The Greatest Spy Movies (As Chosen By Ex-Spies)

After years of dodging bullets, drinking martinis and indulging in espionage former operatives tell us, covertly of course, which spy films cut the mustard...
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After years of dodging bullets, drinking martinis and indulging in espionage former operatives tell us, covertly of course, which spy films cut the mustard...

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This list was compiled by several real-life former spies from the CIA, NSA, the US. State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and more agencies — all of whom are founders or Board Members of the Long Island Spy Museum www.longislandspymuseum.org

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy(1979)

“Real-life spies love the plot focus on recruitment of assets, betrayal and subterfuge; this is the ‘bread and butter’ of spycraft,” said one former CIA officer.

Many former and existing spies relate particularly well to Smiley’s character and the duality that he represents: patriotic and capable without ego combined with that nagging suspicion that defending democracy can be a thankless job and, in the end, he will almost certainly be the last victim in the saga.  There is an old saying in espionage: 'There is nothing more dangerous than an honest man with no agenda.'This makes Smiley incorruptible to the enemy but also makes him a long-term threat to his political masters.

Munich(2006)

Like real-life spying, the movie is slow and steady with moments of underlying tension and moments of pure ‘dynamite’ particularly when moral dilemmas present themselves. The way Munich proceeded was a lot like real-life spying.  It's not glitz and glamour and flash all the time…successful espionage is slow, methodical, careful; sometimes there's gripping tension when plans seem to go not quite according to plan, and other times — like in Munich — moral dilemmas can turn even the best laid plans on their head. The movie is realistic in this way.

Ronin(1998)

“NOC officers do not have the protection of diplomatic immunity so when they are caught working in foreign lands, it usually results in incarceration, death or severe bodily harm,” said one Defense Intelligence Agency Spy. "Shifting loyalties and alliances are not fiction in real-world spying. It's critical to be careful; sometimes that's the difference between life and death."

Spying makes strange bed-fellows and there are many cases of two opposing deep-cover operatives inserted into a situation: being forced to work together for the greater good.

39 Steps (1935)

Spies love this movie because of the unexpected twists and turns; something that is 'par for the course' in the world of espionage. There is an old saying used by spies all over the world – ‘It’s a great plan until the first shot is fired!' Any self-respecting spy will tell you that adaptability is critical in the field.

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Eye of the Needle

This movie happens to be a personal favourite for spies tasked with counter-intelligence. The only mission for a CI operative is to identify, deceive and mind-fuck other enemy spies.This movie epitomizes the Spy-versus-Spy battles that take place every day without the public’s knowledge.

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

What keeps the hero of the movie, Robert Redford, alive against the rogue elements of the Agency is his ability to embrace ruthlessness and adaptability in the field. It is a rare movie indeed that has the hero kidnapping an innocent woman for his own protection. Any spy that has had his cover blown in a foreign country and been on the run will tell you that you learn to embrace the ability to be ruthless; one of the reasons that spies don’t talk about former missions is because they learn early that the behaviour in the field that saves your life is judged harshly in the cold light of day.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965)

Spies relate to the deep cover spy that Richard Burton plays in the movie. Like a “moth to the flame,” the key to the mission success of Burton’s character is his deniability for those who sent him on the mission. The White Hat Powers that Be wring every ounce of decency out of the main character. Many a spy who has worked a long time in the field encounters this dilemma – the bad guys aren’t so bad and the good guys aren’t so good and you are going to have to betray a lot of good, decent people to accomplish the mission. This movie particularly represents the moral damage that spies encounter after many years in the field.

Body of Lies (2008)

“This movie superbly illustrates contemporary tension between Western and Arab societies and the comparative effectiveness of hi-tech technology versus human counter-intelligence methods,” said the Special Operations officer.

Spying is about connecting and recruiting individuals through social engineering and behavioural science training. Many spies relate to Leonardo di Caprio’s character and the dilemma with headquarters and their reliance upon technology from 5,000 miles away. Spies have a saying: “There is nothing like being on the ground,” no satellite is going to tell you what is going on in people’s hearts and minds.

The only mission for a CI operative is to identify, deceive and mind-fuck other enemy spies

The Good Shepherd (2006)

Although this is a fictional movie based on real events, it recounts the untold story of the birth of counter-intelligence in the Central Intelligence Agency. The film's main character, Edward Wilson (portrayed by Matt Damon), is based on James Jesus Angleton. Robert De Niro plays a great supporting role as Wild Bill Donovan. A must for any true fan of espionage movies.

The Matt Damon character represents a personality profile that you will find amongst many in the world of espionage – complexities of personalities. Angleton was a ruthless anti-communist and is a legend in the CIA, however he was also known for his love of poetry and his well-known friendship with Ezra Pound, who was not only one of the world’s greatest poets, but also a known communist who was arrested for treason during World War II. These complex behaviour patterns are baffling to civilians but tend to be quite normal in the society of espionage.

Tailor of Panama (2001) 

“Spies love Pierce Brosnan’s betrayal of the ‘loose cannon’ spy who creates all kinds of mayhem by tweaking the intelligence that he is sending back toheadquarters,” said another real-life former operative.

Spies love the fact that Brosnan’s character in the movie outwits headquarters and rides off into the sunset with a lot of money: spies have a dream of doing just that.

More great spy articles...

When Spies Get Caught Red Handed

Katia Zatuliveter And The Art Of The Spy Honey Trap

James Bond Day: The Men Who Could've Been 007

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