As the new James Bond film, Spectre, hits cinema screens, and spy mania returns, we profile 13 dramatic and engrossing spy movies beyond the James Bond franchise. The Cold War may be long over but the life of the spy continues to fascinate, whether it’s the dark, psychological dramas of the Cold War era or contemporary technology-focused double-agent tales.
This award-winning drama, which marked the directorial debut of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, is set in the eerie world of East Berlin. The story follows a Stasi officer spying on a dissident playwright and his actress lover. The film won an Oscar and is considered to be a very authentic picture of life in East Germany. This Big Brother world featuring the large network of citizens turned informants highlights the difficulties of remaining true to oneself in such circumstances.
Ridley Scott’s 2008 drama, set in the Middle East, traces efforts by the CIA and Jordanian Intelligence to catch a terrorist. The different approaches strain relations between the counterparts, highlighting some of the tensions between Western and Arab societies. The film shows the conflict between more modern technology-centered intelligence methods versus the traditional human-focused approach. Like Scott’s other films, Body of Lies is a good mix of striking visuals and fast-paced action shots.
Based on the 1963 critically-acclaimed novel by John le Carré, the film remains a classic. Richard Burton, a bruised and battered spy, highlights the moral dilemmas faced by more experienced agents, who realise that real life is not as black and white as their superiors would have them believe. In reality, the bad men are not that bad, while the good men are not that good. A fascinating psychological drama highlighting the less glamorous aspects of spying; the film won numerous awards at the time.
Another entry based on a John le Carré novel, the 2011 film eschews high-tech gadgets and stunt-heavy action sequences to focus on the psychological drama of spying. Set at the height of the Cold War, it tells the story of a forcibly-retired agent who is asked to return to the job in order to uncover a double-agent in the MI6.
This slick 70s classic stars Robert Redford as a lowly CIA researcher plunged into a highly operative role, trying to escape the clutches of the Agency. One day, Redford returns from lunch to his New York office to find all his colleagues dead. He soon realizes that he is also a target and kidnaps a civilian – the beautiful Faye Dunaway – in a desperate ploy to stay alive.
This 1973 taut drama is based on the book by Frederic Forsyth. It tells the story of an accomplished professional assassin hired by a French paramilitary group to kill General Charles De Gaulle, France’s president at the time. The plot follows his meticulous preparation for the hit, in tandem with the police investigation trying to identify and stop him.
The Bourne Identity set the standard for modern spy movies, with gritty fight scenes and rainy locations replacing some of the glamour of earlier films. The first of the gripping Bourne series stands out as we discover, along with him, the amnesiac agent’s extraordinary skills. Every scene is a surprise as he tries to rediscover who he is whilst avoiding potential killers.
Loosely based on the true events following the terrorist attack on the Israeli sports team during the 1972 Olympic games in Munich, the film tracks the quest for revenge and retribution. Beyond the dramatic action shots, Steven Spielberg provides an insight into the heroes’ lives outside their job. He highlights the lack of a clear division between good and bad, with each persona receiving a dose of humanity. This makes their subsequent and almost inevitable loss all the more painful.
One of Alfred Hitchkock’s classics sees the dashing Cary Grant as a successful New York advertising executive in a well-cut suit in the ultimate mistaken-identity drama. Foreign spies believe he is a government agent and frame him for the murder of a U.N. employee while pursuing him across the U.S. He is forced to seek unlikely allies in his battle to survive.
The 2002 film is the second adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel (1956) about America’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict. A British journalist meets a supposed U.S. medical worker in Saigon, leading to a love triangle involving a young Vietnamese woman. However, beneath the love story lurks a story of espionage and double-dealing as the CIA tries to influence local policy. The story’s rich details are influenced by Greene’s career as a correspondent and as an agent.
Spy Game traces the relationship between an older, retiring spy (Robert Redford) and his protégé (Brad Pitt), with strong acting from the two stars. As the agency decides Brad Pitt is expendable, Redford puts aside past conflicts and attempts to save him in a 24-hour window. The machinations of power and Redford’s attempts to manipulate them to his advantage are a joy to watch.
Loosely based on real events, the film traces one of the most important espionage cases of the 20th century according to Ronald Reagan. Set predominantly in Moscow, it tells the story of a disillusioned Soviet spy who starts to pass details of KGB operations across the West to a naïve French engineer. As the CIA enters the picture, an unfortunate chain of events starts. Directed by Christian Carion, it stars two leading film directors more known for their actions on the other side of the camera, Guillaume Canet and Emir Kusturica.
Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning Zero Dark Thirty tells the fictionalized story of the post-9/11, ten-year search and ultimate killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. special operatives. The film met with controversy for its positive portrayal of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ or torture. Further questions were also raised about the CIA’s cooperation with the filmmakers and their influence on the script.