Now that I've gotten baseball out of the way:
I spent sections of this past weekend in the company of spies. Saturday night, Josh, Jess and I braved a rabid crowd of Twilight fans to see--perhaps belatedly-- Argo, the Ben Affleck version of what happened in Iran in late 1979 and early 1980, when the CIA, in cooperation with the Canadian government, smuggled six U.S. diplomatic personnel out of the country in the midst of the infamous hostage situation.
The next day, just to be spy ironic (spyronic?), we went to see Skyfall, in which Daniel Craig shows us James Bond as a guy who does (a little) more than shoot people and sleep with absurdly gorgeous women.
It was a study in contrasts, certainly. Argo has been rhapsodically reviewed in many respected publications and has generated serious Oscar buzz for Affleck and probably some others. Skyfall has been well, if not rhapsodically, reviewed as a refreshing Bond film after the complete inconsequence of Quantum of Solace (what the hell does that mean, anyway?) and has generated all sorts of money for MGM, which needed it.
Frankly, I think Skyfall is the better film.
Yes, Affleck, who directed, co-produced and starred in Argo, paid great attention to accuracy and detail. (Except when he didn't, as detailed in this Slate article.) It has very impressive facial hair and forelocks--this might be the hairiest movie of the year. And Affleck made a nice little thriller that gets you tense even though you should know the outcome of the whole enterprise if you've paid any attention to the facts about the Iran crisis at all.
But that's sort of the problem. The viewer knows --SPOILER ALERT--that the mission is going to be successful. The people who escaped the embassy and are being harbored by the Canadians are not fully fleshed out; they're simply the "guests" who need rescuing and aside from some bickering among themselves (during which you wonder what they'd prefer to do if not go along with the guy who's here to get them home), they're sort of bland. (Thank goodness for John Goodman and Alan Arkin, the only people in the movie who seem to understand what a nutty plot this is. Without them, the story might just as well be about sneaking people out of Iran by pretending they're working for Johnson & Johnson on a special Farsi Band-Aid.)
Still, the hostages not the blandest characters in the movie. This Affleck has reserved for himself. Playing Antonio Mendez, who cooked up the scheme to pretend to shoot a movie in Iran so as to extract the six people at risk, and who surely must be an interesting character, Affleck looks stoned. He rarely moves a facial muscle, reacts to everything with a pause, as if he's translating it into his native language in his head, and otherwise sleepwalks through the plot in what can only be interpreted as an attempt to seem deep and concerned. Instead, he comes across as the least interesting man in the world. Stay boring, my friends.
In Skyfall, there has been virtually no attempt to provide accuracy, although the details dropped in are interesting. I lost interest in the Bond series around the time of Timothy Dalton, mostly because I stopped being a man in his 20s and moved on to things that were slightly less, let's say, formulaic. Yeah, the bombs and the babes were fun, but they were the same from movie to movie.
And when Daniel Craig took over with the third (by my count) version of Casino Royale, I was not impressed. That guy on the screen was running around shooting people and the like, but they could have named him Jerry Baskin for all the resemblance he had to the classic Bond. Okay, but not interested.
With Skyfall, however, there is more to the man than the tuxedo. Attention is paid to the fact that it's Bond's (brace yourself) 50th anniversary on screen, so there are reminders and touches that go back to the Aston Martin and the shaken martini. There is a very creepy (if underused) villain in Javier Bardem, whose contract appears to insist that he have crazy hair in every movie. There are two "Bond girls," if we must use that term, and while they pretend to be women of the millennium, they are seen as either incompetent or defined by their choice of men.
Doesn't sound much like a rave review yet, does it?
What the filmmakers, who include director Sam Mendes (whose work I have not to date found that interesting) have added is a soul for the guy in the suit. This installment gives us a little of Bond's backstory, although whether it is Fleming's I can't claim to know. It makes him feel things. It makes him care. That's a huge sea change for this franchise, and I hope the producers decide to continue with it.
Is it too long? Of course it's too long; it's a James Bond movie. It's crammed with plots, subplots, chases, more chases, shootings, more shootings, stuff blowing up and Albert Finney, among the most welcome of veteran actors signing on to give Bond a little more gravitas than usual. Is it Connery? It is not. There's one of those, and that's all you get. But Skyfall isn't as silly as the Roger Moore take on the character, it's considerably more distinctive than Pierce Brosnan's placeholder Bond, and it is Craig's best outing so far.
The idea that he's now considered old in the role is just a little scary.
That's my take. Your mileage may vary.