What we are not seeing are movies that have much to tell us about spying. So here are six films that have something to say about spy craft.
6. Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939)
This film is loosely based on real-life efforts by the Third Reich to recruit American agents. G-Man Edward Renard (Edward G. Robinson) tracks down fifth columnists in the fifty states. The film is just good old-fashioned Hollywood. In the real world, the FBI made the case that it should be the primary agency responsible for battling spies inside the United States. FDR agreed with the FBI. That’s why today, the bureau spends as much, if not more time, dealing with national security matters than playing cops and robbers.
5. The Man Who Never Was (1956)
Based on a true story of World War II espionage, Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu (Clifton Webb) devises a scheme to confuse the Nazis over where the allies planned to launch D-Day. While some of the plot is made up, it is still a remarkable account of the kind of real hijinks that went on during the war. The film holds up well and is still fun to watch.
4. The Ipcress File (1965)
Spying was all the rage during the Cold War. In 1947 Truman signed the law establishing the CIA. In this fictional tale, Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) navigates the criminal underworld and tortuous spy networks (including the CIA) to uncover the secret behind the brainwashing of top scientists. The film was billed as a serious alternative to all the James Bond silliness with sex and gadgets. The movie received critical acclaim, but a mixed reception from audiences. Still, it’s a spy movie classic.
3. The Lives of Others (2006)
This film reminds us that it was not only the West that was spying during the Cold War. There was plenty of spying by the Reds as well. In fact, there was more spying behind the Iron Curtain than in front of it. This grim glimpse of life in East Germany details how the Stasi did their dirty work. The Stasi were not nice people. In the film, dissident Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is their unhappy target. Its a depressing, but a moving and riveting movie.
2. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Nobody did spies better than the writer John le Carré, whose real name is David John Moore Cornwell. A former secret agent who infused his books with real spycraft, his work also served as the basis for some of the very best spy movies. George Smiley (Gary Oldman) tracks down a mole in British intelligence. This is an exceptional and engaging film. While the story is fiction, in real life the British has some of the world’s most damaging double agents penetrate their ranks.
1. Argo (2012)
When the Cold War ended, the need for spies did not. When a handful of Americans fled the embassy after the Iranian Revolution —the CIA came to the rescue. Based on a true story, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) devises a whacky cover story to sneak them out of the country. This is a massively entertaining film.