6. The Hunt for Red October (John McTiernan 1990)
Based on the Jack Ryan novel of the same name by Tom Clancy, The Hunt for Red October was director John McTiernan’s third consecutive hit after previously having made Predator and Die Hard, making him 80’s action royalty in the process.
Soviet submarine commander Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) is the best captain in the Russian fleet and therefore given the task to test their latest high-tech submarine called The Red October. But when Ramius and his second captain (Sam Neill) disregard their orders and start heading towards the USA, it’s initially unclear whether the men on board the sub are defecting or trying to start World War III. CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) believes the former and sets out on a desperate attempt to prove this as both sides close in with intentions to destroy the submarine.
Another assuredly directed film by John McTiernan, who was on fire in those days, and a great cast, which also includes James Earl Jones, Scott Glenn, Joss Ackland, Richard Jordan, Tim Curry, Jeffrey Jones and Stellan Skarsgård, The Hunt for Red October was a huge hit and made the Jack Ryan character widely popular with the general public. Baldwin however would decline to play the character again (and McTiernan would not return to direct any further Tom Clancy films) when more Jack Ryan films were planned and Harrison Ford would take over the role in later instalments. The Hunt for Red October however remains the best film adaptation of Clancy’s work.
7. Thirteen Days (Roger Donaldson 2000)
A list on cold war movies wouldn’t be complete without a film dealing with the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. Based on the book The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow, the film dramatises the events from as seen from the American perspective.
When surveillance photos from a spy plane indicate that the Soviet Union is placing nuclear arms in Cuba, President John F. Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) must immediately decide how to respond to this threat to the nation. Aided by his brother Robert (Steven Culp), best friend and special assistant Kenny O’Donnell (Kevin Costner), Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Dylan Baker) and United States Ambassador to the UN Adlai Stevenson, Kennedy decides to share the news with the country, causing wide-spread panic and the Cuban blockade, although publicly described as a quarantine as a blockade would be considered an act of war, rather than invade the island as proposed by General Curtis LeMay (Kevin Conway) and risking to start World War III and possible nuclear devastation.
The greatest feat of Thirteen Days is the fact that even though the outcome of the proceedings is obviously well known to everybody, it still manages to hold tension from start to finish by clearly focusing on the individuals involved and their personal handling of the situation. Although the film was met with fairly positive reviews, it failed at the box-office. That being said, it probably is the lesser entry on this list but for anyone who is interested in the events of those two weeks in October of 1962 or who simply wants to see a well-made cold war thriller, Thirteen Days is worth seeking out.
8. Good Night, and Good Luck. (George Clooney 2005)
The second and best film so far to be directed by George Clooney, who also co-wrote the screenplay and starred in the movie with frequent collaborator Grant Heslov, Good Night, and Good Luck is a great docudrama about the real-life face-off of broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow and communist hunting Senator Joseph McCarthy.
It’s 1953 and in his quest to rid America of his perceived infiltration by communists, one of the victims of Senator McCarthy’s accusations is Air Force pilot Milo Radulovich simply because his father has a subscription to a Serbian newspaper and his sister’s has left-wing political leanings. Consequently Radulovich is dismissed from service without a formal hearing of charges even though he denies any wrong doing.
Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn), a well-known newsman and host of a talk show and investigative series, takes objection to this and McCarthy’s bullying tactics and dedicates a show questioning what he sees occurring all around him. As a result he becomes a prime target for the Senator and is accused of being a communist himself. The conflict between the two men leads to a historic episode of Murrow’s See It Now television show in which both men presented their side of the story, which is generally seen as the first major blow to McCarthy as well as the first step in his eventual downfall.
Gorgeously shot in crisp black and white and featuring an a-grade script which both perfectly paints the climate of paranoia at the time as well as following the details of the Murrow-McCarthy clash, Good Night and Good Luck is also greatly aided by its cast, which in addition to Strathairn and Clooney also features Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels, Frank Langhella, Ray Wise and Robert Downey Jr. The film was nominated for six Oscars and BAFTAs, four Golden Globes and won five prizes at the Venice Film Festival as well as Movie of the Year at the American Film Institute Awards.
9. The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck 2006)
Confident feature film debut by German filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Lives of Others is a drama set in 1984’s East Germany. The film was the first German noteworthy drama to deal with the situation in East Berlin before the fall of the Berlin Wall and was also praised for its realistic recreation of the period.
Set in 1984’s East Berlin, the movie deals with Stasi (the East German secret police force) Captain Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) who is given the task of monitoring a patriotic playwright and his lover. But as he does so, it turns out that the writer genuinely believes in his political leaders and that Wiesler might have been assigned to his monitoring task as a result of ulterior motives.
Slowly he starts to get emotionally involved in the lives of the people he has been assigned to shadow from a small room in the attic of the house where the writer lives. And as the playwright starts altering his beliefs in the state when a friend of his commits suicide and his lover is being blackmailed by the state, Wiesler himself begins to question his own government’s motives, becoming an opponent of the system he has served for so long himself.
The film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film after having already taken home seven Deutscher Filmpreis awards (the highest German film prize, awarded by the German Film Academy) in Germany, which included Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actor. A film that clearly focuses on its characters instead of the espionage antics as so many of its peers, The Lives of Others is one of the best German features of the last decade.
10. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson 2011)
The second entry on this list to have been adapted from a novel by John le Carré and not to be confused with the also excellent for television produced mini-series from 1979 starring Alec Guiness, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy marked the English language debut for Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, who broke onto the international scene in 2008 with the equally great vampire film Let the Right One In.
The film follows John le Carré’s regular character George Smiley (Gary Oldman), who is secretly called out of retirement and reinstated into the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) to uncover a suspected Russian double-agent in the upper echelons of the organisation who is sharing top secret information with the Russians.
Together with his new partner Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), the two men start investigating and come across the case of operative Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), who was set-up in Istanbul after having come across a Russian agent who was willing to divulge the identity of the mole in SIS in exchange for asylum in the West. Smiley also discovers that his former boss already held suspicions about a mole in the organisation and had come up with a list of possible suspects, codenamed “Tinker”, “Tailor”, “Soldier”, “Poorman” and “Beggarman”, the last one referring to Smiley himself.
Featuring a who’s who of British top acting talent, which in addition to the actors mentioned above also includes Colin Firth, Mark Strong, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds and Stephen Graham, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an intricate yet lucid adaptation of John le Carré’s novel. The film is assuredly directed by Tomas Alfredson who brings a certain clinical aesthetic to the proceedings which perfectly captures the bleak and paranoia-filled cold war atmosphere. The movie was nominated for a plethora of BAFTAs and ended up winning the ones for Best British Film and Best Screenplay, whilst also receiving Oscar nominations for Best Actor (Oldman), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score.
Author Bio: Emilio has been a movie buff for as long as he can remember and holds a Masters Degree in Cinema Studies from the University of Amsterdam. Critical and eclectic in taste, he has been described to “love film but hate all movies”. For daily suggestions on what to watch, check out his Just Good Movies Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/goodmoviesuggestions.