I've grown up watching spies on the silver screen as they escape in a thrilling car chase, risk it all in a high-stakes casino, drink martinis, survive falls from a four story window, scale buildings, waltz into intelligence headquarters, crawl around in air ducts, use next generation gadgets and kill henchmen with perfect aim, all without messing up their perfectly tailored suit. Sadly, it's not all that realistic. Our favorite fictional spies have left us with several myths about real world intelligence gathering and what spies actually do. Why? Because we have been told that being a spy is all explosions and damsel in distress and we think that is more entertaining than what spies really do. So here are a few myths about real world spies.
Nope... sort of. The majority of those who gather intel in the field are not supermodel gorgeous. They are more average looking, which is a good thing. Doing their job well depends on blending in and not being very memorable. However being above average looking has its benefits too. An attractive person can have what's called a "halo effect", and be perceived as more trustworthy, respectable and good. This makes it easier to get someone to trust you and tell you more than they should. Being attractive comes with drawbacks though, you are more likely to be watched longer, which is not ideal for a spy.
Hardly! For the most part, it's a lot of boring detailed work that can take months or even years to pay off with an exciting operation or actionable intel. There are a lot of long stakeouts, waiting around in airports and painstakingly building trust.
Between the number of marks, competing spies, coworkers, and an ever growing list of enemies, spies need to be able to remember names and faces. For those of us who don't need to be able to remember if that guy walking angrily towards us is the guy we shot two months ago or the guy who's parking spot we stole, remembering names is less of a life and death skill but it's still useful. It's really awkward to be introduced to someone and instantly forgotten their name the moment they say it. There are a few tricks that can help. When they said their names say it right back to make sure you have it right. A few sentences later say it again, preferably in asking them a question about themselves: "and how was your weekend, Bob?". People love hearing their own name, and saying it early in conversation makes them statically more likely to trust you. Be careful not to overdo it, say their name too much and it gets weird or makes them suspicious. You can also try to link their name to something else, like their favorite color, where you met, something that rhymes with their name or two objects that start with the same letters and their first and last initials. If you forget you can offer to swap phone numbers and hand them your phone so they type in their full name. Social media is also a good way to match faces to names.
Most spies will never set foot in a world class casino, fly in a private jet, or drive a hundred thousand dollar sports car. It's a lot more like hiking through foothills and living in countries with brownouts (scheduled power outages or restrictions on electricity use). Some even live overseas with their families as they work lower risk cases.
Of course, we want to see the hero bail out of the sexy sports car at the last second as it flies off a cliff and explodes, however if you are in a real car chase it probably means you are doing something wrong. A real spy doesn't have the money to drive a luxury car and would likely not need to flee or chase through a foreign city at 140km per hour.
While spy films have inspired the invention of some unbelievably cool gadgets and lifesaving technology. Most real spies don't get exploding pens, x-ray sunglasses or a wristwatch that can shoot a laser beam. What a bummer right? Most of what we think of as spy gadgets comes from the cold war era, where they really did have weapons disguised as everyday objects. There were some amazing feats of engineering and creativity that went into producing them. Real modern spies do most of their field work without the unique gear, which in my opinion makes them even more impressive. There are some exceptions. In the computer age, there are lots of difference computer intelligence specializations and career fields. These tech-savvy geniuses are the ones who gather intel electronically, but it's a bit like drinking from a fire hose. The NSA gathers more information that it can keep up with, so it gets prioritized and routed out to the departments that can use it. Some field agents are equipped with the means of gathering electronic data, but for the most part, the coolest things they do can be done with a smartphone, not a microcomputer disguised as a tube of toothpaste.
Only a small percentage of those who work in the intelligence field are field agents. There are thousands of other careers that all work together to gather intel and use it.
A spectacular fight scene raises a film's ratings but would likely cause an international scandal. The best spies can just talk their way out of a sticky situation, no need for guns or broken bones.
The lone wolf hero is a fun character to watch and it keeps the story simple but in real life, most agents work with others to get a job done. There are huge networks of intel gathering, sharing, analyzing and processing to get the data to those that need it.
Honestly, that doesn't even fool the audience and would never fool a trained guard or foreign police officer. Most spies adapt to fit in, with local clothes and styles and may grow facial hair if it was appropriate but the fake mustache is just silly.
Most field agents are trained to protect and defend themselves and other and are proficient with firearms, but not even Olympic marksmen gold medal athletes always have 100% perfect accuracy. A spy would be a lot better shot than your average Joe, and could make some very impressive shots. That being said, it's completely unrealistic for them to have the perfect aim in the dark, on the run and while injured.
Any good detective will tell you that not all of your leads pan out. There are a lot of dead ends and red herrings. It's pretty unrealistic for a spy to walk into a room and find the clue that stops the villain in less than 30 seconds. Investigations take time, but we don't want to waste precious second on the silver screen on watching the hero thoroughly search an office, not when we could be watching him make eyes at the love interest.
Many of these myths are obvious and seriously stretch what we are expected to believe, so why do writers and directors still use them? It's worked for them so far. The James Bond franchise has been making outrageous amounts of money for over 50 years and Mission impossible got several movies out of the deal, just to name two. While some of the things heroic spies do are not plausible or even possible, it's entertaining, inspiring and moves the story along. It captures our imagination and leaves us wanting more.
Hunting Holly is a registered copyright. All rights reserved. No reproduction, storage in a retrieval system, distribution or transmission in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, unless permission is obtained in writing from the author. Hunting Holly is published and designed in association with Armchair Publishing. Cover design by Tony D Locke. Any likeness to persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.