One of the more interesting aspects of many political thrillers is how they capture a unique moment in our sociocultural political history. One does not have to be a policy buff to really appreciate an engaging political thriller. Whether it’s looking at it through a revisionist lens or using firsthand accounts of the most pressing political issues of the day, films about politics often are some of the most captivating because of the intrigue and plot devices.
The 1970s were arguably the heyday of the best political thrillers as the zeitgeist transitioned into blockbusters and more stylized big-budget projects. The United States was in the throes of Watergate and the Vietnam War, both of which really called for some major introspection for the collective conscious of all Americans. As the political tenor of the 1980s shifted so dramatically, people’s distrust in politicians began to increase as well.
Thematically, espionage, cover-ups, assassination, and other clandestine activities are the hallmarks of a solid political thriller. Many of the following prescient films foreshadow the rise of technology as a potential omnipresent, insidious force in our lives. Political thrillers have something to offer all filmgoers. Whether it’s the slow burn of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or the fast paced Enemy of the State, the following films capture the best of what political thrillers have given to the big screen so far.
15. In the Line of Fire (1993)
This action packed political thriller has less clandestine activities and is more of a cat and mouse game where everything is laid out on the table early on. Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) is a secret service agent who lost a president on his watch (Kennedy Assassination).
Flash forward several years later and former CIA agent Mitch Leary (John Malkovich) is plotting to kill the president who is running for reelection. He spends time needling Horrigan with his plan to kill the president as he feels he has been the victim of a wrong doing by the government.
Malkovich has been able to play some of the best villains on screen in recent memory and he is excellent here as the creepy, yet focused Leary. Eastwood has this character nailed down at this point in his career but his performance is still magnificent. Horrigan is bound not to let this happen again and watching the dynamic between these two pros is absolutely delightful.
14. Hidden Agenda (1990)
Anyone alive during 1980s that paid attention to Irish politics may well be familiar with many of the attacks related to the IRA as well as the iron handed rule of Thatcher politics in Britain. This film takes place in Belfast in the late 1980s when a human rights activist (Frances McDormand) investigates the death of one of her colleagues. A tough policeman (Brian Cox) helps her follow the conspiracy up to the highest levels of government.
Ken Loach went on to examine the brutal treatment of the Irish by the British (Wind That Shakes the Barley). What makes this thriller unique is the blend of fact and fiction that give it an almost documentary like flavor. Stylistically, it is very effective. The production quality combined with excellent performances from Frances McDormand and Brian Cox will have you thinking you are eavesdropping on real life individuals.
13. Syriana (2005)
If ever there were a film to remind us that we hit peak oil a while ago and need to reexamine our dependence on foreign oil, it is this one. It has been ten years since Syriana was released and the issues it delves into are just as pertinent now as they were then. A merger between two American oil companies is threatened when an Emirate prince and heir to the throne, gives the contract to a Chinese firm instead. The plot is rich and well developed as it follows four parallel stories at once.
Not only does this film examine the intricacies of politics in foreign matters, it is a scorching look at corruption in the oil industry. Timothy Blake Nelson (Danny Dalton) reveals a blistering truth about what makes the world go around when he tells a colleague how the whole idea behind putting rules and regulations around the industry is so they can exist for show.
No one really follows these rules no matter who gets hurt by them being broken. It is one of many fine performances in this complex political thriller and an indictment of how the rich and powerful manipulate rules for their benefit.
12. Z (1969)
This movie probably does not get the accolades it truly deserves as being one of the more foreboding films in cinema history of how subversive individuals are treated in modern society. Every cover-up leads you down the rabbit-hole and Z does not disappoint in providing a taut political thriller.
Based on factual events, Z was actually banned in Greece for many years. Grigoris Lambrakis had finished giving a keynote speech at an anti-war rally on May 22, 1963. Afterwards, two right-wing extremists, who clubbed him in the head while driving a three-wheeled vehicle, assassinated him.
Yves Montand is Z, a prominent leftist writer who is assassinated after speaking at a nuclear disarmament rally. Where this takes place is unimportant as it clearly can take place anywhere and indeed, that is what makes this thriller so intriguing. Internationally, there is a litany of outspoken political leaders who have been assassinated as their stories can be transposed on to this one. The song remains the same. Fall in line with the state or face severe consequences.
11. The Quiet American (1958)
Fans of Graham Greene may take issue with this adaptation of his novel that was the antithesis of American foreign policy at the time. Set in French occupied Vietnam, Joseph L. Mankiewicz takes a few liberties with Greene’s message behind America as an occupying force in foreign politics.
Audie Murphy is the no-so-quiet American who vies for the affection of a young Saigon woman against the older, cynical, British Thomas Fowler (Michael Redgrave). Fowler has a wife back home but has no interest in her or the never ending conflict. The younger more idealistic American is eager to compete for the woman but Fowler is sharper and too weatherworn to allow the young Audie to foil his desire to stay in Saigon with the beautiful Geisha.
What seems to be a romance gone awry quickly turns into a twisting political thriller full of deceit and intrigue. Regardless of how people feel about Graham Greene’s novel, this film keeps up the intrigue and the second half really shows how far people will go to get their way when love is involved. Fans of Claude Dauphin will enjoy this slow burn of a film.
10. Munich (2005)
Many people were unaware of Operation Wrath of God until Munich was released in 2005. The Israeli government put together a secret squad of Mossad agents who were in charge of hunting down members of Black September. Black September was a Palestinian organization that was responsible for kidnapping and murdering Israeli athletes from the 1972 summer Olympics.
This film is not just a straight up revenge story, however, as it brings up questions of morality and justice during one of the bleakest periods in world history. Given the location and the event in which this took place, it was a further black eye for German politics.
Each assassination attempt is more intricate than the previous one and leaves the viewer on edge wondering how will they complete one task to the next. Emotionally, it can also leave the viewer feeling muddled as vengeance rarely is a simplistic solution for the parties involved.
9. Marathon Man (1976)
By 1976, Dustin Hoffmann had already established himself as one of Hollywood’s more talented actors. His boyish charm and ability to take command of whatever role he took allowed him to shine in films such as The Graduate and Straw Dogs. Hoffmann does not fail to deliver this time as Thomas ‘Babe’ Levy, history graduate student and marathon runner.
A head on collision between a car and an oil truck in New York spells trouble for Babe as he is about to be drawn into the battle of his life. The man who dies in the collision is the brother of Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier), the White Angel of Auschwitz. In exchange for diamonds, he let certain Jews go free during the Holocaust.
After the crash, members of a US defense organization known as “The Division” end up dead. Babe’s brother is part of this division and he has to rely on his smarts and marathon running skills to survive this ordeal.
This film is dark, simply put. There is a grueling torture scene with Szell and Babe that has historically been the hallmark of this film. Marathon Man brilliantly captures the cynicism of this era as it touches on post-World War II themes and Nazi criminals. Visually, this is one of the more engaging political thrillers from its era as the film reaches its climax.