A former head of Mi5 reviews the new Bond filmby Jonathan Evans / November 12, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
Spectre is the 26th James Bond film (including David Niven’s outing as Bond in the parody version of Casino Royale and Sean Connery’s Never Say Never Again) and the local cinema where I saw it was running 21 showings a day in the opening week. You can’t keep a formula running that long and so successfully unless you are tapping into something pretty deep in the male (and maybe female) psyche.
We all like to see good triumphing over evil after the dangers and trials of battle and we love it when the boy wins the girl and they drive off into the sunset. Bond films are meant to be fun and Spectre plays it safe by including all the elements you’d expect. As entertainment it works just fine.
The Bond myth is, of course, rather important to British Intelligence. Members of the agencies go to the movies as much as anyone else and no doubt feel a certain pride in seeing their work portrayed in such a heroic light. Equally, foreign services are fully aware of the Bond mystique and that does the UK no harm at all in intelligence circles. Though James Bond is meant to be about MI6, all three agencies—MI6, MI5 and GCHQ—get a bit of reflected glamour.
It’s not exactly a documentary about everyday life in the intelligence agencies, to say the least, but if you don’t want to talk in any detail about what you actually do day-to-day, then having your agency personified in a daring, glamorous, sexy and successful super spy, protecting the country (and the world) against evil plots, is a pretty good alternative. After all, the main task of the agencies really is to protect the country against evil plots.
Needless to say, if James Bond were the real thing and undertook a single operation anything like those in Spectre he would spend the rest of his career shut away in the office going to tortuous meetings with his lawyers and trying to keep himself out of prison. But part of the Bond charisma is that he is in opposition to the bureaucratic powers that be. That is very much the case in Spectre where ghastly Whitehall warrior Max Denbigh is seeking to merge MI5 and MI6 and replace Bond-style shenanigans with an all encompassing global surveillance capability as part of the “9 Eyes” intelligence alliance.
Of course, in real life ghastly Whitehall warriors do pop up from time to time and propose the merger of MI5 and MI6, and some countries (but not those with serious intelligence capabilities) do advocate merging national agencies into an international (usually European) blancmange. And post-Snowden, Denbigh’s surveillance ambitions (“We watch everyone”) will have a certain resonance.
But fortunately there is nothing here that cannot be sorted out with a bit of black humour, a lot of explosives and some help from Ben Wishaw’s Q, who happily has a larger part in this film than he did in Skyfall. It does say something about our current collective anxieties that the global catastrophe that Bond and Q are working to prevent is not some nuclear explosion or biological attack but the successful implementation of a global surveillance system. Even Bond is fighting cyber-wars now.