Roundtable: James Bond 007: Daniel Craig

Daniel Craig: His look, character, attitude, and screen presence

Anton: Before Casino Royale came out, Daniel Craig, the new “blonde Bond,” was derided. Now, praise for him is almost universal. What happened?

Anders: I think part of what happened, which is a good thing, is that substance trumped appearance. When all we have to go on is how somebody looks and how they align with previous images of the character, it is easy to say, “Hey! That’s different” or “He looks different from [Connery, Moore, etc.]”; but having seen the films, people decided that having a good performance was more important that any difference in appearance.

Change is always difficult for fans with deep emotional investment in a series. Pierce Brosnan, for all his shortcomings as Bond that we discussed, was actually quite a beloved James Bond. And he was, as we discussed, a charmer and popular with the ladies. So, the switch to the “blonde Bond” who, as Peter Bradshaw describes in his review of Spectre in The Guardian, has that “great big handsome-Shrek face with its sweetly bat ears,” was a bit of a shock for people. I find it comforting that Craig was not only able to transcend those criticisms with his performances; but also, that he has made Bond into possibly as much of an icon of style and sex-appeal as he’s ever been, not by conforming to the image but simply by being great.

Anton: I remember that line in The Guardian. It’s true. Outside the context of Bond, would anyone find Daniel Craig especially handsome?

I think you’re right though, Anders, that we can celebrate Craig’s popularity as essentially an actor winning people over based on the strength of his performance.

Aren: There’s also a costume aspect to Bond that works here. People may have decried Craig when he was cast because he was blonde and “didn’t look like James Bond,” but after they saw him in the right suits and driving the right cars and drinking the right martinis, the image fit their preconceived notions. The only aspect of appearance that matters for Bond is his outfittings: car, suits, drinks, guns. The rest that matters is character, which is dependent on writing, and charisma, which is dependent on the actor. Luckily, with Craig we got emotionally complex writing to match the depth and charisma of the performer.

Craig is a very good actor and he’s the first Bond actor to really get the dramatic material to stretch the character into something alarmingly real. Some people have suggested that he’s easily the best actor to ever play Bond, but that’s being shortsighted. Yes, Roger Moore and Sean Connery are out-and-out movie stars who give performances that register differently than Craig’s, but that’s because their movies are attempting different things than Craig’s. They give movie star performances, where you never forget that they’re Sean Connery or Roger Moore, whereas Craig loses a bit more of himself in the character.

Anton: I think Connery gives great performances in Dr. No and From Russia with Love. He conveys a lot with his eyes. And I think Roger Moore deserves credit for his brilliant but completely different style of acting. He delivers ridiculous lines like pretty much nobody else can. He makes those very silly movies work.

Aren: It’s also important to remember that Timothy Dalton is a fantastic actor. He would’ve killed with the material Craig was given. I think if hard-pressed for the best actor of the Bond performers, Dalton is probably the tops. Craig is also excellent, while Connery gave more rigorous performances in other films.

Anders: I would probably agree with you here. Dalton was a classically trained Shakespearean actor, not a bodybuilder or a TV star, as were Connery and Moore.

Anton: The story of Dalton’s Bond: unrealized potential. Alas!

Anders: But Craig has also challenged the idea that a James Bond actor is limited by the role as long as he continues to make the movies. He’s showed his chops in films like Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and even before Bond, with his lead turn in Layer Cake and supporting role in Spielberg’s Munich. Each of these films doesn’t venture very far from Bond, and in the case of his earlier films, probably explain what the producers saw in him that led to his casting. Between Skyfall and Spectre he’s focused on theatrical performances, and is about to embark on another one soon: a performance as Iagoin Othello, opposite David Oyelowo; that I’d love to see.

Anton: I think it’s fair to say that Craig has benefited from and really capitalized on the new focus and more serious material in the past four Bond films, but Craig himself seems to have contributed to this. He probably didn’t have much control or influence during Casino Royale, but I noticed that he has a co-producer credit on Spectre. My sense from interviews and articles is that he’s had a fair bit of influence behind the camera as well.

The armour and soul of Bond: cold or emotional, calloused or wounded?

Anton: In past roundtables, Aren has described Craig’s performances as more emotional than other Bonds, but I’ve always felt that Craig emphasizes Bond’s brutality. Can we both be right?

Aren: We probably can because one begets the other, doesn’t it? Craig’s Bond is a brutal man as a means of emotional defense. He keeps up his armour until he lets it down with Vesper Lynd, and when she betrays him and dies, he brings it back up reinforced ten times over. His coldness is a sign of his seething emotions on the inside. Craig plays Bond as a man who is horribly broken and sad, but is trying so hard to erase those wounds by outward acts of indifference.

Anton: And alcohol. Craig’s Bond is clearly not just a connoiseur. He’s probably an alcoholic. I’m thinking of the scene in Casino Royale, after the stairwell fight, when he guzzles a glass of whisky while he cleans up. Bond also chugs some whisky back in Quantum of Solace after the car chase and just before they interrogate Mr. White. I can’t recall a particular scene in Skyfall, but the Craig films certainly establish that Bond doesn’t just drink martinis recreationally. Booze and sex seem to be his main ways of dealing with his line of work.

Aren: For Skyfall, there’s the fact that his “post-death” idyllic beach existence is swimming in tequila and beer. It’s how he copes.

Anton: There’s a telling moment during Bond’s psychological assessment in Spectre in which Dr. Swann asks him how much he drinks, and he replies, “Too much.” I think just before that he’s admitted to having a high-stress job killing people, which probably explains the behaviour. Spectre also links sex and killing, with the jump cut to Bond and Swann tearing each other’s clothes off after the fight on the train.

The thing is, the Craig films aren’t adding this dimension to Bond; they’re justing shedding a bit more light on the motivations behind the behaviour that’s always been present.

Anders: Yes, and this is partly a function of our world today. If Bond is going to continue with that behaviour, the Craig films won’t let him off the hook for his self-destructive behaviour. I think that links the emotion and brutality; his self-destructive, emotional coping is an offshoot of his brutality, his role as a “blunt instrument.”

Aren: Craig is both deeply vulnerable, and horribly callous. He gets to show off both sides of himself right in his first film, Casino Royale. I think his reactions to the deaths of the two Bond girls in that film show both ranges of his emotional spectrum. After Solange Dimitrios (Caterina Murino) is found dead tangled in her beach hammock, an MI6 aid retches at the sight. M (Judi Dench) turns to Bond and tells him she hopes he’ll be emotionally detached on his new assignment, before realizing that Bond hasn’t shown the slightest hint of emotion at the woman’s corpse. She then remarks that she doesn’t think he has any trouble remaining detached, and he coldly agrees.

Conversely, late in the film, after he frees Vesper Lynd’s corpse from the elevator cage that drowned her, Bond tries in vain to resuscitate her, performing CPR and screaming at her to wake up. This is Bond without any emotional distance. He’s lost any kind of shield or collected exterior. Instead, he’s just a man flailing wildly at life and shocked in the face of his great love’s death.

I remember being visibly shocked during this retrospective rewatch of Casino Royale. I always remembered how emotional Bond gets in this film during his scenes with Vesper (his moment comforting her in the shower, their time together during his rehabilitation, the ending), but these scenes didn’t affect me then the way they did this time around. This time, seeing Craig’s Bond break down after watching 20 Bond films with other actors playing the part and mostly foregoing any kind of naked emotion (aside from Dalton’s rage and glimmers of Brosnan’s inner conflict), I was viscerally overwhelmed. I always thought Casino Royale was a great film, but I now think it’s a profoundly moving film as well.

Anders: I agree. Casino Royale nearly brings me to tears. I can’t think of very many action films that do that.

Anton: It’s ability to move me is why it’s my favourite. Skyfall is so handsome and thoughtful, but it doesn’t move me like Casino Royale.

Anders: For all the complaints we can make about the state of storytelling in Hollywood and mainstream cinema today Daniel Craig has benefitted massively from having some great moments written into his films. As you say, I would have loved to see someone like Dalton—but even Connery and Moore, who each, I think, had the potential to reach those depths and deliver moving performances, as Connery did in other films—would have done had they been given some of the material to work with that Craig has had. I don’t want to make that a backhanded compliment to Craig’s work, but he has had those moments, and not just in Casino Royale.

Aren: Yes, the other Craig films have these moments as well. Quantum of Solace is mostly a vehicle for Craig to unleash his rage, Dalton-style. The death of M in Skyfall allows Craig to again tap into his emotional well. Recently, in Spectre, I found a few of these moments as well. The most moving of which was a tiny little grace note that is indicative of just how good the Craig films are. When Bond and Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) find Mr. White’s (Jesper Christensen) safe room in the L’Americain Hotel in Tangiers, Bond finds a VHS labeled “Vesper Lynd Interrogation” and there’s a beat. Bond clearly wants to watch this tape but he knows it’ll hurt him, so he tosses it away. For a moment, Craig is again letting down his armour, before he realizes he’s being watched, and up it comes again. It’s a lovely little performance note—something that lesser actors (and directors) couldn’t (or wouldn’t want to) pull off.

Anton: Aren’t we forgetting Lazenby’s emotional finale? Craig certainly gets more opportunities to shed the armour, so to speak, but it’s there in the other films in moments.

I want to stress this point: the Craig films are unique for their degree of thematic seriousness and significance and character depth, not for merely having these aspects at all.

007 gone rogue.

Anton: Turning to how Bond functions in the Craig films, I think the use of Bond as a rogue agent, operating without the full licence of MI6, has reached the limit in recent years. It’s being overdone. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think Licence to Kill is the first film in which Bond has his licence revoked. The Brosnan era deploys a rogue Bond on more than one occasion, and I’m pretty sure every Craig film has had Bond operating without orders or beyond the purview of MI6 at some point. Even Casino Royale has Bond tracking terrorists down when he’s supposed to be suspended during the first hour.

Anders: I would agree that his going “rogue” in the last three films is a bit much, but I think that it reflects the post-9/11, post-surveillance society that we live in and that is directly addressed in these films; it’s especially done so in the terrorism in Skyfall and the plot to replace MI6 in Spectre. People don’t trust their governments as much as they once did, if that’s possible. The UK of Connery’s era, for all its faults, was specifically contrasting itself against a Soviet Union that restricted freedoms; in the 60s Bond represented a bit of a libertine attitude to contrast the austerity of the Soviets.

Aren: He could crack wise at his authorities while still following their orders and being a good soldier. Pushing back against authority wasn’t seen as incompatible with loyalty to the state.

Anders: The UK today is one that has almost become the surveillance state of Orwell’s 1984, with a CCTV camera on every street corner. For Bond to maintain any semblance of a moral authority, he needs to break free from that. Craig’s Bond, for all his “personal issues,” is a man who is willing to stand up against his government to do what he believes is right. He doesn’t blindly follow orders, and, as is alluded to in Spectre, stands for some kind of nostalgia for a time when a man (and it was almost always a man) looked another man in the eye before he pulled the trigger, rather than killed him with a drone. Whether that reflects a misguided romanticism of the violence of the past or not, it contrasts Bond with the modern state of warfare.

Anton: At the same time that recent Bond films show a marked suspicion of government motivations, Skyfall, and to a lesser extent Spectre, glorify a certain kind of old-school order. The Mendes films are deeply conservative. I’m not using this as an insult or a cautionary label. They celebrate a certain image of Britain, and much of that Britain—but not all—is traditional.

As a whole, the Craig era is a strange mix of traditionalism and patriotism combined with savvy progressive modifications. They’ve been very conscious about changing the franchise’s approach to gender and race. After all, the new Moneypenny is a black woman, and the Craig films clearly sexualize Bond as much as—actually, probably more—than any of the women.

At the same time, they are incredibly sceptical of other “advancements” in society. They loathe the surveillance state, are very concerned with approaches to policy in which economic interests trump all, and they are nostalgic for a world in which terrorism was not the main focus of national security and intelligence gathering. The Craig era muddies the waters constantly, but there’s a deep hunger for good versus evil in the films.

Anders: Yes, exactly. It’s a British conservatism rooted in tradition and crown that is skeptical of the new surveillance state and reactionary politics of any stripe.

Aren: Bond is a fictional hero, after all. He can stand for ideals that reality falls short of. He represents a Britain that is truly a force for good in the world, despite any of reality’s claims to the contrary.

Chronology and the reboots.

Anton: An assessment of Craig would seem to raise the question of the series’ chronology. Casino Royale rebooted things, Quantum of Solace seemed to set up a new arc, but then Skyfall changed the focus again and seemed to launch the Craig era many years into the future, when Bond is more experienced. That aspect really annoyed me when I saw Skyfall, which I otherwise really appreciated, because it seemed to jettison the possibilities of a new and connected chronology between the films (given the intimate relationship between CR and QoS).

Are these examples of the lack of a big game plan? Is Craig really any more of a reboot than other Bonds?

Aren: Yes and no to both questions. The Bond films have never had a real game plan as it extends to narrative. However, Eon Productions is very particular as it comes to the character of Bond. That game plan has never changed, even if each new Bond actor shifts the character focus a bit. If anything, the Craig films are the introduction of a sort of gameplan, one that was obviously changed after the lukewarm response to Quantum of Solace and the extended time gap between it and Skyfall.

As for Casino Royale, it is a harder reboot than any of the soft reboots in the Bond franchise over the years—On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, For Your Eyes Only, The Living Daylights, GoldenEye. It brings Bond back to square one and shows us how he became a 00 in the first place. It’s the origin story of Bond as 007, and the entire Craig run can be seen as an extension of this origin story, breaking Bond down to his basic parts and reassembling him, giving him back his M, his Q, his Moneypenny, and his diabolical nemesis, Blofeld.

Anton: But how can Skyfall or Spectre be any sort of origin stories when Bond is supposed to be a possibly washed-up veteran in them? Mendes wants to rebuild the formula, and also have the old Ulysses surveying his life and works.

Aren: You’re thinking of all this in reductive binary terms, Anton. It can be both things. Bond as a fictional character is a washed-up veteran in Mendes’s films. This Bond represents the legacy of the series. We don’t need an origin story for that. However, Bond as an actual person is still getting back into the rhythm and conventions of the old Bond films. He’s becoming the man we know him to be, thus, we’re seeing his origin.

Casino Royale is not the sort of hard reboot like Batman Begins that is meant to erase any of the chronology of the old films about Batman. Each new Bond film has always acknowledged or ignored whatever it saw fit. For instance, You Only Live Twice clearly takes place after the events of Thunderball. The actions of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. have drawn the ire of MI6 and Blofeld is Public Enemy No. 1. The first five Connery films can all sort of be seen as direct sequels, in fact. As well, The Spy Who Loved Me references Bond getting married in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Anders: As does Licence to Kill, obliquely.

Aren: However, on the other hand, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service clearly ignores You Only Live Twice as Blofeld doesn’t recognize James Bond even though they met in that film. GoldenEye introduces Judi Dench’s M as the new head of MI6, but then in Casino Royale where we go back to the root of Bond’s involvement in British intelligence, she’s the M who has been there seemingly forever. The Bond franchise is not tied to any narrative continuity. Instead, I’d argue it’s tied to the character of James Bond, the key events in his life and his emotional development.

Anton: Judi Dench’s M is an important example of the weird chronology of the series. Remember what a big deal GoldenEye makes about introducing the new female M? And then all of a sudden she’s the M we’ve always had. I’m fine with the loose chronology, which you rightly point out has always been there in the series. What gets me is that the Craig films, at the same time, make efforts to have greater unity between the films. Quantum starts right after Casino Royale’s events. Spectre tries—unsuccessfully I think—to link all four films.

Anders: I would also argue that the shift that happens between the first two Craig films and Sam Mendes’ films is related to the thematic shift in focus and that nostalgia for older forms of espionage. Making Bond an established figure in the secret service makes him more representative of that old guard which opposes the new computerized, surveillance state. I’m happy for the films to shift and alter to fit the thematic material, especially since, as Aren points out, continuity has never been that big a deal to this series. So, while there is more continuity in the Craig films, they’re willing to pick and choose what they want to serve the story which ties the films to the traditions of the series as a whole more fully.

Anton: But do you not see that the Mendes films are thematically divided in that respect? They want to be nostalgic but also rebuilding. I don’t know, maybe that desire does fit together. They try to recreate the thing they long for?

Anders: Exactly. That’s precisely it. I think Spectre loses it a bit in being thematically divided. We have the personal story of Bond and Blofeld and his coping with the traumas of the past, and then we get the story of C and the threat to MI6 from the new global security apparatus. The two don’t fit as well together as they could, but isn’t the way the film looks to the past a part of deciding what they want to build?

Anton: These tensions are bound up with how the gun barrel scene has been used in the Craig era. As far as I’m concerned, Casino Royale is the only justifiable exclusion of the convention. The first time I saw it, the lack of the barrel irritated my desire for the “perfect” Bond film, but now I love how they incorporate that convention into the plot of the film.

Although the opening shots of Quantum are masterful—the zooming helicopter shot racing towards the tunneled road intercut with glimpses of the car and Bond—there’s absolutely no good reason they delayed the barrel to the end. In Skyfall, Mendes wants to have it both ways, and modify the convention but still retain it. He follows Casino Royale and has a shadowy hallway parallel the gun barrel at the start, and then he plays it again at the end once Bond has all his old elements reinstated. Thankfully Spectre finally does it right.  

Aren: It’s probably the one thing about Skyfall that I’d change. It should’ve been at the beginning. I understand that they wanted it at the end to commemorate 50 years on screen and to occur right after Bond gets his fixed M and Moneypenny, but they already did a late gunbarrel in Quantum of Solace so it wasn’t special.

Anton: The Star Wars franchise is definitely the original example of a series rewriting its chronology as it goes along, from changing the original title of Star Wars to Episode IV — A New Hope to the obsession with connections in the prequels. That said, the Mendes’ films demand even more comparison to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. I actually think that’s their greatest influence outside the Bond canon.

Aren: This is very true, but instead of decrying this influence, I think people need to read this as the cyclical influence of Bond in action cinema. Bond influences and is influenced by the major films in action cinema. Christopher Nolan is an avowed fan of James Bond. He’s spoken at length of his love for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and The Spy Who Loved Me specifically and would love to direct a Bond film. His style of action filmmaking, with the massive stunts and emphasis on cinematic logic over realism, is clearly borne out of his love of Bond films. So for Bond to influence Nolan who then influences Sam Mendes in his Bond films makes perfect sense to me. People shouldn’t be hung up on it. The Bond films cast a long shadow over the world of action cinema. It’s only fitting that they’d play to current conventions as they established so many of them.

So where is Bond headed next? There’s been talk of Daniel Craig hanging up the tux after Spectre, but that talk ignores the fact that he’s contracted for another picture. His infamous “slit my wrists” comment was taken wildly out of context by a predatory media hungry to flood our newsfeeds with speculation about each and every franchise they can. They ignore the context of a man discussing a year-long film shoot on one of the biggest action movies ever made and his desire to spend some time with his family in the foreseeable future. If Spectre is a big financial hit (and it’s already raking in the bucket loads oversees), I think the producers will give him whatever he wants to hold him to the contract.

I think Craig will be back. It’ll be curious to see what kind of Bond film we get from him next. But even if he does opt out of his contract, I think his influence on the series is undeniable. We’ll have to wait some time before we understand his true legacy as James Bond, but he’ll be a hard Bond to follow.