The spy who inspired me: How James Bond movies shaped my life
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Tiffany Case and James Bond get to know each other in Diamonds Are Forever.
TheDiamonds Are Forever opens with a tranquil scene of an unoccupied Japanese tea room. Then a man crashes through the paper screen and slides across the floor. Bond roughs him up, demanding to know: “Where is Blofeld?”
Next scene: A man in a casino tells the dealer, “Hit me.” Bond spins him around, punches him in the face and taunts: “Where is he? I shan’t ask you politely next time.”
Then, in a beachy locale, 007 strides toward the camera. It’s, rugged, self-assured, purposeful, and giving his immortal introduction. “My name is Bond. James Bond.”
I was 11 years old, sitting in the front row of the Fine Arts theater in downtown Portland, Maine, with a sixth grade classmate whose mom had dropped us off for a matinee. We were on our own and loaded up with popcorn and soda. It was the first movie I’d ever seen without my parents.
And I was hooked. Starting with just those few vivid scenes, James Bond was launching me toward an adolescence drenched in spy movies and novels. I couldn’t know it then, on that afternoon in December 1971, but I’d be watchingwell into the next century.
I also couldn’t know that a decade later I’d be making a foray of my own into the intelligence field. I’d work in Berlin when it was still a divided, occupied city, when the Cold War split the world into opposing sides ever vigilant for signs of bad things to come.
Over his long movie career, James Bond saved the world from Very Bad Things many times over. My experience was a little more down to earth.
How could it not be? Bond’s an impeccably tailored man of action who spends quality time at swanky hotels and casinos in, with unlimited resources, sleek cars and clever gadgets at his disposal. There’s no shortage of beautiful women who like the cut of Commander Bond’s, um, jib.
“Good to see you, Mr. Bond,” Q, the armorer, says in 1983’s Never Say Never Again, Connery’s final turn as Bond after a 12-year hiatus. “Now you’re on this, I hope we’re going to have some gratuitous sex and violence!”
The Bond movies are also rightly famous for their stunts and action sequences. The getaway in the red Mustang Mach 1 in Diamonds Are Forever. The ski jump off the towering cliff in The Spy Who Loved Me. The underwater battles in Thunderball. The extreme parkour in Casino Royale and the dangling-from-ropes fight in Quantum of Solace. The jetpack. The car chases. The boat chases. The tank chase.
James Bond may sometimes move through the shadows, but mostly he’s larger than life. That’s not how spying really works. But it is how some people get sucked into that world.
Take me, for example.
My time in military intelligence
Fresh out of college, I made the rounds of military recruiting offices, thinking, OK well, maaaybe. But when the Army recruiter talked up military intelligence and language school and serving overseas, I started selling myself on the idea. The voice inside my head got right to the point: “This could be some James Bond shit.”
I spent five years in the Army in the 1980s, about half that time in Germany doing real-world intelligence work. It was a time of heightened anxiety about military conflict in Europe, including the potential for nuclear strikes, a grim notion that provided a semblance of tension in the otherwise immensely frivolous 1983 Bond movie Octopussy.
It all started with my 007-primed penchant for spy lit and action flicks, even the cheesy ones.
Let’s be honest here: Diamonds Are Forever isn’t top-shelf Bond. It’s heavy on 007 schtick, the pacing is lax, the gadgets underwhelm — and the 40-ish Connery, with gray business suit, thickening midsection and an air of detachment, radiates been there, done that.
But even a half-assing Connery still delivers. He’s at ease in the role, royalty out for a stroll. He remains indomitable, even when the flamboyantly gymnastic Bambi and Thumper are kicking his butt; even when, more than once, he cheats death and carries on, flippant and unflappable.
For 11-year-old me, it was close to perfection.
In the mid-1970s, following my baptism by Diamonds, I was all in for anyone playing Bond. The Roger Moore era was getting underway in theaters, and I was playing catch-up with the Connery Bonds as they popped up on TV, along with. There was 1967’s Casino Royale (a misbegotten spoof) and Operation Kid Brother (an Italian ripoff starring Connery’s younger brother Neil). I read every spy book I could get my hands on. My commitment was 100%.
There was so much to take in! Starting in 1962, the six Bond movies from Eon Productions leading up to Diamonds Are Forever had been box office gems, and Connery’s time in the role had made him a star. Success inspired imitation and variation: Movies and TV shows in the 1960s were gloriously rife with spies, and spy-adjacent adventurers, from Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer and Dean Martin’s Matt Helm to bumbling Maxwell Smart, six-gun-slinging James West and the original Mission: Impossible crew.
Much as the action and spectacle in Bond movies appealed to me, I was also fascinated by the darker, more skeptical stories. Like Marathon Man (speaking of diamonds). Like 1975’s Three Days of the Condor: After his co-workers are all gunned down, the hero, Turner, a bookish type working for the CIA, has to sort out who he can trust. (Even decades later, I would still think about Turner’s chance escape from death pretty much every time I’d run out from the office to get lunch.)
By contrast, my Gen Z sons have grown up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Star Wars sagas, the Fast and Furious movies. They’ve seen a few Bond movies, which they liked well enough, but if there’s a suave, steely, gadget-adept action hero who stands out above all for them, it’s Tony Stark.
James Bond, ‘relic of the Cold War’
Bond is a steadfast warrior in the service of the crown; there’s never any real doubt he’ll complete his mission. He has integrity as well as skills. He’s a champagne and caviar snob.
And when it comes to sex, he’s a midcentury fantasy of male dominance from the midcentury peak of pulpy men’s magazines and Playboy clubs. Pussy Galore in the hayloft? Subtle much? Just listen to those theme song lyrics. Look at those old book covers and movie posters.
For a teenage boy in the ’70s, it was titillating — if not exactly a great life lesson.
But even from the beginning, there were women in the Bond movies who knew how to look out for themselves, to take charge. That undercurrent became a riptide in 1995’s GoldenEye, Pierce Brosnan’s first outing as Bond, when the formidable Judi Dench stepped into the role of 007’s boss, M. She wasted no time in setting the record straight: “I think you’re a sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War.”
The Bond movies, which too often seemed deeply committed to recycling old material, were evolving after all. It’s something I like to think I was doing at the same time — growing up.
I wasn’t in Maine, or junior high school, anymore. I’d earned a bachelor’s degree and survived basic training. I’d spent time on a big Army post in Texas and at the Defense Language Institute in California.
And I was having a Cold War experience of my own.
In Berlin, where the infamous wall still stood, and seemed like it might last till eternity, I interviewed refugees from Poland — at that time on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain — about their backgrounds, their activities and who they knew. Russian apparatchiks would sometimes park on the street outside the office to take pictures of the facilities and of us.
In another office, in a corner of West Germany that intersected both East Germany and Czechoslovakia, I translated reports of Warsaw Pact military convoys and other suspicious activities on the other side of the border (which made me kin to Condor’s Turner, kinda sorta). My colleagues and I once debriefed a Russian soldier who’d bolted his listening post in the middle of the night and jumped the fences to get away.
By coincidence, this was around the same time that Bond was helping a KGB officer defect across a central European border, in 1987’s The Living Daylights.
To spy or not to spy?
To be clear, I wasn’t a spy, or working with spies (that I know of), even if I was an active-duty soldier who got to dress in civilian clothes. It wasn’t covert ops — we could tell people we were in the US Army — but it was useful to be inconspicuous. Even so, the local folk in that West German town sometimes joked about us being CIA. (At least, I think they meant it as a joke.)
But I did get to thinking: I liked living life out in the open, without a cover story or elaborate layers of deceit. I knew that sooner or later in intelligence work, you’re likely to have trouble sorting truth from lies, the good guys from the bad. Because real life is rarely as clear-cut as Bond good, Blofeld bad.
I realized, too, that there was a lot of really good intel right out in plain view, in public channels like newspapers and TV broadcasts. I’m sure spies do get information of value that’s not available some other way. But even back then, long before social media taught us about filter bubbles, it felt like the intelligence community could be its own closed loop of skewed perception.
Honestly, there was also a fair amount of tedium, too. Did I mention I was in the Army?
You don’t learn that from Bond movies. There’s nothing like the pall of mistrust and drab drudgery in John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the many angles of betrayal in or the amped-up machinations of the Condor TV series on Epix.
As a 22-year-old, I’d signed up for the Army and military intelligence in part because of all those spy novels and movies I’d devoured growing up. Heading toward 30, I decided not to make a career of it. I wasn’t really the James Bond type after all, or George Smiley, for that matter.
Moore, Dalton and Brosnan, oh my
Six decades on, James Bond has become one of the most indelible movie characters of all time. The Bond movies continue to inspire spoofs and homages, from Austin Powers to Johnny English to the Kingsman series. But invariably, movie franchises run out of steam, take a wrong turn or just need a pick-me-up. Sean Connery couldn’t have played Bond forever even if he’d wanted to.
Audiences age out too — well, at least I did.
The, charmingly goofy at their best, had wheezed well past their expiration date. Timothy Dalton brought back an edge, but there was only so much his gravitas and scowl could accomplish. Licence to Kill? I’m sorry, but that’s just an ’80s cop revenge movie.
GoldenEye took a big step in the right direction, but it didn’t last. To me, Pierce Brosnan is the Derek Zoolander of Bonds, all smirks, pouts and poses, snuggled with smarmy product placement and just plain stupidity (looking at you, invisible car).
I was deep into my 30s and sliding inexorably past 40. Mortgage. Kids. Did I really still need any of that?
James Bond will return in…
Then along comes the reboot, the Daniel Craig era. After riding the Bond formula train for years, Eon Productions actually started over. With the rights to Casino Royale (Ian Fleming’s debut Bond novel) finally in hand, the franchise in 2006 gave us Bond’s origin story.
It was spectacular. One hell of a first impression. Grittier than any of the preceding Bond movies, and with a tempo to match Jason Bourne and Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt. Craig’s Bond is stone-faced to good effect, and he’s up for the athletic challenges, but there’s also an emotional tension we’d never seen in 007 before. There’s more at stake for Bond personally.
For my money, it’s one of the very best Bond movies of all time. The ensuing Daniel Craig movies have been a mixed bag, but satisfying on the whole.
In Diamonds Are Forever, Bond does track down Blofeld, and exacts justice. I wouldn’t recommend Bond’s interrogation methods from those opening scenes — getting high-quality answers usually takes more subtlety and patience — but yeah, they do feel right for this hard-bitten character.
Then Blofeld, a fixture of the early 007 movies, essentially disappeared until Spectre all the way in 2015. That movie brought a whole new backstory twist to the Bond-vs-Blofeld saga, and No Time to Die — now scheduled for Oct. 8 after a series of pandemic-driven delays — seems likely to build on that. Bond, meanwhile, is apparently ready for retirement; Daniel Craig, too.
But as Bond fans know, Blofeld has a habit of reappearing. Bond himself has a way of bouncing back, the same in essence but changing with the times as well.
After No Time to Die, that’ll be the next mission for 007. It’s been a long time since I sat in the front row at a theater, but like 11-year-old me, I’m looking forward again to more Bond adventures.
TV and Movies
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