Law Review on DVD: Skyfall
Since he first took up the role in 2006′s Casino Royale, Daniel Craig’s James Bond has been truer to the secret agent of Ian Fleming’s novels than most of Craig’s predecessors. The original Bond packed equal parts brutality and charm. Bond’s exploits, fantastical though they were, took place in a 1950s world with legitimate reason to fear the enemies: communists, their spies and their nuclear weapons. As the Cold War wound down, those threats became the stuff of Austin Powers. It wasn’t until Craig’s Bond arrived to confront terrorists in a twenty-first century world, taking them just as seriously as Fleming took Communism, that 007 regained his original edge.
Director Sam Mendes was a surprising, but inspired, choice to helm the newest Bond installment. The director of beautifully filmed, highly cynical works about hypocrisy and dying dreams (American Beauty, Jarhead, Revolutionary Road) would seem particularly unsuited to craft a celebration of Western civilization’s sturdiest modern defender. And yet, Mendes’s penchant for morbidity and corruption makes him just the right director for Bond. His film knocks the secret agent down into a world of doubt and dread that exceed anything we have seen him face before. Craig takes to the role of a partially broken Bond with relish. Physically weary, mentally wavering, Bond doesn’t know if he is still the sort of man who can save the world. Watching his struggles, the all-star supporting cast questions whether James Bond’s world can, or even should, be saved at all. Against this sullied background, 007′s eventual heroics shine a bit more brightly.
If we’ve learned anything from the last decade of espionage and counterterrorism, it’s that the real James Bonds of the world don’t look or act like James Bond. At the very least, they probably use a fake name once in a while. We associate the “reality” of intelligence work with Mandy Patinkin’s Saul Berenson character on Homeland or Gary Oldman’s George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Daniel Craig’s crew-cutted, box-shouldered, jet-setting superhero makes little attempt to reflect the tedious work of the men and women who spend more time in bus stations than baccarat rooms. But what about the license to kill? Do spies at least have those?
The British Secret Intelligence Service (which you might call MI6, if you weren’t in the know) has publicly denied that its members engage in extrajudicial killings. Although their mandate allows them to break other countries’ laws to steal secrets, they cannot kill their enemies because of strict provisions against such practices in British and international law. Even though SIS officers may not have license to kill, the worst-kept secret in modern counterterrorism is that their American cousins apparently can and do exercise such a right through the CIA’s drone strike campaign. This has led to controversy; especially last month when the son of a Pakistani man killed in a reported CIA strike sued British authorities for allegedly providing information that led to the attack. The suit cites British law, which prevents the SIS from even assisting other countries in extrajudicial killings.
National security law expert John Bellinger has pointed out that President Obama’s strong personal popularity discouraged criticism of targeted killing at first. But as the spectacular explosions continue, and this “covert” campaign draws more scrutiny, leaders in both countries may long for the days when truly clandestine agents confined their law-breaking to secret battles that their political masters could plausibly deny. As Dame Judy Dench’s M says in Casino Royale, “Christ, I miss the Cold War.”
Skyfall also stars Javier Bardem, Albert Finney, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Marlohe and Ben Whishaw. It is rated “PG-13″ and is two hours and twenty-three minutes long. It will probably appeal to viewers who enjoy smarter espionage action films like Casino Royale and The Bourne Identity.
–Austin Murnane, Columnist