by Isaac Chotiner Slate
There is a remarkable moment late in Casino Royale – Daniel Craig’s first, triumphant outing as James Bond – where 007 is sitting across the table from the film’s love interest, Vesper Lynd, one of the series’ best Bond girls. Satisfied with his successful poker playing, and no doubt thinking that Lynd, too, is impressed, Bond sits back in his chair and boyishly, unselfconsciously, smiles. Not a grin or a smirk, mind you: a full-on smile. When I first watched this scene, in 2006, I reeled. Sure, Sean Connery smiles broadly at a Gypsy encampment in Turkey in the second Bond film, From Russia With Love (1963), but that shot is so quick, and so out of context, that the only reasonable conclusion is that the actor’s on-set laughter was accidentally included in the finished film. Craig’s look, which recurs later on in Casino Royale, struck me as a first in the series. Did it really take James Bond 44 years to smile?
In the course of 23 movies – including Skyfall, the solid but not quite scintillating new entry in the series which opens in the United States Nov. 9 – James Bond has been incarnated by six different actors. While the roles of other world-saving supermen – from Batman to the Hulk to Superman himself – have been filled by a variety of mortals, those heroes are ciphers. It barely matters who plays Batman: The thrill is in the gadgets, the atmosphere, the supervillains. Does anyone believe that the runaway success of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy depended in any essential way on Christian Bale, who, despite being a first-rate actor and strong screen presence, was barely featured in the last movie’s publicity campaign? Does anyone even remember who played Superman most recently?
The James Bond films are themselves frequently identified by their villains or “girls” or gadgets, but when I sat down to rewatch the nearly two dozen Bond movies, I was struck by just how much 007 himself stands out. James Bond is not a “realistic” character; real people occasionally smile. But he is a compelling and distinct one. With the right leading man, Bond is just human enough to be believable – and yet sufficiently aloof and suave to appear mostly untroubled by the world’s real worries. He thus provides just the right amount of escapism. The best fantasies are those that appear not entirely unattainable.