The 25 Best Spy Movies of All Time

18. Black Book (2006), dir. Paul Verhoeven

Black Book (2006)

This film begins in Israel in the 50’s but goes back to WWII. The Germans occupy the Netherlands and they are murdering Jews. Like Sophie’s Choice, this movie focuses on a woman who betrays herself. She falls in love with a German officer.

It is spy-orientated as it demonstrates the often fifth column aspects and what one who is subjected to betrayal must do to stay alive.


19. Body of Lies (2008), dir. Ridley Scott

Body of Lies (2008)

In this film, the viewers return to the treachery over fanciful action that (before Skyfall) became synonymous with the Bond type spy movies. The plot shifts toward the human elements of Farewell, Ronin, and The Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Indeed the sand of time have made spy movies a whole new game.

The earth has shifted from the Cold War to the post 9-11 War on Terror. The shift caused Americans to have a new focus toward Israel and the Middle East and away from Russia and Germany. The parallels toward betrayal could not be seen more clearly than the tension between Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Mark Strong.


20. Traitor (2008), dir. Jeffrey Nachmanoff

Traitor (2008)

Perhaps the first of its kind, this is a spy film portrays an African-American male (Don Cheadle) as the as the lead character, Samir Horn, who is a double-agent. Contemporary spy movies have had to mimic the world and sometimes discard the notion of the physical borderline that one must cross in order to be in the enemy’s camp. Sometimes those crossings are within the individual mind. Horn’s loyalty to his homeland may have to be buried deep, and thus he is able to win the trust of those he must infiltrate.

This movie works so well, as it demonstrates one of the shortcomings within the CIA and the few people who speak the languages of the Middle East. The film also tries to distinguish the oft blurred lines separating Islam from terrorism.


21. The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo (2009), dir. Niels Arden Oplev


This is a rare Swedish film with a myriad of unfamiliar aspects to American audiences. Its complexity lies within the writing of Stieg Larsson.

The story itself does not center on governments nor spies per se. However, it advances the genre with its characters who rely on uncovering truths using technology and investigations. One could argue it is more crime drama, but crime dramas fueled early spy novels and, subsequently, spy movies.


22. Farewell (2009), dir. Christian Carion

Farewell (2009)

A production made outside the United States, and set in Moscow, Farewell captures the always complex relations between France and the United States—this time during the Cold War. The players are a low level French diplomat squeezed into espionage by a veteran Russian spy who wishes to pass on information about Soviet spies in the west.

Though viewers not versed in French and Russian will have to rely on subtitles, the film is an extraordinary audience experience. It depicts President Ronald Reagan (Fred Ward) and his distaste for the longest serving President of France, Francois Mitterand. This film also addresses the strains of espionage on family life and the always murky waters of friendships in the theater of subterfuge.


23. The Debt (2010), dir. John Madden

The Debt (2010)

Time, lies, deceit, and a reputation (constructed from the lies) come to haunt three Massad agents in this riveting spy film. The agents’ assignment is to hunt and capture a former Nazi doctor responsible for horrible acts of abuse meted out at a concentration camp during WWI.

Generally, spy films with Massad agents demonstrate the gaping wounds about the veracity of spy movies. The state Israel usually has the position of the victim, and agents are typically mercenaries sent to seek revenge for a wrong done to the Jews. While in order for one to agree or disagree, he or she has to be familiar with this film, as well as Munich and the Marathon Man; nonetheless, this movie is a great film.

Helen Mirren is consciously the center of gravity in this movie, and the film is noteworthy because it is gritty and the director dives in where other filmmakers dare to tread. The film demonstrates one’s compassion—albeit humane, yet costly—for the enemy.


24. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), Tomas Alfredson


Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, adapted from a novel written by John Le Carrie, requires the patience of a monk. The film is a labyrinth of “who” “what” “when” and “why,” but it doesn’t create the rush action effect sequences of a Jason Bourne film. The film fits squarely in the tradition of a Cold War spy movie and (of course) fictionalizes fact.

Starring Gary Oldman, the film is set during the Cold War and chronicles the story of an ex-spy who is forced out of retirement to find a Soviet mole locked in the higher echelon of British intelligence.

The “Control” (John Hurt)—the head of the BI division—resigns from his position because he violated a rule of engagement by causing the death of an agent operating on a hunch. Control, however is correct—there is a mole. However, Control is outwitted. George Smiley (Oldman) is the spy forced out of espionage retirement to “find the mole.”

Some say Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was one Oldman’s finest films. Others, however, expected more from this stellar actor. Here, he does convey the sterility of sleuth after his prey. Yet the film offers many (almost too many) characters for the viewer to maintain. Nonetheless, the film rests as the pinnacle of the “thinking man’s” spy movie.


25. Skyfall (2012), dir.Sam Mendes


One could hardly avoid the comparison of the contemporary James Bond to Matt Damon as Jason Bourne. In the recent James Bond film series, Daniel Craig has single-handily catapulted Bond movies to where they should be. Largely seeking to re-imagine Bond as a younger, more agile warrior (rather than an aging—albeit effective—suave, debonair gent) strictly focused on his majesty’s business.

Daniel Craig accomplishes a feat for the franchise. From the opening sequence, he is no longer fighting communists, nor mega maniacs seeking to take over the world. Instead his challenges are the twenty first century enemies: terrorists and economic corruption.

Author Bio: Kevin is a free-lance writer/photographer living beneath the radar in Arkansas.