Spy films are a Hollywood mainstay, and consistently draw the attention of moviegoers the world over. Most spy films are heavy on the fantasy and action, and light on real spycraft. Most notably are the 007 films, with 27 entries into the series since Dr. No premiered in 1962. The Bond movies are generally the first thing the public thinks of when they think of spies, but as entertaining as they are, these movies hardly paint a realistic picture of espionage activities. Here I review my ten favorite spy films that give viewers the most real look into the world of spies and spycraft.
10. Anthropoid (2016)
Anthropoid tells the true story of an incredibly daring assassination mission in World War II, spearheaded by the British Special Operations Executive. It was the only successful government-sponsored assassination during the entire war. Two Eastern European trained assassins parachute into Czechoslovakia in order to kill Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, the architect of the Third Reich’s vile Final Solution, and a man whom Hitler himself referred to as “the man with the iron heart”. The mission experiences pitfalls but is ultimately successful. Heydrich was severely wounded in the attack on his vehicle and died a week later. Tragically, the assassins themselves are hunted by vengeful Nazis and an entire village of innocent Czechs is razed. It is believed that approximately 5,000 Czechs were killed or shipped to concentration camps in retribution for the attack.
Anthropoid is the best and most accurate of the several films that have been made about this daring operation. Other films include The Assassination (1965), Operation: Daybreak (1975), and The Man with the Iron Heart (2017).
9. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
One of John Le Carre’s most famous novels is brought to the big screen. Previously adapted as a limited series for British television, this film is the antithesis of a Bond film; all of the romanticism of espionage is stripped away. The characters are by and large a group of drab bureaucrats dealing with alcoholism and family issues. They come to work every day in a grey office and and sit in conferences. Viewers accustomed to James Bond-style spy films will be sorely disappointed; the reality of espionage is far less exciting (but no less duplicitous) than is often seen in movies. Gary Oldman transforms once again to play George Smiley, a character familiar to Le Carre’s readers as he has often dipped in and out of the various novels.
Smiley has been called out of retirement because Control, the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, believes that one of his top four branch chiefs has been doubled by the Soviets. An agent named Jim Prideaux had already been dispatched to meet with a top clandestine source who had the double agent’s name in his possession. But Prideaux was captured by the Soviets at this meeting and his whereabouts are unknown. So now it falls to Smiley to determine which of the four is the double agent. Is it Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, or Poorman?
Le Carre himself is one of the greatest spy novelists of all time. He’s written twenty-two novels to date, with The Spy Who Came In From the Cold as his most famous work. He himself had served for five years in the Secret Intelligence Service, an experience which lent credence and tone to his many outstanding novels in the genre.
8. The Conversation
Though not specifically tied to state-sponsored espionage activities, Francis Ford Coppola’s incredible 1974 film The Conversation deserves a place on this list. The film follows a surveillance expert named Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) as he navigates a tricky case and becomes emotionally invested in the activities he is discreetly recording. The director perfectly captures the atmosphere of real-world surveillance activities; the technical sophistication, the depth of planning, and even the cast of unique personalities within the world of technical collection.
Harry Caul is never quite sure of himself as he plunges head-first into deeper waters. He’s a man who understands technology far better than he understands the human psyche. Throughout the film he repeatedly misunderstands the intentions and capabilities of those around him, and is easily manipulated time and time again. All the while he is simultaneously a living legend in the surveillance community, as demonstrated when he attends a trade conference midway through the film.
Coppola’s work is amazing as always, and anyone interested in vintage spy techniques will marvel at Harry’s array of devices and abilities as he follows the leads (and his conscience) to unexpected places by the film’s end.
7. Breach (2007)
Another true spy story brought to film, Breach tells the tale of Robert Hanssen, an FBI counterintelligence agent who volunteered his services to the Soviet Union (and later, Russia) for more than twenty years. He was responsible for the deaths of several highly-placed sources within the Soviet government, and ruined numerous penetration operations by the CIA, including a tunnel which had been dug beneath the Soviet embassy in Washington DC.
The film depicts his eventual downfall, due in part to Special Agent Eric O’Neill who was assigned as his assistant; in reality he was undercover as part of a mole task force which had zeroed in on Hanssen. The real-life Hanssen is now serving life in prison after his dramatic arrest in 2001, a scene which plays out to great effect on film. Although not completely accurate to the declassified story, it’s a terrific look at how effective a mole within the government can be, and how they eventually receive their just desserts.
6. Zero Dark Thirty (2013)
Ripped straight from the headlines, this film brings us into the modern era, where the CIA has taken a more overt position than ever before during the Global War on Terror. It chronicles the decade-long hunt for the world’s most wanted man, Osama Bin Laden. Jessica Chastain plays the lead role of a brilliant analyst, who is an amalgam of several different real-life women at the CIA who contributed to the search for Bin Laden. The film had top-down support from the White House during filming, including unprecedented access to those involved. One scene in particular stands out; the disastrous explosion at Khost that claimed the lives of nine Americans plays out exactly as in real life, down to the individual movements of the victims in the moments leading up to the blast. This scene is pulled straight from the book The Triple Agent by Joby Warrick.
Another fascinating true-to-life moment comes when it is revealed that the Chief of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, the man who spearheaded the drone warfare that targeted hundreds of terrorists worldwide, is a convert to Islam who prays five times a day from inside his office at Langley.
5. Sneakers (1992)
Sneakers introduced moviegoers to the world of penetration testing, or pen testing, as well as Red Team Operations. The idea of a team of professionals thinking (and acting) like the bad guys in order to strengthen the security posture of a client organization captured the attention of audiences worldwide. The plot, acting, and musical score are all top notch. This is one of the few Hollywood films about espionage which don’t involve shooting a firearm (although a few are displayed).
Some of my favorite moments include:
- a viewer-friendly introduction to encryption algorithms
- searching Dr. Brandes’ trash for actionable intelligence and insight into his personality
- Liz spending time on a date with Dr. Brandes in order to elicit his voice-print and passphrase for entry into his workplace
- Whistler, the blind MASINT analyst determining a route through the city based on the sound of the concrete under the tires of a car
The film is also great for demonstrating the burgeoning role of private industry in the intelligence community, something not well known at the time to the general movie-going audience. Presently it’s common knowledge that industry giants drive most collection and analytical efforts for the government, for good or for ill.
Argo is based on the infamous Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1981, when the US Embassy in Tehran, Iran was overrun by Iranian revolutionaries, and dozens of American citizens were held hostage for over one year. The film opens with an incredibly tense scene depicting the violent assault on the embassy, as the Marine guard force was ordered not to fire live rounds at the incoming attackers. This would be America’s first true glimpse of radical Islam, and a harbinger of what was to come in the ensuing decades.
The story centers on six Americans who managed to slip out of the embassy and a few blocks over to the home of the Canadian ambassador, where they took refuge. CIA case officer Tony Mendez is tasked to bring them back. At first glimpse, the real Tony Mendez might not have seemed the best candidate for a daring rescue mission. He had joined the CIA in the 1960s as an artist and became an expert in the forgery of documents to protect the operational cover of other CIA case officers. But over the years he had been tasked to test these same forged travel documents in airports and customs offices around the world, to ensure they would pass inspection. By the time that the hostage crisis began, Tony was probably the CIA’s foremost expert in slipping in and out of a hostile country using a false identity. With the help of a number of people, Tony created an amazing cover story for the six trapped Americans; they were Canadian citizens scouting locations for the filming of a non-existent science fiction movie called ‘Argo’. Tony’s preparations and forged documents succeed in evacuating the six Americans out of Iran; it was one of the CIA’s greatest successes of all time.
Make sure you watch the credits to see the incredible degree of detail that Affleck went to to get everything perfect. The sets, are dead ringers for the real historic locations, and the actors portraying the Americans appear to be near-identical twins. A terrific film that tells an amazing story.
3. 47 Rue Madeliene
13 Rue Madeleine stars Jimmy Cagney as a lightly-fictionalized version of Wild Bill Donovan, chief of the wartime Office of Strategice Services. The movie was produced and filmed in 1946 with extensive input from numerous former OSS agents at all levels, all the way up to Donovan himself. At the outset, OSS personnel saw the film as an excellent opportunity to showcase the need to replace the OSS with a permanent worldwide intelligence agency. (The OSS was disbanded in 1945 and the CIA was not created until 1947).
The training sequences in the first half of the film are well-researched and represent a highly factual look at OSS training and selection. These include simulated interrogations, use of a heavy steel spring cosh to disable an adversary, map reading, and direction of aircraft dropping covert supplies at nighttime. Watch closely for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene where Cagney demonstrates how to draw a concealed Colt 1903 pistol from an upside-down holster strapped to his calf, beneath his pant leg. This holster was designed and carried by none other than Peter Ortiz himself, possibly the most legendary of all OSS operatives during the war. Ortiz was an advisor to the film production and the story is in fact loosely based on his own exploits.
Ultimately Wild Bill Donovan fell into a row with the producers over creative and dramatic licenses taken in the second half of the film as they pertained to OSS operations behind enemy lines in Europe, and he withdrew his support completely. Jimmy Cagney’s character was renamed from Donovan himself to Sharkey, and the organization was renamed from OSS to the fictional ‘0-77’.
2. Bridge of Spies
Steven Spielberg’s entry into the espionage genre knocks it out of the park with this accounting of true events. The opening scenes detailing Rudolf Abel’s spycraft and Gary Power’s doomed reconnaissance flight and capture are taken straight out of the history books. From the beginning Spielberg was enraptured by the screenplay, detailing an idealistic American lawyer’s fight for justice and the exchange of a convicted Soviet spy for two American prisoners. Spielberg went to great lengths to create an accurate accounting of events, including filming at the actual Glieneke Bridge where the original exchange took place, and consulting with Francis Gary Powers Jr, the son of captured U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers Sr.
Chronicling two of the biggest players in the 1960s world of spycraft, the construction of the Berlin Wall, and that fateful, history-making meeting on Glieneke Bridge just outside of Berlin all make for a must-see film for anyone interested in the true history of espionage.
1. The Lives of Others
Finally, my all-time favorite espionage film.
Starring Ulrich Muhe in an incredible performance, the film tells a fascinating tale of life under the stifling rule of the East German government of the late 1980s. Playwright George Dreymann is suspected of liberal tendencies and possible loyalties to the West. In reality the chief of the Stasi intelligence organization simply covet’s Dreymann’s girlfriend and needs an excuse to have Dreymann removed from the picture. Enter Hauptmann Weisler, the Stasi’s most dedicated and experienced agent. In scene after scene, Weismann displays incredible tradecraft as he interrogates prisoners, instructs students, emplaces covert listening devices, conducts surveillance, and gradually comes to realize the folly of his mission; and perhaps his entire life.
In addition to being a great espionage film, it’s also an incredible perspective on humanity, belonging, and introspection. A character arc as incredible but also as believable as Weisler’s is to be treasured. I cannot recommend this film enough to those interested in spycraft as well as anyone who wants to see a film that perfectly contrasts oppression and redemption.