The Writing’s on the Wall and it Ain’t Great: One Bond-Lover’s Opinion of SPECTRE
Daniel Craig, Lea Seydoux, Christoph Waltz
Please note, this review contains spoilers.
Pretty much as long as I’ve been a conscious being, I’ve loved Bond flicks. I can’t remember what the first one I saw was, and I don’t remember the first time I read Ian Fleming’s novels, but, to date, I have seen nearly the entire Bond oeuvre and read all the books.
I have not always realized that the Bond franchise incorporates a number of unsettling, infuriating, and belittling tropes, particularly regarding the female characters. I remember being derisive of A View to a Kill‘s Stacey Sutton and her complete inability to be anything other than a dead-weight that got into trouble and screamed for James, but it didn’t occur to me, at the time, to be angry for Stacey. Since then, of course, I have been better educated on the troubling portrayal of women in most media, and in the Bond flicks in particular, but I still love the series, as ridiculous, cheesy, misogynistic, and impossible as it might be. Bond does glorify sex and violence, and, yes, the novels are far worse than the movies, but I still watched the films regularly, and, when Daniel Craig came on board for what they were calling a “reboot” of the franchise, I was cautiously optimistic about and then thrilled with Casino Royale and then Skyfall, maybe the best Bond movie since Connery abandoned the tux and Walther PPK.
Which brings me to SPECTRE.
Inititally, I was excited. Daniel Craig has easily become my favorite Bond, largely because he plays Bond exactly as he should be played: as a sociopath with an understanding of human emotion essentially as it plays into his ability to manipulate others. Bond is not human, and Craig does not play him as human: he is a calculating reactionary weapon, a gun to be aimed, a trigger to be pulled—which leads into the larger theme of SPECTRE, a movie which attempts to prove to the audience that a shadowy society of agents with licenses to kill are safer and more morally responsible than drones.
But let us, as they say, begin at the beginning. As with most Bond movies, SPECTRE begins in a colorful, exotic setting: this time, it opens in Mexico City, on Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Over the course of the first ten minutes, Bond seduces a woman and uses her for her hotel balcony, before botching an assassination attempt, leveling a city block, and becoming locked into a life-or-death struggle in a helicopter. So, you know, business as usual, for Bond. The man he fights finally, forcefully, shuffles off this mortal coil and leaves behind a ring, with an ominous, eight-legged symbol.
This then segues into what must be, categorically, the very worst theme song in the whole history of bad Bond theme songs. I’m no fan of Sam Smith during the best of times, but I can usually at least ignore him. Not so with “Writing’s on the Wall,” which is nigh unlistenable. Little did I know, then, that the discomfort I felt listening to the song would soon extend to the rest of the movie as well.
Because SPECTRE is not, well…great. I badly wanted it to be. It is widely believed to be Craig’s last time in the tux and Aston Martin, and I wanted something worthy of the way he portrayed Bond: nearly animalistic, like he might burst out of his neatly tailored suit at any given time and display the brawler within. His Bond is obsessive more than protective, no matter how the directors or writers might have wanted to spin the character; his motivation is largely drawn by what he considers to be his duty, and a need to pay back those who have helped in him the past.
This does not make Bond: a) romantic, b) vulnerable, c) capable of human emotion or attachment. He does what he does out of a sense of either making things easier for himself, because it will further his mission, or because he is ordered to. Daniel Craig plays this to a T.
And yet, a theme appeared in his moves: this idea that Bond, deep down, wants to leave the service, and that all he really needs to do so is the love of a good woman. This is folly. It was a good idea in Casino Royale, a bit eyebrow-raising in Skyfall, and utterly unnecessary in SPECTRE.
In fact, let’s explore the themes of SPECTRE a bit, shall we? Particularly, as we here at WWAC are wont to do, let’s take a look at the ladies, and how they’re treated and presented.
First, we have a woman slipping seamlessly into the role of Vesper-Lynd-but-good: she gives Bond a hard time, initially rejects his advances with spirit and anger, and then falls into his arms after a near-death experience. Madeleine Swann, like Vesper Lynd, declares she cannot be with Bond, the killer, and walks away without attempting to change him. It was one of the best departures of a “Bond girl” in any movie, and I loved it. Madeleine was allowed to be her own person, recognize that she shouldn’t and, indeed, could not change Bond into the sort of man with whom she could share any kind of normal life, and left.
This made me very happy for about five minutes, which was approximately the span of time it took for the movie to place her in the role of damsel in distress, complete with miles of explosive wiring tying her to a chair.
The fall of Madeleine Swann from interesting, independent character, who knew her way around guns but didn’t care for them, and who cuttingly told James she wasn’t going to be falling into his arms because of her daddy issues to tied-up-damsel was so instantaneous it was dizzying. In one fell swoop, she not only became totally dependent on James for her survival, but also required him to risk his life to save hers, before, ultimately, becoming his reward for making The Right Decision. Strike one.
Daniel Craig made waves a little while ago, by rightfully pointing out that it is bullshit to refer to Monica Belluci as “an older woman,” and I warmed toward him even further.
…when his interviewer suggested that Bond in this film was shown “succumbing to the charms of an older woman”, aka Bellucci, ironic considering Bellucci is only four years older than Craig.
“I think you mean the charms of a woman his own age,” Craig responded.
Indeed. I was thrilled when Belluci, in her 50’s, was cast as a Bond woman in SPECTRE, and had high hopes, considering the amount of press flurrying about over her casting, but then she had a total of two scenes and was never seen again. Lea Seydoux (age 30) had the lioness’ share of screentime (as well as a seemingly inexhaustible collection of virginal and lovely white day dresses). Strike two.
Something I loved passionately about the most recent batch of Bond films, including several of Brosnan’s, was the appearance of Dame Judi Dench as M. It was inspired casting, and I particularly loved the relationship apparent between her M and Craig’s Bond. It was what made Skyfall so emotionally rich, despite James’ inability to process emotions without a shooting range or hand-to-hand combat. In Skyfall, Bond considers M’s callous attitude towards agents in the field to be a betrayal. They work through it. In SPECTRE, despite being dead, M does it again.
See, in the previous three films, James had been on the heels of some large, shadowy criminal organization, but the veil had not yet been raised. Here, he is sent on the initial cold-open assassination due to a posthumous set of orders from M, who clearly had the necessary information before her expiration in Skyfall.
Meaning, M could have sent him to infiltrate SPECTRE earlier. Possibly much earlier. Meaning, she already knew enough to send James, and kept it not only from him, but from the rest of MI6. What was stopping her from sending James to assassinate his mark months before? It’s never explained and never referred to again, but there’s no way around it: the plot of SPECTRE is dependent on M lying to James, the British Secret Service, and various world governments for an indeterminate amount of time. Strike three.
Then, we have Moneypenny. Naomie Harris enjoys a fair amount of screentime in SPECTRE, only to completely disappear in the penultimate scene. We see her in a car with Q, and then…nowhere. Whither art thou, Moneypenny?
None of this is to say that SPECTRE is unsalvageable or even unenjoyable: there are a great many classic Bond moments in it. There are car chases and improbable fist fights galore; women swoon, men look impressive in suits. Daniel Craig does a lot of standing in power poses, legs spread, one hand in his pocket, looking simultaneously powerful and sexy and bored and casual and dangerous, which is an impressive feat for simply standing about. Q remains charmingly exasperated with Bond. M is looking more and more like Voldemort, as Ralph Fiennes ages. Andrew Scott was Moriarty-esque in an on-the-nose plotline about the shaky moral ground of Big Data.
So it was fun. It was about twenty minutes too long, and it betrayed the promise of both Monica Belluci and Madeleine Swann, but the real problem of SPECTRE was none of those things. The real problem, you see, is that it pretends James Bond has a heart.
007 is not meant to be a human character with whom one can relate. He is male power fantasies personified: he gets the girls, he kills the bad guys, he drives fast cars and wears expensive clothing. He commands rooms and is both a superlative agent and a reckless flight risk. And SPECTRE keeps asking us to believe that Bond gives even a single damn about the personal.
It isn’t only riding off into the sunset with the girl he wins for making the correct moral choice. The excitement surrounding SPECTRE was largely due to the reintroduction of Big Bond Baddie Ernst Blofeld. Blofeld is Bond’s Moriarty, the villain everyone remembers even though his appearances and involvements in previous movies were fairly negligible. Honestly, I was deeply interested in the arrival of Blofeld, especially with the casting of Christoph Waltz, but then…well, then I went to SPECTRE and it turned out Blofeld is hardly just some criminal mastermind. No. The one real weakness of the Craig films is that they are determined to make everything that happens to Bond personal, and so they continue with SPECTRE, turning Blofeld from anonymous crime lord to petulant adoptive older brother figure to James.
Coming as it does on the heel of Skyfall, where the theme of family was successfully twisted in the case of M, Bond, and Silva, this was a bit hard to swallow. When James and Blofeld are children together, it seems likely we are meant to infer that Blofeld’s creation of SPECTRE is directly linked to James, which…while James is the center of the 007 film and book universe, he should certainly not be the initial tipped domino in the world he occupies. There is no need to give Blofeld and James a personal relationship: Blofeld’s criminal activities alone are enough to make James want to kill him.
But it fits with what SPECTRE, unfortunately, attempts—and fails—to do: suggest to us, the audience, that James is more than a weapon, that he wants a Life and a Family and has been played since he was a small child. I am not used to being asked to sympathize with James Bond. I realize the movie is setting up for Daniel Craig’s departure, and indeed it feels like a goodbye—a neatly wrapped present of a movie, with completed themes and character arcs—but we all know we aren’t saying goodbye to Bond. Daniel Craig might leave, a new director may appear, but Bond will always be back.
I only wish they hadn’t tried so hard to shut the door on him in the meantime.