Spy movie myths debunked by a real life spy

Tom Butler
Senior Editor
Sometimes the movies get espionage right, but often they get it wrong.

With the Mission: Impossible franchise flying high, another James Bond movie on the way in 2020, and spy spoofs like Johnny English Strikes Again still pulling in punters, it seems cinema’s espionage obsession shows no sign of abating.

In The Spy Who Dumped Me (new to Blu-ray, 4K, and DVD on Boxing Day), Justin Theroux plays a CIA operative who jilts his unenlightened girlfriend Audrey (Mila Kunis) by text, before reappearing on the scene when his covert mission goes terribly wrong.

All the classic spy movie tropes are present and correct in this comedy, but not all of them stand up to scrutiny when examined by a real life spy.

Former CIA agent Emily Brandwin joined the American secret service after her mum spotted a job advert on the CIA website. With a background in improv theatre and comedy, Brandwin was soon recruited as a theatrical effects specialist designing disguises for field agents, Mission: Impossible-style, before becoming an operations officer (that’s ‘a spy’ in CIA lingo) herself.

Kickass adventurers … Kate McKinnon, right, and Mila Kunis, left, in The Spy Who Dumped Me.

One movie myth explored in the film is how much you can tell your partner about being a spy. Theroux’s secret agent keeps Audrey completely in the dark, as is often the case in films like this, but in real life Brandwin says you can tell your partner that you’re a spy… but only if it’s a serious relationship.

“At the beginning [of a relationship] you can’t tell them where you work,” Brandwin tells Yahoo Movies UK, “because you have to maintain your cover story. If it starts to get serious, and it feels like it’s going somewhere, then you can reveal where you work. You have a big reveal moment, and they know you’ve been lying to them.”

Here’s what we learned about which spy movie tropes are true to life and which are patently false.

Spies have a ‘licence to kill’ – False

Daniel Craig as 007 in the James Bond film, Spectre (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios/PA)

The myth of the agent with the ‘licence to kill’ comes from the imagination of Ian Fleming who wrote the James Bond books. It’s imagined to be an official sanction given by government agencies that gives a spy permission to use lethal force where necessary, but that’s not the case with the CIA apparently.

“That’s a big no-no at the Agency,” insists Brandwin, “they don’t do that.”

There is some truth to the myth though in the U.K. In 2008 Sir Richard Billing Dearlove, former head of the UK Secret Intelligence Service MI6, testified in court that the Foreign Secretary can give a “Class Seven authorisation” for the use of lethal force in the field. He added though that it had never been used during his 38-year career in the secret services.

Spies are issued with false passports – True

It happens in every spy movie. The secret agent, his cover blown, visits his secure lock up to retrieve a pile of passports in order to make a hasty escape. It seems far-fetched, but former spy Brandwin says it’s fairly common for spies to travel under a false name.

“You travel on an alias, so you would have to have [a false passport],” admits Brandwin. “You will have different documents that help you to do that, whatever those documents are. The idea that you would have to assume an alias, or another identity is very truthful.

“A lot of the time you’re having to conceal your true person, because you might be overseas and it wouldn’t make sense for you to work the Agency. Part of the gig is maintaining an alias. It’s kind of like method acting, but the stakes are really high.”

Being a spy is action-packed, with shoot outs and car chases – False

“Most CIA officers don’t carry weapons, unless they’re in a hostile area,” Brandwin says. “In [The Spy Who Dumped Me], they’re in Paris, a very cosmopolitan area, and they would never carry a gun there.”

“What movies do sometimes is they merge CIA and FBI together. FBI is law enforcement, CIA is an intelligence gathering agency. That’s their mission, to gather intelligence. So that’s been heightened for the movie.

“But, if you’re an operations officer, you work in the field. So you’re out there doing the job. But the explosions and fighting gymnasts, that’s probably more exciting than a CIA agent would ever see.”

Spies have loads of hidden talents – True

After joining the CIA, Brandwin trained at the CIA’s covert training facility in Virginia known internally as “The Farm”.

She describes the the experience as “spy college 101”, so when you see agents like Jason Bourne conversing in multiple languages, usual several martial art disciplines, and being able to cobble together a bomb from a battery, a lightbulb, and some sticky tape, that’s all true… to a certain extent.

“You’re learning skills at the CIA that you would never get anywhere else,” she says. “There’s no other place where you would learn surveillance, or other certain things, unless you’ve been trained. In the movies, those skills are heightened like the martial arts, or the scaling of walls – they don’t teach you that. But they are teaching you different spy tactics and tools that you would need to successfully complete a mission, or an operation, so you are absolutely getting that training.”

High confidential information is passed around on USB sticks – False

The MacGuffin of The Spy Who Dumped Me is an encrypted USB stick containing the secret aliases of all the active CIA operatives in the field. It’s a classic spy movie trope also explored in Skyfall, Mission: Impossible, and Johnny English Strikes Again, but it’s unlikely such classified information would ever be stored like that in reality.

“That would be frowned on,” laughs Brandwin. “We’re pretty good at concealing information, and making sure that information is always safe. The reason why is it’s because it’s about sources and methods of keeping your sources incredibly safe, because they’re the ones giving you the information.

“The information, unlike the movie, would be held in a much more secure way.”

The general public get recruited to the CIA all the time – True

In The Spy Who Dumped Me, Audrey and her best friend Morgan (Kate McKinnon) get called upon by the CIA to join their operation, and end up becoming active field agents. This actually does happen in real life says Brandwin, although there are usually a lot more hoops to jump through before you get issued a badge.

“If they’ve proved their mettle during an operation, the CIA might recruit them to go through The Farm training, to see if they have what it takes,” explains Brandwin. “The CIA has thousands upon thousands of applications every year, so they’re not always looking for people that way.”

“But it’s absolutely plausible that someone catches the Agency’s attention, and they get signed up for training. Normally it’s a much more traditional trajectory that gets you there.”

The Spy Who Dumped Me is out now on Blu-ray, 4K, DVD, and digital download.

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