to Lisbon, and resumed his work as a double agent for the British. He continued to render these services for the duration of the war. After the war, he settled down and married an 18-year old French girl. The marriage didn’t last, and he later met an 18-year old Swedish student, whom he married the following year. For years after the war had ended, the British were still trying to straighten out his financial entanglements.
In Dusko Popov, we see neither Silva nor Bond, neither Satan nor the Son of God. We do not even see an amalgam of the black and white elements of those characters. We see, rather, the sort of grayish man Ian Fleming had in mind when he sat down before his typewriter to craft James Bond: a dull, blunt, amoral instrument, wielded ironically in the Miltonian struggle between good and evil that was World War II.