It wouldn’t seem like Skyfall—the 23rd entry in the quintessentially British, quintessentially suave, quintessentially formulaic James Bond franchise—would have much light to shed on American presidential politics. Yet one of the central exchanges of the film could easily go down as the defining theme of the Oct. 22 foreign policy debate.
In the scene, which manages to both refresh the Bond image and reground it in Ian Fleming tradition, Bond meets his new quartermaster at an art gallery. Wonderfully played by Ben Wishaw from BBC’s The Hour, Q is everything we expect from a modern intelligence whiz—young, snarky, stylish by virtue of his indifference to style, and terribly, terribly forward thinking. In short, he is everything the old guard spy sitting beside him is not.
As they gaze at a painting of a decommissioned military craft, Q comments, “This one always makes me rather melancholy—the grand old warship being ignominiously hauled away for scrap.” We see in Bond’s eyes that he knows the observation could just as easily apply to him. The very idea of 007 is to bayonets and horses what Q is to nuclear subs. He is a relic of days almost past, and the question hanging over the film is whether the country and culture Bond represents will pass away with him.
This great standoff takes shape after an anonymous criminal manages to steal a drive containing the names of every undercover NATO officer embedded within a terrorist organization. When their real identities start appearing next to their pictures on the web, the assassinations start, and a parliamentary committee calls on M (Judi Dench) not only to answer for her own errors, but also to justify the entire existence of MI6 and, by extension, agents like 007. Among the skeptical is mid-level politician Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), who’s ready to relegate Bond (Daniel Craig, who earns consideration here as the best Bond of all time) to the ash heap of history.
But, as one character quips toward the end of the film, “sometimes the old ways are best.” This is particularly true when dealing with enemies who manage to wreak massive destruction using weapons no more developed than box cutters, the internet, and a nation’s own sense of irrelevance. When technology fails there is no one but Bond, armed with only a handgun and a radio, to head off catastrophe. To do so, he must first overcome a dark moment of his soul, questioning his purpose as the super-criminal and traitor Silva (a supremely creepy Javier Bardem) taunts, “England. The Empire. MI6. You are living in ruins. You just don’t know it.”
Lest any such subtext manage to escape less-analytic viewers, Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) underlines it all with one bravura monologue from the great Dame Dench. As her best man Bond—the one she calls earlier in the film “an exemplar of British fortitude”—races to protect bureaucrats as likely to sneer at him as thank him, M defends her ministry with the words of Tennyson:
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that the film ends with Bond standing on top of the MI6 building, M’s treasured English bulldog figurine in his hand, the Union Jack fluttering high in the sky behind him. Once the steamy PG-13 love scenes and all the jolly callbacks to Bond films past have flickered by, this is the image we are left with. What, it seems to ask, does an icon like James Bond mean in a world without borders, in wars without nations? What does Great Britain? What does the West?