The James Bond story was never meant to be fine art. As crafted by Ian Fleming, 007's character belonged alongside the kind of pulp fiction tucked into a bedside stack of titles by Mickey Spillane or Erle Stanley Gardner.
Beginning in 1953, Fleming--a World War II naval intelligence officer--began writing the Bond spy novels. He eventually penned 12. Not expecting much interest from Hollywood, Fleming settled for a mere $1,000 from CBS for the television rights to his first novel, Casino Royale (the show was quickly forgotten). In fact, Fleming actually pocketed more--1,500 pounds per novel--for comic strip adaptations in the late 1950s.
But everything changed in 1961. When asked at a press conference what his reading preferences were, President John F. Kennedy said he was a Bond fan. Fleming's titles quickly shot to the top of the bestseller lists, and a motion picture project was launched within months starring a moderately known Sean Connery.
Following a 1962 White House screening of Dr. No--the first of 25 Bond films--JFK was quoted as saying, "I wish I had James Bond on my staff." The Cuban Missile Crisis erupted only weeks later.
Bond has endured, surviving 10 U.S. presidents, the Cold War and decades of misogyny. True, there was a painful span in the 1980s (Timothy Dalton, anyone?), but when Daniel Craig stepped into the tux (following no fewer than six previous Bonds) in 2006's Casino Royale, some desperately needed self-examination was the order of the day. Bond and the viewing public were better off because of it.
Craig's Bond is more battered and bruised than buff. More importantly, 007's psyche is blood-stained. But Bond is a hired gun and, more often than not, he remains the only thing between us and chaos--which takes the form of cyberterrorist Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) in Bond's latest outing, Skyfall.
In the expert hands of director Sam Mendes, Skyfall breaks our hero down emotionally and physically--not unlike this summer's deconstruction of Batman in The Dark Knight Rises. In the opening hour of Skyfall, British intelligence slaps Bond with a battery of tests that prove he is neither mentally nor physically fit for any assignment, let alone any world-saving. So when he is dispatched to take care of the bad guy (and, holy shit, this guy is bad), we are sincerely worried for his (and our) survival. It's thrilling stuff.
Mendes and Craig elevate Bond to something the franchise has never seen before: an Oscar-caliber effort. Bond may need to have that tux pressed once more for next February's Academy Awards. Utltimately, Skyfall is indeed fine art.