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There’s something about pretending to be a spy that can get your heart racing. Even talking into a smartwatch can make the most average of Joe’s feel like James Bond for a moment. So it’s no surprise that the spy movie genre continues to be one of the most successful in the world of films, from stories with enough special effects to make your head spin to those based on the bravery of real men and women.
Spy movies come in several forms. Period pieces set during wartime with characters based on fact are released annually. Then there are the uber-popular spies that have been born in cinematic lore and are known for their names — Bond, Bourne and Hunt. Spy comedies are another fan favorite, letting audiences play along with the whodunit aspect of the story while getting in a few laughs along the way. These are especially good choices for those prone to stress. We’ve definitely left the theater with our heart rate uncomfortably elevated after more serious spy thrillers.
Whether you’re partial to the classics, like to learn history through films, or are a fan of escapism on the big screen, our list of the best spy movies is sure to have something for every aspiring sleuth.
1. THE BOURNE IDENTITY
What happens when a highly-trained CIA spy loses his memory? You bring him into the office and offer him a warm glass of milk and a hug. Well, that’s what should be done, but the movie version of that is a bit boring. In the case of Jason Bourne, the CIA sends the (almost) equally trained operatives into the field to take out Bourne. Too bad for the CIA, Bourne’s muscle memory is excellent. The first film in the Bourne series stands out for its ability to bring audiences into the world of Bourne as he tries to remember who he was before he was rescued by a group of fishermen. There’s classified CIA information, death by pen, a love story, and the first of many memorable final scenes.
We can’t have a list of the best spy movies without including one of the greatest spies of all time. James Bond returns from the dead in Skyfall, proving that you can’t keep a good spy down. Plus, everyone gets bored on vacation after the first few weeks. Daniel Craig is back in his black tux for the 2012 spy movie and is sent out in the field even after failing his MI6 retraining by a vengeful M, played by the always cool Dame Judi Dench. There’s a casino, a yacht, new gadgets from Q, Javier Bardem as the ultimate baddie, and the introduction of Naomie Harris as Eve Moneypenny. Throw in Adele’s Oscar-winning theme song and really, what more could you want from a Bond film?
The incredible true story of the ‘Canadian Caper’ (yeah, Argo is a better title) dramatizes the joint rescue mission by the CIA and the Canadian government, who worked together in 1979 to get six American diplomats safely out of Tehran after the Iranian Revolution broke out. With the help of real-life CIA agent Tony Mendez, played by director Ben Affleck, the diplomats posed as a Canadian film crew who were scouting locations for their Hollywood blockbuster called … Argo. The spy movie underplayed the Canadian’s role in the mission, but still brought to light a mostly unknown story of diplomacy and bravery. Argo went on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes and goes down as a spy thriller that has to be based on fact to be believable.
4. BRIDGE OF SPIES
‘Oh look, Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, and the Coen Brothers working on a historical spy thriller. I wonder if it will be good?’ asked no one. Yeah, Bridge of Spies is unsurprisingly excellent, with Hanks portraying real-life American lawyer James Donovan, who helped defend Soviet spy Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) and later brokered an exchange with the USSR to return Abel for Gary Powers, a CIA spy pilot, and an American grad student named Frederic Pryor. Although some liberties were taken with Bridge of Spies, the spy thriller is one of the most historically accurate films available about the Cold War and highlights the bravery of Donovan. This spy movie earned Rylance an Oscar and brought to light Donovan’s story, which first caught the attention of screenwriter Matt Charman as a footnote in a JFK bibliography.
5. ATOMIC BLONDE
Similar setting, very different film. While Bridge of Spies was based on actual people who were around during the building of the Berlin Wall, Atomic Blonde fast forwards to the 1980s for a fictional film about an MI6 agent played by Charlize Theron, who arrives in Berlin days before the wall is set to fall. Atomic Blonde also made our list for best action films and its constant guessing game of which targets Theron’s Lorraine Broughton can trust will have viewers guessing until the final moments of the film. Pay close attention to Theron’s accent …
6. BURN AFTER READING
For a spy movie with a lighter touch, there’s the Coen brother’s outrageous black comedy Burn After Reading. The 2008 film has a stellar cast led by Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, George Clooney, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, and JK Simmons. Pitt and McDormand play unsuspecting workers at a fitness gym who inadvertently stumble across the memoir of a CIA analyst and do their best to extort anyone they can (Russians included) in exchange for the file. Their ‘failing upwards’ trajectory lands them in hilarious hot water, with mixed results (it’s a spy movie, so people are going to end up dead).
7. ZERO DARK THIRTY
In her Golden Globe-winning role, Jessica Chastain plays a fictional CIA agent who is used to tell the real story of the very real capture of Osama bin Laden. Director Kathryn Bigelow returns to the Middle East in an effort to shed light on the efforts to capture Bin Laden, highlighting the US government and CIA’s efforts over years to stop the powerful terrorist. Prior to the release of the film, the world spent a decade watching news reports chronicling the chase to find and kill bin Laden, but not until Zero Dark Thirty did the public get to see the incredible amount of planning required to execute the seemingly impossible mission.
8. Mission: Impossible
Much like The Bourne Identity, the audience’s first introduction to Tom Cruise as super spy Ethan Hunt set the tone for what would go on to become one of the most significant additions to the cinematic world of capers. The 1996 spy movie cemented Cruise as a spy that viewers could rally behind thanks to the first few moments of the film showing Hunt as the only surviving member of his team after a mole is suspected in the CIA. Hunt’s company loyalty is continually tested throughout the flick, which gave viewers the iconic ‘suspended from the ceiling while hacking a computer and stealing floppy discs’ scene. The action never disappoints in a Mission: Impossible film and that includes the first installment, which even gives Bond a run for his gadgetry money (exploding gum!).
9. A MOST WANTED MAN
Pretty much any adaptation of a John le Carré novel could be on this list, including Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy, The Constant Gardener and the TV series based on The Night Manager. In A Most Wanted Man, the always impeccable Philip Seymour Hoffman leads a stellar cast in his role as Günther Bachmann, a German official with his sights on stopping Al Qaeda and using informants to help his cause. The film marks Hoffman’s final role before his death and is cemented in cinema history as a slow-burning, brilliant spy movie that shows the human cost of those who risk their lives in the name of peace.
10. KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE
If manners maketh the man, then training maketh the spy. Colin Firth plays spy headmaster Harry Hart who recruits Taron Egerton’s Eggsy, the son of a fallen Kingsman. Eggsy manages to survive the intense spy training to become a Kingsman and his first mission is to help save the world from the villainous Richmond Valentine, played by Samuel L. Jackson. Shouldn’t there be a probation period with a few small-scale projects first? The glossy spy movie is equal parts heart and action and makes viewers want to invest in both a new tracksuit and bespoke suit.
Paul Feig’s 2015 comedy Spy answers the age-old question, ‘what would happen if the average person became a spy?’ Melissa McCarthy’s pencil-pushing CIA employee Susan answers that with hilarious results. After the identities of all other operatives become known (there are a lot of leaks in spy movies), Susan is sent into the field with pretty impressive results. The film focuses both on laughs and slick spy scenarios, keeping viewers laughing and guessing until the final scene. You definitely want to stick around for the final scene.