Five Spy Movies You Must See

I regularly get asked which movies dealing with espionage I would recommend people to see. That’s a tougher question than it might appear, since most of the movies out there that purport to be about spying and intelligence, in any reality-based sense, are simply dreadful — either as movies, or as depictions of actual espionage, or often both.

Perusing this “50 best spy movies list,” which includes most of the movies considered “classics” by the public, it’s difficult to count more than a handful of them as remotely reality-based about the world of intelligence, not to mention that many of them are just awful movies, and more than a few are approximately as accurate, espionage-wise, as any of the Austin Powers films.

Which films would I recommend then? Here are five of my favorites which I think anybody who wants to understand espionage a tad more, and have fun doing it, should see.

5. Charlie Wilson’s War, the 2007 film adaptation of George Crile’s excellent book on how CIA covert action changed the course of the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980’s, offers a pretty accurate depiction of how the political game gets played in Washington, DC, and how that impacts intelligence operations. Tom Hanks is great as Charlie Wilson, the larger-than-life Texas congressman who combined hard-core partying in the coke-fueled 80’s with hard-core anti-Communism; if anything, Hanks’s portrayal of Wilson is understated (“Good Time Charlie’s” decadent ways got the attention of a young Federal prosecutor on the make named Rudy Giuliani). Even better is the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who gives the performance of a lifetime as the legendary CIA operations officer Gust Avratakos. The film, made after 9/11, ends on an appropriately somber note, knowing what followed the Soviet defeat.

4. Burn After Reading, like many of the films made by Joel and Ethan Coen, is hilariously cynical. Its 2008 depiction of the Intelligence Community — here J. K. Simmons is masterful as a nameless, world-weary CIA higher-up — is dark and funny, and closer to many truths than most American taxpayers would be comfortable knowing. John Malkovich puts in a stellar performance as a stuffy and self-important CIA analyst of the kind anybody who’s had contact with Langley’s Directorate of Intelligence will immediately recognize. As is customary in Coen brothers’ films, the sub-plots mount in madcap fashion; all of them center on spreading idiocy (here Brad Pitt, as well-coiffed gym rat, outdoes himself). Be sure to enjoy the depictions of interaction with Russian intelligence to boot.

3. Watching 1987’s No Way Out today, the film is something of a Reagan-era time-warp, with shoulder pads and big hair to match. But it’s held up well as a spy story. I won’t give spoilers, but it centers on a Pentagon molehunt for a KGB sleeper agent, what Moscow would call an Illegal. Kevin Costner puts in a solid performance as the U.S. Navy officer, new to the Beltway circus, tasked with finding the Soviet mole, Sean Young reminds that she could act before she went off the deep end, while Will Patton is superb as the creepiest sycophantic Pentagon staffer ever. The film’s depiction of defense and intelligence politics on the Potomac holds true, while its subject matter — Kremlin penetration of the Department of Defense — could not be more timely today.

2. Signals intelligence is seldom the star of any spy movie: it’s too complex and not altogether sexy. The 2001 British film Enigma is an exception, as it centers on Bletchley Park, where WWII British codebreakers made and kept the famous ULTRA secret. The movie captures Bletchley’s culture of brilliant oddballs well, including the prominent role of women in the ULTRA effort (here Kate Winslet puts in a solid performance). Dougray Scott plays a brilliant young codebreaker — his character is essentially Alan Turing made heterosexual — who gets caught in a counterespionage web, which makes for a well-executed subplot. But ULTRA is the real star of the film, and its selling point is that its gets right the complex technical details of how this vast, industrial scale intercept and codebreaking effort enabled Allied victory in Western Europe. (As an interesting footnote, the film was co-produced and funded by Mick Jagger, a SIGINT buff who loaned his personal Enigma machine to the filmmakers.)

1. Colonel Redl, a 1985 film by the acclaimed Hungarian director István Szabó, won a raft of awards, including an Academy Award nomination, for its vivid depiction of a sensational espionage case on the eve of the First World War. Alfred Redl was a top Austro-Hungarian intelligence official who was unmasked in May 1913 as a Russian spy; interest in the case — which had mysterious death and lots of kinky sex as well as spying — has never waned in Vienna, a century later. Regrettably, Szabó’s take on Redl is historically quite inaccurate, as it is based on John Osborne’s 1965 play A Patriot for Me, rather than the facts of the espionage case (if you want the real Redl story, which is even more sensational than Szabó’s take, read this). Yet this inaccuracy is compensated for by its beautiful depiction of the sordid underside of the late Habsburg Empire, as well as its examination of issues of betrayal, loyalty, and identity — personal, sexual, and political.

Honorable Mention: John Woo’s 2002 movie Windtalkers is genuinely awful, with painful-to-watch performances by both Nicholas Cage and Christian Slater, who play U.S. Marines in the WWII Pacific assigned to the top secret Navajo code-talking program, which was a highly effective tactical encryption system — so effective that the Pentagon kept its existence classified until 1968, in case it might be needed again. This bad movie depicts how the Navajo code-talkers worked, and why the program was so helpful, with a high degree of accuracy (apparently money not spent on script-writing was given to technical advisors, to good effect). If you can stomach the dumb dialog and silly sub-plots, it’s worth it to see the Navajo code-talkers in action, pretty much as they really were. Let me add that, despite the film’s ludicrous central claim, there was never any order to kill code-talkers to prevent their capture.

Dishonorable Mentions: The list of bad espionage movies is so long that it would require a book, not a mere blog post, but let me list a couple that you might be likely to encounter, and should definitely avoid. (I am assuming my readers are intelligent enough to understand that any film involving Jason Bourne is less believable than YouTube footage of Bigfoot.) U-571, released in 2000, is a terrible movie whose awfulness would be difficult to overstate — it’s the perfect movie for you if your ideal submariner is Jon Bon Jovi — and manages to be deeply offensive to boot. It takes a real-life event, the seizure of an Enigma machine off a sinking U-Boat in 1941, adds ludicrous sub-plots and dialogue, and makes the heroes Americans, when in fact they were British. It was so bad that British Prime Minister Tony Blair denounced the movie as an “affront” on the floor of Parliament. That’s hard to top, but 2001’s Pearl Harbor, which is perhaps the worst movie ever released by a major studio, in addition to its long list of historical inaccuracies, manages to misconstrue the intelligence failure behind the Japanese attack on 7 December 1941, adding absurd dialogue along the way. Given the historical importance of this debate, which never dies and is shrouded in myth-making and outright lies, a chance to set the record straight was regrettably tossed aside. If you like this sort of thing, it has Dan Ackroyd (really) playing the fattest intelligence officer in naval history.

50 thoughts on “Five Spy Movies You Must See

  1. One of my favorites is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy the mole hunt at the top of the circus. More should be told about Kim Philby– much more.

  2. Have to put in my suggestions for two in the “thumbs-up” category:

    “Breach,” which details (well, dramatizes) the Robert Hanssen investigation, and features a truly creepy and effective Chris Cooper, and a French film called “L’Affaire Farewell,” (also sometimes seen as just “Farewell”) which dramatizes KGB Col. Vetrov’s use of a French engineer to smuggle out scads of amazing data toward the end of the Cold War. This one’s great.

    • Not see Farewell, though I am familiar with the case. Chris Cooper indeeds gets the right creep factor in Breach but in that film, Hollywood yet again goes for fiction in places where what actually happened in the case was more dramatic.

  3. Thanks for this list, John. I actually was looking for a movie to watch tonight. I’ve seen Burn After Reading and love it. I think Charlie Wilson’s War is next on my list—I have been meaning to see it for ages now!

  4. What about “Pascali’s Island” and “Reilly: Ace of Spies” (albeit that the latter diverges from history)?

    “L’Affaire Farewell” is quite entertaining but changes the real story hugely.

  5. I have seen all the movies on this list and I still believe Spy Sorge is the best spy movie ever made. It’s tough to find, I found a copy in Tokyo for 5000 yen and it seems to play on my Mac due to encoding issues and you need to know some Japanese to turn on English subtitles but it is all so worth it!,

  6. Now that someone has memtioned a TV series (Reilly), let me put in a vote for Secret Agent with Patrick Mcgoohan. It had a silly theme song but the writing, acting and plots were so cool. And the follow up, The Prisoner, again with Mcgoohan. A secret agent resigns,tries to clear his name and ends up in the most bizzarre set of circumstances. I could spend hours watching both.

  7. Yes agree on “No Way Out” – a great film as well as a great snapshot of Reagan’s DC.

    Surprised that the Robert Hanssen case did not yield a better movie given the weird (truly weird) facts of the Hanssen case.

  8. Hahaha! When I was home for Christmas last year, I watched Charlie Wilson’s War with my mom who went to high school with Joanne King (Herring). Apparently, they didn’t get along too well. She Would. Not. Shut. Up. for the entire movie, it was like she was right back in HS at the age of 85!

  9. How would you rate the espionage aspect (lets not talk about the historical) of the Soviet mini-series “Seventeen Moments of Spring” if you’ve seen it?

  10. I agree with Burn After Reading – I think John Le Carre would have rated that, but your others…hmmm…Enigma was a bit dull with a formula romance thrown-in, but worst of all was the absolutely offensive choice to make the bad guy a Pole – the Poles having been the ones who did all the original work on Enigma including getting their hands on some actual examples and sharing all their results with their counterparts in France and England.

    I think America atoned for the execrable U-571 through the excellent Syriana and The Good Shepherd.

    Still, nothing raises the hairs on the back of my neck as much as the opening scene of “Funeral in Berlin”, with real-life non-acting East German guards being used as props against their will by a camera pointed over the wall, cleverly segued into an escape sequence …and I will always love that movie far more than “The Spy who came in from the Cold” with its fake Checkpoint Charlie.

    Anybody who hasn’t seen it should have a look at Duncan Jones’ short movie, “The Whistle”:

  11. A minor detail, but I enjoyed the way No Way Out turned “adjusting the eigenvalue” into a plot element. Technically that was pretty sophisticated for its day.

    • I think that was my first spy movie. I have very fond memories of watching it, on the edge of my seat. It led to a life-long appreciation of Michael Caine, too!

  12. As for SIGINT and cultural refferences, I liked ‘Spycatcher’ by Peter Wright, the book has very silly sounding name in Polish: “Łowca szpiegów”, but it reads itself.
    Thanks for the list!

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  14. Sorry, but Enigma was dreadful, terrible, just god awful horrible. The subplots were contrived and had the logical consistency of a comic book. A slow, confusing movie is the tell tale sign of a slow, confusing movie, not an interesting one. The British accents didn’t make the over acting any more tolerable. And that silly love story, that was just… bad, very, very bad. The one thing I did like though was the caption informing viewers that the year 1946 was “after the war.” I sure hope that caption was ironic because then I can justly claim I enjoyed at least a couple seconds out of a movie two hours long.

  15. I have no doubt that the technical details of the movie are on the money. I guess I am just kind of tired of English actors hamming it up, not just Enigma but in general, and then media saying English actors and writers are so much better than Americans.

  16. There is no way Tinker, Tailer should be #1. I loved the Bourne movies, especially the second one. Bourne is a modern day Josie Wales. After Fletch, Spies Like Us is the best comedy in history.

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