JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Silva, the computer hacker and threat to MI6, has his equivalent in Edward Snowden. Snowden, a 30-year old employee of a private contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), goes public in June 2013 with classified documents evidencing massive surveillance by the NSA. Such surveillance includes both digital data available from commercial companies, such as Google, Facebook and Verizon, and data surreptitiously decrypted from online cables and other carriers. Interviewed by the Guardian, Snowden speaks openly about the reasons for his disclosure and his fears both of reprisal and that nothing will change.

The U.S. Congress has established a court under the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (“FISA”) that hears, in secret, requests from U.S. government agencies, such as the NSA and the FBI, to monitor electronic communications and collect digital data.

Asked at a U.S. Senate hearing in March 2013 whether the NSA collected “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans,” James Clapper, Jr., the director of national intelligence flatly replied, “No, sir.”

While as a candidate he offered the hope of a change in how government operates, U.S. President Barack Obama expresses the view that a balance is needed between combatting terrorism and civil liberties and hence he supports the NSA’s practices. Moreover, the U.S. government has brought criminal charges against Snowden and is seeking his extradition and return to the United States.

While himself a former hacker of Harvard University’s computer network, Mark Zuckerberg through Facebook routinely collects massive amounts of data on Facebook subscribers and then sells that data for commercial gain. The collected data of Facebook and others, such as Google and Apple, can then be collected and monitored by the U.S. government.

U.S. President and Mark Zuckerberg chatting. In the background are, among others, representatives from Google and Yahoo!.

Reverting to earlier times when it upheld during World War I the criminal conviction of persons who spoke out against the army’s recruitment efforts and approved during World War II the incarceration of U.S. citizens of Japanese origin, the U.S. Supreme Court today simply declines to rule on the legality of the USA Patriot Act and approves the routine, widespread collection of DNA samples of persons charged with but not convicted of any crime.

Surveillance cameras are everywhere. The NYC transit system announces on its subways that it is “watching out for you” by installing additional surveillance cameras. Face recognition software will soon follow.

After years of planning, Silva allows himself to be captured by MI6 so that he might see M one last time. From his transparent cell he confronts M, “mommy,” with her betrayal.

He shows her the physical deterioration that he has endured as a result of her betrayal. "Look upon your work,….mother."

The final confrontation between the supposedly heroic Bond and villainous Silva takes place in a chapel. While Silva has pursued M relentlessly, he is horrified to find that she is dying. “What have they done to you?” he asks in disbelief.

Silva realizes the futility of his longstanding pursuit for vengeance against M, who had betrayed him years ago. She, too, has suffered. Sadly, he places his gun in her hand, asking that she “free both of us with the same bullet.”

The heroic Bond rescues M by knifing Silva in the back. Bond thereby vindicates Kincade’s entertaining but illusory view that the “old ways” remain “the best.”

The hero stands over the villain and announces, “Last rat standing.”

Bond is triumphant. Silva is lying face down, dead on the ground with a knife in his back.

M dies in Bond’s arms. Appropriately enough, Bond looks up at Kincade, the silent caretaker of the Skyfall estate and a celebrator of the “old ways.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This exchange between hero and villain encapsulates the movie’s narrative focus and as such is the source of the movie’s attraction for its audience. Skyfall portrays a competitive world, a world of rats eating rats, in which the winner takes all and in which no one owes anything to anyone else. It consists of a free market economy in which each person is alone and unable to find aid or comfort elsewhere. Global corporations in concert with governments exist separate and apart from the daily routine or understanding of each person. Silva’s character thereby represents an acknowledgement of how the computer with its global network furthers these economic interests of the few and how it facilitates the diminishment of individual, geographic differences in Western culture. Cultural distinctions are increasingly more about differences in externally created images than in indigenous realities. Bond may have devoted his life to serving his country, but he remains an orphan whose belongings are sold off the moment he is believed dead. In that context, there is a quaintness to the hearing in which M’s actions are subject to “democratic” oversight.

Meanwhile in the non-cinematic, real world, there are likewise Congressional hearings and supposed oversight on surveillance and anti-terrorism efforts. Nevertheless, the U.S. government sends by remote control drones into other countries in order to kill its enemies, including its own citizens. It also works with Silicon Valley to seize telephone records and other forms of digital communications so as to identify the threats to the democratic state, including security leaks—even as it condemns the “cyber-weapons” of North Korea and Iran. Likewise, while Skyfall posits that Silva had gone rogue by hacking into the Chinese computer network, China hacks into the computer networks of U.S. corporations in order to facilitate the development of its own economic technology and the US hacks into the computer networks of its supposed allies.[12][open endnotes in new window] The geographic boundaries of nation states have seemingly disappeared replaced by the competitive commercial and cultural interests in cyberspace. The extent to which private boundaries have disappeared are exemplified by the following information recently made public and among the many documents that have been and continue to be disclosed by Edward Snowden: [12a]


PRISM is an electronic surveillance program that apparently permits the NSA to access e-mails, web searches, and other Internet traffic collected by private industry.


Not satisfied, however, with the collection of data by private industry, the NSA apparently also engages in the collection of data through its surveillance of cables and other “infrastructure” of the Internet.



Among the documents disclosed by Snowden, however, is an Order by the FISA Court whereby that Court has, for example, ordered Verizon to turn over to the NSA all domestic and domestic/foreign “telephony metadata” through July 19, 2013, and placed a gag order on Verizon prohibiting its disclosure of that Order to others. The Order remains classified until 2038.


That Bond both refuses Silva’s offer to join him in “secret missions” by computer and declines to “take a desk job” at the movie’s end position him as a hero upon whom his audience may nostalgically look in a world in which physical boundaries seem increasingly less important and in which control has been lost to a faceless world of digital “shadows,” both government and corporate. Q readily locates Bond through a tracking device as Bond makes his way in London’s underground and then finds Silva through cameras that project on a wall of screens the rush hour crowds in the Tube. Nevertheless, Skyfall imagines that the encrypted codes—which Q characterizes as “security through obscurity”—and surveillance cameras in the Tube are less effective than Bond’s instinctive reading of that code on MI6’s computer screen through his recognition of an old Tube station, “Granborough Road,” and his physical pursuit of Silva in the Tube. And what does Bond’s “hobby” of “resurrection” reflect but a misplaced belief that a religious or spiritual world continues to exist in the face of a global, materialist economy in which corporations are multi-national in reach so that nation states become less relevant, more a means by which to facilitate those global, commercial interests? Governments and corporations without boundaries, including the producers of Skyfall, are the invading aliens from outer space, and computers are the weapon of choice for all.

At the time of the 25th anniversary of the Bond franchise, 1987, the franchise found “the venerable secret agent with his finger in the hole of the imperial dike.”

"Bond became the embodiment of Western discourse on the Cold War. The men who would later construct the Reaganite view of the universe turned, time and again, to their Bond for edification.”[13]

The cinematic Star Wars (George Lucas 1977) became U.S. President Reagan’s “strategic defense initiative,” which was soon dubbed “star wars.” That world now seems equally quaint in its clearly drawn mythology of good and evil and the threat that the latter would annihilate the former, whether from nuclear weapons, e.g. Thunderball (Terence Young 1965) and Octopussy (John Glen 1983), lasers from space, e.g. Diamonds Are Forever (Guy Hamilton 1971) and Die Another Day (Lee Tamahori 2002), or nerve gas, e.g. Moonraker (Lewis Gilbert 1979).

In contrast, Skyfall taps into the fear that there is no longer the clear divide between good and evil. Hero and villain are not merely competitors in a geopolitical race but rather brothers in which the “evil” twin more accurately reflects the contemporary world. It is surely appropriate that music reminiscent of The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan 2008 and 2012), a story in which the central character is a divided personality, plays from time to time in Skyfall, including when Bond insists that M and Kincade “go to the chapel. Use the tunnel.” Where, however, Bruce Wayne found his identity in the Bat Cave, Bond, according to Kincade, emerged as an “adult” from the tunnel following his parents’ death. Thus, he expresses no regret at the destruction of his childhood home. “I always hated this place.” Kincade is Bond’s servant Alfred, [4] and Silva, whom Bond kills with Kincade’s knife, is his “mask” with which he displaces the unspoken fear of everyday living at a “desk job.” Significantly, Silva acknowledges that he possesses his own “mask.” “Say my name. Say it. My real name. I know you remember it,” he insistently asks M. And only belatedly, and then only to Bond, does she acknowledge that Silva’s “real name” is Tiago Rodriguez.

Bond’s frequently flippant quips hardly suffice to dispel the logic of those characters who acknowledge that time has had and continues to have its effect on the Bond mythology. For example, Q betters Bond in their introduction to one another:

“Q: It always makes me feel a bit melancholy. Grand old war ship being ignominiously hauled away to scrap. The inevitability of time don't you think? What do you see?
Bond: A bloody big ship.”

And M is more honest than Bond in her last exchange in which she acknowledges that she has run out of time:

“M: I suppose it's too late to make a run for it?
Bond: Well, I'm game if you are.”

Indeed, while M utters as her last words that in Bond she “did get one thing right,” thereby defending Bond as the audience’s hero, M speaks to the Skyfall audience’s central fear when at the hearing called to investigate her department’s failings she states:

“Today I've repeatedly heard how irrelevant my department has become. ‘Why do we need agents, the Double-0 section? Isn't it all antiquated?’ Well, I suppose I see a different world than you do, and the truth is that what I see frightens me. I'm frightened because our enemies are no longer known to us. They do not exist on a map. They're not nations, they're individuals. And look around you. Who do you fear? Can you see a face, a uniform, a flag? No. Our world is not more transparent now, it's more opaque. It's in the shadows. That's where we must do battle. So before you declare us irrelevant, ask yourselves, how safe do you feel?”

The irony of M’s speech is that her government[15] and other governments—often in furtherance of corporate interests—engage in the creation of this non-transparent, opaque world. “A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state.”[16] Yet in the UK, for example, pursuant to its Terrorism Act of 2000, the Government Communications Headquarters or GCHQ, the UK’s equivalent of the US’s NSA, detains without notice persons perceived as facilitating disclosures about the government’s surveillance efforts and effectively compels the press complicit in those disclosures to destroy its computer records. [17] Likewise, in the United States, the Patriot Act and the invocation of the “state secrets” privilege enable the government to undertake surveillance without oversight and bar from public scrutiny that same surveillance and other activities, including both rendition and torture.[17b] The earlier “blacklists” of the 1950s in the U.S. have been replaced by massive surveillance declared lawful by that same government.[18] Routine collection by government of DNA of persons charged with but not convicted of any crime is deemed acceptable, [19] and corporations collect masses of data—then swept up by government—with a simple click as each person consents to the convenience of readily available commodities no longer produced locally.[20]

M goes on to quote Tennyson so as to leave her audience with a sense triumph. Yet the movie undercuts her jingoistic last hurrah. It has long been the case that spy stories have depended upon how

“[g]ood and evil come to depend on each other through an overarching third term: the law and its embodiment in the state, which the villain must elude, and heroes either convince that justice should be meted out, or delegated so they can mete it out themselves. But the latter’s assumption of false personae weakens their truth-claims and their identification with transparent valour.”[21]

Where, however, the law no longer possesses the political coherence or moral authority that justifies its hero, then not only does the hero lack any claim to truth or identification with valor, but instead the villain takes on that role. The audience may naively and nostalgically continue to look favorably upon the hero, but it is the villain with whom the audience, consciously or not, identifies.

While Bond insists that M never lied to him, Silva accurately observes that M has lied to Bond in telling him that he has passed his tests and that England, including its MI6, are things of the past, antiquities, in today’s world. Bond may momentarily recognize the incongruity of his mythology, commenting upon Kincade’s unexpected appearance at Skyfall: “Good god, you still alive?” He also momentarily acknowledges the deceptiveness of the state, pointing out with a smile on his face that M, notwithstanding her seemingly sympathetic expression of care for Bond, knows when Bond’s parents died. She knows his entire life story given MI6’s electronic file on him. It is the villain Silva, however, who both correctly understands and remains loyal to the lesson to be learned from those who fled his island based on a mistaken belief that there had been a chemical leak and who grabbed only what was important. Life clinging to Silva “like a disease” has taught him, reminded him, to focus every day on the essentials so that there is nothing superfluous – ecologically extraneous—in his life. He eliminates all else. In contrast, Bond in the end has learned nothing from his near death experience, and instead retreats by the movie’s finale to his mythology. As Bond comments to Moneypenny, being in the field is not for everyone. In his case, as she, however, assures him, he looks the part and, as such, will continue to play the role for his audience.

Skyfall has successfully “re-booted” the Bond franchise. Craig as Bond has commoditized the franchise’s hero by portraying 007 as both sexual subject and object. He has also darkened the character by focusing on 007’s institutional aloneness and on the personal, emotional consequences of being an agent licensed to kill. Where, for example, Sean Connery represented Bond in an era in which his audience believed in the niceties of a “martini shaken not stirred” and the progress of science, including its gadgets, Daniel Craig represents an era in which its global audience feels uneasy with the unending presence and reliance upon computer networks as well as the disappearance of geographic differences. No less than the members of his audience, Craig as Bond remains alone—on the rooftops of London and with only a ceramic British bulldog to remind him of “mother.” Mendes, as the director of such films as American Beauty, Road to Perdition (2002), Revolutionary Road (2008) and Away We Go (2009), has consistently explored and exposed the U.S. mythology of family, both the ideal and its reality in a culture that places greater value in mythology than in the people populating that culture. Skyfall likewise exposes the contemporary audience’s attraction to and fear of the resurrection of the Bond mythology. If Skyfall is arguably both entertainment and art, it is the former that accounts for its commercial success by maintaining the illusion of its longstanding mythological hero. M tells Bond that he has returned to London because we’re under attack and need you. The mythology demands that we readily accept and excitedly concur in her observation and that he return in order to save us. “A storm’s coming,” he triumphantly announces just before his successful confrontation with Silva at Skyfall.

Bond as mythic hero remains a source of entertainment to which his audience continues to cling, thereby enormously profiting its multi-national producers. Hanging on the wall between Bond and the new M in the final scene is a portrait of warships firing upon one another, “grand old warships,” as Q with his bad face complexion would put it. In returning to the field, Bond is supposedly resurrecting the myth of such warships. In hindsight, however, if we, as audience members, do not allow ourselves simply to be entertained, then it is the villain in Skyfall, Silva, who speaks to us and in whom we ought to place our sympathies and our hope that he will one day prevail over “god and country.” It is Silva the technologist with whom we should empathize insofar as his hacking of MI6’s computer network opens the doors to an underground beneath MI6 as well as opens the deceptively transparent door to his own cell. It is also the Silva who perceives our institutional aloneness in a stateless, technological world in which there is no privacy and rats devour one another. Silva is Skyfall’s hero, and the movie’s greatest darkness resides in the fact that he is its nominal villain. While there are those who view Silva and others like him in real life as representing a political change,[22] nothing is certain in today’s cultural climate.

Age meets youth at the National Gallery in London. The painting on the museum wall becomes the means for Bond's introduction to MI6’s new Q. Q confesses that the painting “always makes me feel a bit melancholy. Grand old warship being ignominiously hauled away for scrap. The inevitability of time don’t you think? What do you see?” Bond responds without emotion, “A bloody big ship.”
Initially alone on the rooftops of London following M’s death, Bond soon receives from Eve as his only inheritance from M, “mum,” a ceramic British bulldog. He interprets this as M’s post-mortem message to him that he reject a desk job. All seemingly ends happily for the movie’s audience. After learning that Eve’s surname is Moneypenny, 007 enters the familiar looking office of the new M, who places a “top secret,” classified file on his desk and announces that there’s “lots to be done.”

“… [Y]ou have to make a determination about what it is that's important to you. And if living unfreely but comfortably is something you're willing to accept, and I think it many of us are it's the human nature; you can get up everyday, go to work, you can collect your large paycheck for relatively little work against the public interest, and go to sleep at night after watching your shows.

“The greatest fear…is that nothing will change. People will see in the media all of these disclosures. They'll know the lengths that the government is going to grant themselves powers unilaterally to create greater control over American society and global society. But they won't be willing to take the risks necessary to stand up and fight to change things to force their representatives to actually take a stand in their interests. And the months ahead, the years ahead it's only going to get worse. … [A] new leader will be elected, they'll find the switch, say that ‘Because of the crisis, because of the dangers we face in the world, some new and unpredicted threat, we need more authority, we need more power.’ And there will be nothing the people can do at that point to oppose it. And it will be turnkey tyranny.”
—Edward Snowden[23]

Postscript

There are those in the real world who have refused to cooperate and comply with the demands of government. [24] Nevertheless, it has become increasingly apparent that the challenges in resisting the expansive policies of both private industry and government are significant. Computer tracking enables private industry to profile each consumer’s movements. Governments can sweep up vast amounts of data, whether through purchasing from private industry or directly collecting and decrypting that data. Cameras are now nearly everywhere, including on buildings, in subways, or on eyeglasses, and technology will soon permit instantaneous identification through such recordings. [25] In the face of the NSA’s annual “black budget” of $52 billion, it is not surprising that, as of this writing, Edward Snowden, whom many have labeled as a villain and traitor, remains stranded and stateless in Russia where he has been given a one-year residency. It is equally not surprising that in a display of power worthy of a 007 movie the plane of the Bolivian president is denied airspace and landing privileges because the U.S. government suspects that Snowden may have boarded his plane in an effort to leave Russia. [26]

And what of the much-vaunted U.S. press with its First Amendment protections? Within the last year one reporter has been ordered to testify against his sources, another has been labeled a co-conspirator in the prosecution of a whistleblower, and yet another is fearful that her life has forever been altered for having made public the clandestine activities of the U.S. government. [27] Does the “fourth estate,” as has it long been traditionally known in the U.S., continue to exist when The Washington Post, former home of Woodard and Bernstein of Watergate fame, is acquired by Amazon? [28]

Massive surveillance is justified in the name of combatting terrorism. Does that end justify that means when, for example, information was available pre-9/11 but was not coordinated between U.S. government agencies? And what of the 2013 bombings at the Boston Marathon, notwithstanding that the NSA’s surveillance was then in place? Ironically, the U.S. government allegedly knew that Snowden posed a potential threat but then failed to act upon that knowledge so as to deny him access to classified material. [29] Instead, it now labels and seeks to prosecute him as a traitor. There are no criminal sanctions for incompetence – or perjury, for that matter when the perpetrator is the government.

Skyfall is a commercially successful Hollywood movie. It entertains because of these challenges faced by its audience. It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that the producer of the 007 franchise is now apparently involved in the negotiations over a film about Edward Snowden. [30] In entertaining, Hollywood documents the night terrors of its audience.

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