The spies who fight to love James Bond
There are times in the latest Bond film where art mimics life a little too much. No time to die involves a deadly biological weapon, which is baffling during a raging pandemic. The fictitious MI6 leader known as “M” laments the fact that the world is arming “faster than we can respond,” and the enemy, once a real adversary, ” now floats in the ether “. These same complaints are frequently made by actual defense and intelligence personnel grappling with AI, cyberattacks, and the prospect of high-tech warfare.
But while the British security establishment is grateful to Hollywood for highlighting such threats, it is careful not to show it. In fact, Bond films have always been a mixed blessing for British spies. The caricature of a misogynistic man of action risks deterring female and non-white, non-Oxbridge candidates who MI5, MI6 and GCHQ are now urging to join their ranks. Meanwhile, those who apply en masse to agencies after each new film release are often unsuited for a career in modern espionage. Celebrity 007’s alcoholic, playful, libidinous and blind killer “isn’t the kind of candidate we’re looking for,” a security official notes dryly.
For this reason, MI6 is wary of over-admiring its fictional – and most famous – officer. Alex Younger, former head of the foreign intelligence agency, admitted five years ago that he was “in conflict” over the films, and said if Bond was to join now, “he would have to change his ways” . Current chef Richard Moore coined a Twitter hashtag, #forgetjamesbond, to promote its desire to have a more diverse workforce. Meanwhile, Ken McCallum, managing director of the MI5 Home Intelligence Service, explained last year that launching an Instagram profile would help his agency “overcome any stereotypes of martini consumption that may persist” to give a better idea of ââlife in the service is actually like.
But maybe these spy bosses are protesting too much. Bond’s advantages for British soft power, and the image of his spies as skilled, respected and omnipotent, are still a clear positive. A Whitehall official told me that the mark is “extremely useful” when recruiting agents – the men and women who risk their lives to transmit intelligence inside key targets such as terrorist cells. Bond is an “immediate point of reference” for the idea of ââtaking risks for the greater good, explains the official. Hollywood’s MI6 budget may be unlimited, but that’s not a bad thing. “We are being portrayed in the minds of a global audience as a form of ubiquitous intelligence presence,” Younger conceded in a letter to The Economist four years ago. “It can be quite a force multiplier.”
The perceived advantage is so great that for decades other countries have suffered from “the envy of obligations,” according to Christopher Andrew, professor of history at Cambridge and official biographer of MI5. In Stars and spies he tells how Russia’s internal security service, the FSB, was so keen to inspire a Bond equivalent that it created an annual award for patriotic depictions of Russian spies in the arts. The winner in the 2007 film category was Code of the Apocalypse, in which super agent Darya Vyacheslavovna triumphs over clumsy CIA agents to deactivate four nuclear bombs planted by a terrorist. Her talent is such that American soldiers applaud her as she flees.
While the UK security services do not need to hold a competition, No time to die is potentially a movie they can support. Bond is more humble and vulnerable than previous incarnations, his lothario instincts softened by age and experience. He is now, as the FT film critic puts it, “an old castaway ghost with a working knee.” Charismatic Nomi, a young black rising star of MI6 – who views Bond with sardonic suspicion and outshines him – is a much better role model for the future of espionage than her acclaimed predecessor.
However, modernization does not go further. Bond’s vintage cars, on-site assassinations, and enthusiasm for alcohol during operations persist. His Aston Martin is deployed in a lightning car chase through the vertiginous streets of Matera, and he later enters the Villain’s Island lair in a Q branch-designed stealth glider that transforms into a submarine submersible. . In these scenes at least, it’s reassuring that the fantasy world of 007 remains largely untouched by real life.