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The Most Realistic Spy Movies of All Time


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There is no doubt that the world of espionage makes for suspenseful and thought-provoking spy films. Classic franchises like the successful Mission: Impossible series and James Bond films are filled with explosive action sequences, witty one-liners, and top-of-the-line gadgets. Films like the Jason Bourne series have shown a grittier side of the espionage genre, while Black Widow brought the spy genre into the world of superheroes. While these films might be thrilling to watch, they aren’t exactly honest about what it means to be a spy. Real spies use calculated tactics to protect their countries of origin. This work is fascinating, with or without the jetpacks.

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Luckily, some films do strive to tell the real stories of what spies actually do on a day-to-day basis. It takes bravery, intelligence, and perseverance to become a successful spy. The world of espionage may be confusing, but luckily, through these films, audiences have been given the chance to dive into just what it takes to be a real-life spy. Here are the most realistic spy films of all time, ranked.

Update January 3, 2024: Can’t get enough of thrilling spy films? Then you’ll be happy to know this list has been updated by Amanda Minchin with even more titles and where each movie is streaming.

10 Red Sparrow (2018)

Read Our Review

Red Sparrow is a callback to “kompromat”, aka the use of seduction over other measures to lure victims into giving away sensitive information. Jennifer Lawrence stars as former prima ballerina Dominika Egorova, a participant of Sparrow School. She trains as a spy there before being let out into the real world. Gone are car chases in lieu of more psychological warfare.

What Makes It So Realistic

The truth is often stranger than fiction, and film is no exception. While it leaned fairly heavily into sexual-based means to an end, its basis is in truth. Jason Matthews, the author of the fiction book it’s based on, worked as a CIA spy for over 30 years before publishing this fictionalized account and used several moments from this career as a basis. In truth, a real-life version of this honeypot school existed in Kazan and was used heavily during the height of the Iron Curtain. Stream on FuboTV

9 Argo (2012)

Argo

Argo

Release Date
March 22, 2012

Rating
R

Runtime
120

Read Our Review

Argo is a thrilling movie that took home the Oscar for Best Picture. It tells the true story of the successful retrieval of American citizens from Iran by disguising them as a fake film crew. Ben Affleck directed and starred in this solid spy thriller, complete with a fantastic script and superb performances by its ensemble cast. This thrilling romp even took home the Oscar for Best Picture.

What Makes It So Realistic

The general events of this film are, sadly, real. The film shows the cooperation between the unlikely duo of the CIA and Hollywood while at the same time giving a broad overview of the history of the Iran hostage crisis… broad being the key term here. Take it from NPR, whose titled review was Argo: Too Good To Be True, Because It Isn’t. While the events and the tactics used are realistic, they are also exaggerated so it loses some points in the terms of “realisim”. Rent on AppleTV+

Related: Every Best Picture Oscar Winner of the 2010s, Ranked

8 Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Read Our Review

Director Kathryn Bigelow’s direction in Zero Dark Thirty is nothing short of stellar. The film tells the true story of the international manhunt for Osama bin Laden. Jessica Chastain plays the CIA intelligence analyst put to the task of finding bin Laden’s whereabouts. The title refers to the time during which the final raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound took place. At the time of its release, several key factors about this mission were as yet unpublished. Since it has come to light, however, audiences have learned that while the extensiveness of the search displayed in this film is true, the nitty-gritty details are closer to fiction.

What Makes It So Realistic

The film is based on the work of real-life CIA Agent Jennifer Matthews, who was killed for her efforts in a suicide bombing. Matthew’s character has only a short, stakes-raising stint in the film, while the rest is given to Chastain’s character (who is an amalgamation of sources in and of herself). Audiences can also see the torture and interrogation techniques that were carried out during this time, though the most extreme of these was likely not as common, and few, if any, led to any useful intel. Nonetheless, this film provides a detailed account of the hard work and dedication that goes into working for the CIA. Stream on Starz

7 The Good Shepherd (2006)

The Good Shepherd follows CIA officer Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) over the course of many years as he dedicates his entire life to the CIA. Robert De Niro produced, directed and co-starred in this fascinating spy drama about the beginning of counter-intelligence in the CIA. The A-list cast includes Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, and many more.

What Makes It So Realistic

Reminiscent of Oliver Stone’s JFK, The Good Shepherd highlights the real sacrifices that must be made in order to pursue this tough career. The film also does a wonderful job of building the suspense and paranoia that comes with being a spy. While it does take some liberties with historical events, compositing several characters into one and adding in some period costumes helped sell this as a somewhat-accurate drama. Stream on AppleTV+

6 Munich (2005)

Eric Bana in Munich
Universal Pictures

Steven Spielberg’s film Munich tells the true accounts of the Israeli government’s retaliation against the Palestine Liberation Organization after several Israeli athletes and their captors were massacred during a hostage exchange gone wrong at the Munich Olympics in 1972. Eric Bana portrays Avner Kaufman, aka Juval Aviv from George Jonas’ book Vengence. Spielberg delivered another classic film that showcased these tragic events and the aftermath that came after.

What Makes It So Realistic

This thrilling story gives a detailed look into espionage and planned assassinations. It also shows you the toll that such an operation has on the lives of these operatives. Here’s where things get interesting – Juval Aviv, the subject of the book Spielberg used as a reference, might not have been involved in the operation at all, though there is a record of communication between Aviv and intelligence sources. Stream on Starz

5 The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965)

A Scene from the John le Carré Adaptation, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold
Paramount Pictures

Silver screen legend Richard Burton starred in the Cold War spy drama The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. Adapted from the John le Carré novel of the same name, this British film chronicles MI6 agent Alec Leamas as he is tasked with posing as a faux defector in order to spread detrimental disinformation about East German forces. In doing so, he soon finds out the real cause for the operation.

What Makes It So Realistic

John le Carré’s book drew heavily upon his time as a former MI6 officer to recreate the world for this story. Filled with layers of intrigue and side changes, this film delves into the human aspect of espionage during the Cold War, giving viewers a first-hand look at the emotional journey spies undergo for the sake of their crucial missions. The acclaimed ’60s classic sheds light on the profound toll being a spy takes on a person’s psyche. It also pays specific attention to those who may find themselves aging out of this dangerous, high-stakes profession. Rent on AppleTV+

4 Spy Game (2001)

Spy Game

Spy Game

Release Date
November 18, 2001

Rating
R

Tony Scott’s Spy Game brought together two of the most talented actors in Hollywood, Robert Redford and Brad Pitt. In the film, Robert Redford plays a CIA operative close to retirement who must find a way to free his protégé (Brad Pitt) after he’s arrested for espionage in China. The operative goes to great lengths to rescue his errant mentee.

What Makes It So Realistic

This film goes two for two in the realism category. Spy Game is purportedly based on both a real-life civilian spy program (Station S) and the career of U.S. Army Intelligence operative Tom Golden. The film depicts the deadly risks that CIA operatives take in the modern day, as well as the intense training that goes along with their duties. Pitt and Redford give solid performances in this thrilling modern-day spy film. Rent on AppleTV+

3 Bridge Of Spies (2015)

Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies

Release Date
October 15, 2015

Director
Steven Spielberg

Rating
PG-13

Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg’s cinematic historical drama, depicts the world of espionage during the Cold War. The story follows a lawyer, James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), who is put to the task of first defending and then negotiating the release of a Soviet spy (Mark Rylance) in exchange for a U.S. Air Force pilot. The title comes from the drop point, a bridge between East and West Germany.

What Makes It So Realistic

Both Spielberg and Hanks are well known for their highly researched historical pictures. This film is no exception. From beginning to end, the film is an honest depiction of the high stakes and tension during the Cold War. Rylance gives a stellar performance as a Soviet spy, and we see, through him, both sides of the story during the Cold War. For once, however, the truth is indeed stranger than fiction. In truth, it wasn’t until the end of the Cold War that American intelligence found out the spy’s actual name. Stream on FuboTV

Related: 10 Underrated Movies Based on Actual Real-Life Spies

2 The Lives Of Others (2006)

Ulrich Mühe in The Lives of Others
Sony Pictures

The 2006 German film The Lives of Others tells the story of secret agents who monitor the residents of East Berlin. As one might imagine, this film tells the tale of one such eavesdropper, who becomes more and more intrigued by his subjects, a writer and his wife. The film depicts the question of morality that comes with surveying citizens. The film went on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

What Makes It So Realistic

This is a thought-provoking tale about the extreme methods that spies will carry out for the good of their country. As one of the first popular feature films to deal with the State Security past in East Germany, there were high expectations for this film. The props master for this film, a former Stasi prisoner, insisted on absolute authenticity, loaning real life listening equipment from collectors and museums. Much of the authenticity, however, also stems from humanizing the interactions between eavesdropper and eavesdropee. Rent on AppleTV+

1 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Focus Features

The 2011 spy thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, based on John le Carré’s novel of the same name, showcases the British Secret Service during the Cold War. The film focuses on George Smiley (Gary Oldman) and his quest to find a Soviet double agent in the British Secret Service. The film has a dynamic cast, including Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, and many more.

What Makes It So Realistic

The sheer intelligence and determination that it takes to work as a spy is detailed from beginning to end. With former MI6 agent John le Carré’s novel as a blueprint, it’s no wonder this film did not fall far from realistic. During his time there, MI6 was obsessed with ferreting out moles. It both demonstrates the duel of wits that is counterintelligence against an enemy you may very well know, for better or worse. This realistic portrayal of espionage during the Cold War received rave reviews and currently has an 83% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Stream on Starz

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