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On Her Majesty’s Imperialist Service: Skyfall and the politics of 007 in 2012

Review by Dave Schneider |
November 14, 2012
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If you don’t think 007 films are political, you’re out of your mind.

It was 50 years ago that James Bond first appeared on the big screen. Since that time, the franchise has spawned 23 films full of fast cars, one-liners, rampant misogyny, memorable - and oftentimes racist portrayals of - villains, and imperialist politics. Six different actors have played the secret agent known as 007, with Daniel Craig playing Bond in the latest installment, Skyfall.

Skyfall is already breaking records at the box office and 007 is such a fixture of Western pop culture that it deserves examination by progressive activists. Most people probably go to see a film like Skyfall for the thrills and stunts, but frankly speaking, the main reason that Bond films remain interesting and relevant is the politics they reflect.

Created in 1952 by author Ian Fleming, a right-wing British naval intelligence officer, James Bond emerged very much as a product of Cold War-era propaganda. In Bond, readers and viewers found a hyper-masculine, anti-communist, super-soldier who was unwavering in his loyalty to imperialist missions, whether they were crushing liberation movements, toppling popular governments, or carrying out assassinations on behalf of the British government.

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 forced Hollywood to reinvent James Bond in the post-Cold War period. Goldeneye in 1995 rose to the occasion, principally set in Russia immediately after the counter-revolution. Since that time, James Bond films have always reflected modern world politics, whether it was aggression towards the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (Die Another Day) or Western intervention in Africa (Casino Royale).

True to form, Skyfall reflects the changing political climate. As the U.S. government imprisons whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and targets Wikileaks founder Julian Assange for releasing secret communiqués by the State Department, the main nemesis in the newest Bond flick is ‘cyberterrorism.’

Javier Bardem plays Raoul Silva, the film’s main villain. With his blonde hair and his penchant for leaking NATO secrets, he is clearly meant to draw comparisons with Assange. The analogy goes even further, with director Sam Mendes and the media making a big fuss over Silva’s sexuality despite it being only a minor part of the plot.

Unlike Assange, however, Silva doesn’t leak information because of his opposition to U.S. and British imperialism. He is motivated purely by revenge, holding MI6 responsible for his imprisonment and torture. Otherwise, though, he accepts the basic role of Britain as an imperialist power meddling in the affairs of oppressed countries.

This skewed distortion of reality is what makes films like Skyfall so dangerous. In reality, Assange is only villainized by the U.S. and UK media because he publicly released important details about the crimes these governments commit in Afghanistan, Iraq, Zimbabwe and countless other nations. By simplifying the motivations of people like Assange and stripping them of the greater political context, Hollywood - which is just as much a part of the Western media as CNN or Fox News - blurs the lines between real heroes (Assange) and villains (agents like James Bond).

Indeed, the character Silva’s greatest offense against MI6 was leaking the identities of five NATO operatives imbedded in so-called terrorist groups around the world. Activists facing repression in the U.S. and elsewhere understand how the label ‘terrorist’ is applied to any group, even non-violent charity organizations like the Holy Land Foundation, that disagree with the government’s policy of war and occupation.

The real life James Bonds infiltrate groups like Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress – at one time designated as a “terrorist organization” by the U.S. government for opposing apartheid – or movements like Occupy Wall Street in the U.S. They deceive activists and organizers for the purposes of repressing dissent domestically and internationally. And yet in Skyfall, we are meant to feel sorry for these agents when a so-called cyberterrorist exposes their deceit to the world.

Skyfall tries to make the argument that the leaking of MI6 secrets led to the deaths of innocent people, which is the only way they explain Silva’s label of a cyberterrorist. Many viewers will remember that the State Department has tried, unsuccessfully, to make the same argument about the Wikileaks cables released last year. The hypocrisy of this accusation is outrageous since many leaked cables and videos have shown the U.S. government committing heinous acts of terror against innocent people, like the 2010 Collateral Murder video showing a U.S. Apache helicopter knowingly murdering a journalist in Iraq.

With the remake of the 1980s anti-communist film, Red Dawn, right around the corner, Skyfall doesn’t miss the opportunity to include its fair share of China-bashing. For instance, the revelation that the Chinese government imprisoned and tortured an MI6 agent is meant to draw gasps of horror from the audience. The screenwriters hope the audience will forget that President Obama has still not closed down Guantanamo Bay and continues to torture prisoners.

The reason Skyfall was so disappointing was that it followed Quantum of Solace (2008), which was a surprisingly anti-imperialist deviation from the James Bond formula. In Quantum, Bond uncovers a plot by a multinational corporation to privatize the water supply in Bolivia and topple socialist President Evo Morales in a bloody coup d’etat. The CIA and MI6 planned to install a brutal right-wing military dictator modeled after Augusto Pinochet and probably trained at the School of the Americas. Bond goes rogue,’ disobeys his orders and stops the coup.

Problematic as its portrayal of a white man saving Bolivia may be, Quantum nevertheless explained imperialism in concrete terms for audiences and exposed people to the real threat of privatized water and foreign intervention in Latin America. Skyfall was a disappointing follow-up to say the least.

More interesting than the politics of the movies, however, is the response to the films by critics. Quantum received mixed to negative reviews, with Roger Ebert ridiculing the plot as low-stakes and criticizing the film for largely excluding the sexist ‘Bond girl’ stereotype that has marked the series since its inception. Skyfall, on the other hand, has received almost universal critical praise, with Roger Ebert giving it four stars and calling it “one of the best Bonds ever.”

To be sure, Quantum didn’t indulge in the ‘Bond girl’ tradition, lacking any of the on-screen sex typical of 007 films. Its villain was not a ‘memorable individual’ born out of fantasy like Jaws (Moonraker) or Oddjob (Goldfinger); the ‘villain’ was a real system of multinational corporations and the CIA. The plot wasn’t about stolen satellites or missile codes; it was about imperialism and the exploitation of oppressed people. And James Bond wasn’t “Her Majesty’s loyal terrier,” to quote another Bond villain, but rather a rogue agent taking the side of the Bolivian people against the CIA and MI6. In short, Quantum was the opposite of everything we expect from a James Bond film.

In this sense, Skyfall is less the “reinvention” of 007 that Ebert calls it and more of a “back to basics.” We have the stereotypical ‘Bond girl,’ who only lasts on-screen long enough to sleep with Bond. The villain isn’t just an effeminate individual bent on revenge; he’s out-and-out gay. And most of all, the merits of imperialist spying and intervention in the Third World are not only extolled but vigorously defended. James Bond, warrior for the 1%, is back and bigger than ever.

The changing aesthetic of James Bond films is worthy of note. To be sure, Fleming’s racist, sexist, homophobic and imperialist worldview remains, but the particulars have changed with the times. Indeed, Fleming would roll over in his grave if he knew that James Bond takes orders from a female ‘M’, the head of MI6 portrayed by Judi Dench since 1995. Moneypenny, MI6 secretary and principal victim of James Bond’s sexual harassment over the years, is now a black field agent, kicking ass and taking names. Even Bond himself alludes to being bisexual in a revealing exchange with Silva at about the halfway point in Skyfall.

Fundamentally though, these superficial changes have done nothing to alter the imperialist worldview that underwrites most of the 007 franchise. Fleming is long dead, but his reactionary views on women, oppressed nationalities and the queer community still run rampant. To paraphrase Matt Roth, a progressive film critic for Jump Cut, this underlying reactionary worldview, “is not so much the product of a demonic individual. It simply reflects the ‘American reality’ – a reality whose ugliness is not hard to discern below the slick surface of [fast cars and cool gadgets.]” (1)

That said, millions of people packed into theaters on Veterans Day weekend to see Skyfall. This fact alone gives progressives an opportunity to point out and criticize the overwhelmingly pro-imperialist, anti-woman politics that underwrite films like Skyfall and to continue building the movements against oppression.

(1) Matt Roth, “The Lion King: A short history of Disney-fascism,” Jump Cut, no. 40, March 1996, pp. 15-20, http://bit.ly/1atI3p