In Skyfall, James Bond dies. Don’t worry, that’s not the end of the franchise—it’s not even the end of the movie, but the very beginning. Immediately before Adele’s appropriately moody, Bondian theme song, 007 (Daniel Craig, comfortable and winning in his third time out) is naturally chasing a bad guy, someone who has a top-secret list of MI6’s top-secret agents and their true identities. The pursuit has the men tearing up an open-air market (yawn) and eventually battling it out on top of a train. (Bond’s brief, unflappable entrance into the train proper as he straightens his cuffs is the definition of debonair.)
But back to the railcars’ rooftops. Another agent, Eve (Naomie Harris), is watching the action from a distance, ready to snipe. She’s not getting a clean shot. “Take the shot,” the agents’ boss, M (Judi Dench), instructs her. Eve hesitates. “Take the shot!” M repeats. Eve takes the shot. Then, seconds later, the report: “Agent down.” Cue elegiac credits.
Of course, that isn’t really the end of Bond—he’ll pop up again soon enough in an exotic locale, unsurprisingly having sex and doing manly things like knocking back booze while a giant scorpion rests on his hand. In the meantime, MI6’s headquarters have been bombed, seemingly to obliterate M. Is this the end of the agency?
Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes (who’s not exactly known for action films) and written by Bond vets Neal Purvis and Robert Wade along with Hugo scripter John Logan, wraps itself around a few themes. The big picture involves M having to prove to her government that she and her old-school methods of espionage are still relevant in an Internet-driven world. On a more personal level, the story is about a Bond broken, struggling to pass his physical and psychological tests when he returns to MI6 and occasionally stopping a chase or missing a shot to nurse an ache. We also get to visit the agent’s childhood home—a Scottish mansion named Skyfall—for the final blowout. It’s the closest the franchise has ever gotten to offering a James Bond origin story. When the accompanying M asks, “Where are we going?” Bond replies, “Back in time.” (And the good ol’ Aston Martin and Bond theme then pop up to prove it.)
The film itself is one of the most engrossing and enjoyable of the decades-old series, but there are a few shortfalls. The villain, a former agent with a vendetta against M who’s played by the fabulous (and, here, flamboyant) Javier Bardem, doesn’t appear until we’re deep into the plot—and though each of his scenes are mesmerizingly menacing, he’s just not here enough. The Bond girls, Eve and Severine (Berenice Marlohe), each have their seductive moments, but they too also seem to get short shrift.
And Mendes’ action, though sometimes stylish (a bout of silhouetted fisticuffs against an indigo backdrop makes a terrific visual, and a subway diving into a gap in the ground is just cool), ultimately doesn’t quite rise up to the gritty standards set by, say, 2006’s Casino Royale, particularly when you compare each film’s opening: Blows on even a speeding train don’t compare to the breathtaking introduction to Craig’s first outing as Bond, a sky-high, nerve-racking foot chase on scaffolding. Pedestrian shoot-outs and explosions are so, I don’t know, Die Hard. It’s bad enough that 007 drinks Heineken (!) now. If his poised British one-liners are replaced with yippee-ki-yaying, fans will say goodbye to Bond for real.
Lincoln Directed by Steven Spielberg
The best thing Steven Spielberg did for his latest, Lincoln, is stay out of its way. There are hardly any Spielbergian imprints here; if you didn’t know it was directed by him, well, you wouldn’t know it was directed by him. Daniel Day-Lewis, impeccably portraying our 16th president, is rightfully the one in charge, commanding each shot he’s in not only with his remarkable resemblance to Abraham Lincoln but also with his approach to the role: With a soft, high-pitched, and softly scratchy voice, Day-Lewis imbues the character with warmth, wisdom, and a mellow lightheartedness that will provide many gentle laughs throughout the film’s 150 minutes. And speaking of those 150 minutes, they improbably fly by—a sign as reliable as any other of a very good, if just short of great, film.
The director’s stamp is found in only one obvious aspect of Tony Kushner’s script, and that’s the relationship between Lincoln and his youngest son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath). After the president, filled with angst, discusses with his wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), his proposed bill that would end slavery as well as the Civil War, he walks into a room where Tad is sleeping and scoops him up onto his back to put him to bed. When the bill is finally put to vote, he’s in his office with Tad on his lap, reading with him a book about insects. Lincoln’s relationship with his older son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is a bit pricklier, because Robert’s parents, especially his mother, do not want him to enlist in the military. But when he tells his father that it’s something he feels he must do, Lincoln gives him his blessing and sends him on his way, knowing he’s going to face the wrath of Mary Todd afterward.
And what wrath it is! The first lady is a tiny ball of fire unafraid of her stately husband, bitter about Robert’s enlistment as well as sorrows that occurred years before. It’s a welcome and completely believable side of the “You really like me!” star that we’ve never seen, and as such, Field fits right in with a terrific cast whose standouts include not only Day-Lewis (though he’s the one sure to get the Oscar nod) but also Tommy Lee Jones (as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee) and David Strathairn (as Lincoln’s secretary of state). Though Lincoln himself is often amusing, it’s Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens who provides the most laughs, mixing insights with insults that bite like a viper.
After a brief battle scene opens Lincoln, the film is all talk, focusing on the debate on whether to ratify the 13th amendment and negotiations to end the war. Throughout, the president regales his audience with stories—and stories interrupting stories, to his great amusement and the occasional eye-rolls of others. After the bill—spoiler alert! —is passed (depicted by a somewhat tedious vote count), someone remarks to the president, “You’re 10 years older than you were a year ago.” Considering we still see our leaders grayer and more wrinkled when they leave office than when they were elected, the line rings true.
And somehow, this mound of dialogue works. Day-Lewis’ performance is undoubtedly a sizable contributor to the film’s speedy pace; it’s hard to stop staring at him when he’s onscreen, and he doesn’t come across as an actor acting. The dynamic between Lincoln and Mary Todd is another engrossing factor, a car crash at which you can’t help but gawk; its tension is too real. And though the scenes involving Lincoln and his sons are also noteworthy, they aren’t Spielberg-sentimentalized but rather come across as natural snapshots of a regular family. That Lincoln was anything but regular—but is portrayed as humanly as possible—is perhaps the movie’s greatest achievement. The president earned his place in history, and so will the film.