Building a Secret Agent
Newsletter 6: Essay 2 of 6
What does it take to create a secret agent?
In a reader’s fantasy, including my own, an agent is a master of manipulation and disguise. Perhaps they’re a good pickpocket. They glide stealthily past security cameras to exit down a back stairwell into an alleyway. They’d emerge nonchalantly onto a busy street and no passerby was the wiser as to their hi-jinx. Mission accomplished.
Bond is different variety of secret agent. As a member of the 00 section of the British Secret Service, he is a highly trained military officer and special operative with over ten years of directed training in many skill sets. The films reveal a man who has an incalculable amount of skills. We will get to my theories on Bond in a later essay, but for now, we can take some guess as to how it’s possible.
One of the primary directives in basic military training is to teach unit cohesion. Each candidate depends on the other for success and this mindset carries the candidate not only on assignments, but in their lives. The principles of military training become deeply ingrained.
All types join the military, from troubled youth to high achievers to playboys. One goal is to create uniformity, deference to duty, and adherence to protocol. There are no other options. Personality traits, good or bad, can be overcome in beginning stages. The ones most likely to succeed are the ones who fall in line and are accustomed to strict authority figures.
Bond is a mischievous candidate, however, and perhaps learned far before the military how to garner loyalty, manipulate people, and bend the rules. Even with all eyes watching, it seems his loyal friends keep his secrets. It works to his benefit and he’s able to excel. With all Bond’s demerits, there are also high commendations. He is a bad boy who delivers.
Over a stellar ten year career, Bond attains the title of Commander in the Royal British Navy. He is recruited by the British Secret Service. Whereas military officers must make do with their resources, special operations and intelligence agencies are well sourced with whatever they need, real time. It must have felt like luxury to go from an all-for-one mentality to one-doing-it-all… with martinis courtesy of the British goverment. These agencies go where nations are officially not supposed to go and charged with infiltration of target groups. Agents are trained physically according to their division demands, but there is also more focus on mental and psychological conditioning.
Make no mistake, even though Bond is the bullet, whole teams are involved in coordinating his success. They are the remaining mechanism. Scores of professionals do on site reconnaissance, perform surveillance, gather intelligence, and create comprehensive documents on subjects of interest. The final piece is selecting a 00 agent for the mission and building their arsenal.
Tools of the Trade
The viewer should note that the quartermaster or Q always creates gadgets that are oddly appropriate at critical scenes. This is no accident. As mentioned, intelligence and special operations get their supply real time. In 007’s missions, there is even more effort to anticipate his needs since there may be no opportunity to deliver supplies or weapons. It is also conceivable that agents would be trained in the months or weeks leading up to the missions for whatever they may face. And as an operative who rises to challenges, it is not surprising that Bond is soon ready to perform.
Bond has quite a few missions involving submarines and sea-faring crafts, but he also flies helicopters and is even a sniper in The Living Daylights. When we imagine one person possessing so many skills and the sheer time commitment of mastery, we must recall that Bond is a dabbler and does not need mastery, only proficiency. Many times, he is using a specialized skill only once.
Besides James’s use of gadgets or even tanks, he is physically fit and a skilled fighter. He can disable opponents and use various methods of improvised weaponry. It is perhaps the skill he employs most frequently mission after mission. We can posit he is in a constant fighting stance, training and acquiring new skills over time. Bond has been frequently relieved of his Walther PPK, leaving only his wits and hands to get him free. His body is perhaps his greatest weapon.
Some are good at small talk, gambling, and working a room. They’re charismatic. Bond is one of those people. He is ideal for certain missions because that’s what needed. These skills are hard to teach, but in his case, are fostered by a man who hardens his heart yet still craves intimacy. His skill at bluffing makes him equipped to match wits with clever, guarded, high-powered men. He often wins them over not only with his charm, but how calm he remains in the face of brutally. He’s a pro, their kind of man, and Bond is able to inch closer and closer.
The early movies showed Bond’s talent for impersonation of experts. He’s been a marine biologist and genealogist. He also knows a bit about botany and entomology. He impresses his targets with his knowledge and it’s part of the bluff that makes the cover that much more convincing.
No Time To Heal?
Skyfall shows us the most honest depiction of Bond’s physical vulnerability and chronic damage. During his health assessment, he opts to continue later while being briefed on the details of the MI-6 hack. After everyone leaves the room and he hears the door shut, he nearly collapses into the frame of a chin up bar. Up until that point, Bond had played his own stunt man and had reaped the painful consequences.
I spoke to a stunt person, Alanna Blair, about the rigors of such strenuous activity. Among those they said commonly coming into the stunt business, there were gymnasts, martial artists, and boxers. These folks have a keen sense of their body’s capabilities, but most importantly, know how to prep their muscles, redistribute weight to gracefully land on a fall, take hits, prevent injury, and most importantly, heal from injury.
Alanna said it’s important to preserve the body, which is a relatively new concept in stunt work, since it fosters a longer career. You can destroy your body and be done in less than ten years.
Over time, however, the injuries pile up and you only have two shoulders and two knees. You can only tear the same tendons before your mobility is compromised. Recklessness could result in permanent, debilitating injury so not only does Bond have to take calculable, albeit extraordinary bodily risk, he must adequately treat and heal from injury. This isn’t easy for someone who is often interrupted while on holiday or who has unduly influenced medical staff during fitness assessments (Goldeneye; The World is Not Enough) to take advantage of a desirable mission.
During his marksmanship assessment in Skyfall, shrapnel lodged in his shoulder affects his accuracy. Even after going off the grid for months, he has indulged his sexual desire, drug use, and melancholy, but has not adequately been treated for his injuries. Even more so than the athleticism and daring feats, longevity depends on care.
Building a 00 agent is not a singular effort but the investment of institutions. Those with raw talent are selected for specialized duties with their aptitude built over years of training. The fact that 00s have a short lifespan is a testament to the dangerous work they do and not individual frailty. In that respect, Bond is one of the lucky ones.
Special thanks to Alanna Blair (stunt actor) and Ramon Kameka (former United States Marine Corp) for their expert contributions to this essay.