From North by Northwest to Syriana, CIA Spies Rate Their All-Time Favorite Spy Movies


SPYSCAPE asked real-life CIA officers to pick their all-time favorite spy movies and we’ve got the low-down on 15 of the most realistic and entertaining films of the espionage genre. Here are the SPYEX team’s favorite flicks, chosen especially for SPYSCAPE readers!


1. A Most Wanted Man (2014)

Doug Patteson, a former CIA officer and expert on security, firearms, and hostage advocacy, highly rates John le Carré's A Most Wanted Man. The film stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as a Berlin chief of station laying a trap for a Muslim scholar suspected of financing terrorists. “I think it does a great job of capturing the moral ambiguity of espionage.” (Google Play, Prime Video, YouTube, Apple TV, Microsoft, Sky Store)


2. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) 

Alex Finlay, an ex-CIA expert on Russian intel, disinformation, and counterterrorism, ranks two of John le Carré movies highly for their authenticity. “Movies like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and A Most Wanted Man do a good job of capturing the moral ambiguities of spying, as well as the complexity of operations and the frustrations of bureaucratic turf wars.” (Google Play, Prime Video, YouTube, Apple TV, Microsoft, Sky Store)

From North by Northwest to Syriana, CIA Spies Rate Their All-Time Favorite Spy Movies

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SPYSCAPE asked real-life CIA officers to pick their all-time favorite spy movies and we’ve got the low-down on 15 of the most realistic and entertaining films of the espionage genre. Here are the SPYEX team’s favorite flicks, chosen especially for SPYSCAPE readers!


1. A Most Wanted Man (2014)

Doug Patteson, a former CIA officer and expert on security, firearms, and hostage advocacy, highly rates John le Carré's A Most Wanted Man. The film stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as a Berlin chief of station laying a trap for a Muslim scholar suspected of financing terrorists. “I think it does a great job of capturing the moral ambiguity of espionage.” (Google Play, Prime Video, YouTube, Apple TV, Microsoft, Sky Store)


2. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) 

Alex Finlay, an ex-CIA expert on Russian intel, disinformation, and counterterrorism, ranks two of John le Carré movies highly for their authenticity. “Movies like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and A Most Wanted Man do a good job of capturing the moral ambiguities of spying, as well as the complexity of operations and the frustrations of bureaucratic turf wars.” (Google Play, Prime Video, YouTube, Apple TV, Microsoft, Sky Store)

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3. Red Joan (2018)

Christina Hillsberg, an expert on women in intelligence, tradecraft, and parenting, loves Red Joan’s realistic take on espionage. The British spy drama starring Judy Dench involves a physics student who shared atomic secrets with the Soviets in the ‘40s. “While a little slow, I appreciate how extremely well done this depiction of female spying in the ‘40s is - down to everything from men doubting young Joan’s expertise (“Are you in charge of the tea?”) to the makeshift concealment device in her purse." (YouTube, Apple TV, Curzon, Google Play, Amazon Prime)


4. The Little Drummer Girl (1984)

Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA intelligence service officer and expert on leadership, counterterrorism, and foreign policy, suggests another le Carré classic: The Little Drummer Girl starring Diane Keaton: “The film demonstrated the nuances of agent handling, and the novel, creative and at times even immoral means in which an intelligence service - in this case, the Mossad - will go to accomplish their operational goals.” (Google Play, YouTube, Prime Video, Apple TV)


5. Argo (2012)

Peter Warmka, an expert on cybersecurity, social engineering, and human hacking, gives high marks to Argo, Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning story about real-life CIA officer Tony Mendez who rescued six Americans trapped in Iran during a hostage-taking at the US Embassy. It’s Warmka’s favorite spy flick: “It provides the public with great insight into one of the most important operations conducted against the Iranians with the support of the Canadian government.” (Prime Video, Netflix, Google Play, YouTube, Vudu, HBO Max)

6. Syriana (2005)

Lindsay Moran, an ex-CIA expert on covert operations, intelligence, and disinformation, rates George Clooney’s Syriana, a film set against the backdrop of the Middle East oil industry: “It shows how espionage is an integral component of geopolitical systems with myriad micro and macro ripple effects.” (YouTube, Google Play, Apple TV, Prime Video)


7. The Good Shepherd (2006)

Moran, now a SPYEX consultant, is also a fan of The Good Shepherd starring Matt Damon as Edward Wilson, a do-gooder who joins the American OSS, the precursor to the CIA, during WWII and finds himself in a moral quandary: “It captures the inherent loneliness and alienation of being an intelligence officer, as well as the toll it takes on personal and familial relationships,” Moran said. (Prime Video, Netflix, HBO Max)


8. The Hunt for Red October (1990) 

Rosanna Minchew, a former CIA expert on spy recruitment, HUMINT, crime, and computer forensics, has repeatedly watched The Hunt for Red October, starring Sean Connery as a Soviet submarine captain: “The motivation for Sean Connery’s character, Marko Ramius, to defect is personal and an awakening - the death of his wife at the hands of an incompetent system. Minchew also loves “the game of perception versus reality”. (Netflix, Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play)


9. Spy (2015)

If you are in the mood for light entertainment, check out Melissa McCarthy’s Spy about Susan Cooper, a CIA analyst who works behind the desk. When an agent is compromised, Cooper volunteers to be a spy. Take it from ex-CIA officer Lindsay Moran: “It's hilarious.” (Disney+, Prime Video, Apple TV, Netflix, Curzon, Microsoft, Chili, Sky Store, Paramount)

CLASSIC SPY MOVIES


10. Three Days of the Condor (1975)

Robert Redford stars as a CIA codebreaker who walks into his workplace to find that all of his coworkers have been murdered but are his CIA behind it or trying to help him? James Lawler, an expert on insider threats, WMDs, counterintelligence, and security, ranks it as his favorite spy movie. (YouTube, Netflix, Prime Video, Google Play, Apple TV)


11. North by Northwest (1959)

Darrell Blocker, a former CIA officer and expert on security, risk, and crisis management, said the classic Hitchcock movie North by Northwest is his all-time favorite Cold War spy movie. Cary Grant stars as NYC ad executive Roger O. Thornhill who finds himself pursued by ruthless spy Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) after Thornhill is mistaken for a government agent. He finds mysterious Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) along the way. (YouTube, Apple TV, Google Play, Prime Video, Sky Store, Rokuten, Chili)


12. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965)

Another superb movie based on a le Carré espionage thriller, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold stars Richard Burton and Claire Bloom: “The black and white photography was outstanding - very moody - perfect for the story. I read the novel when I was about 15,” ex-CIA officer James Lawler said. “That image of Burton as MI6 officer Alec Leamas dying on the Berlin Wall trying to save his lover and asset, Nan, haunts me still. And the treacheries and double-crosses were fascinating. This was the first time I was exposed to the concept of a double agent.” (Prime Video, NOW, YouTube, Google Play)

13. The Amateur (1982)

Timothy Patrick Gill Sr, a former CIA deputy chief and FBI senior officer with expertise in risk, insider threats, and cybersecurity, is all-in with Jon Savage’s The Amateur: “It paints a very interesting picture on the intricacies of the CIA and how sometimes our deep penetration measures into terrorist and organized crime worlds sometimes have unexpected consequences with unexpected blowback.” 

14. Ill Met By Moonlight, aka Night Ambush (1957) 

John R. Seeger, an ex-CIA division chief and expert on counterintelligence, counterterrorism, and insider threats, recommends Ill Met By Moonlight based on W. Stanley Moss’ book. ”It is a reasonable effort to dramatize the operation run by Patrick Fermor and Moss to kidnap a German general on Crete.” (YouTube, Google Play, Prime Video)

15. The Third Man (1949)

Seeger and his wife - also an ex-CIA officer - also rate The Third Man, shot on location in Vienna, Austria: “The movie plot (written by Graham Greene) captures life in a divided city right after the war. The black and white movie has a magnificent cast and portrays Cold War tensions and how they are reflected in the people forced to live in the City.” (Prime Video, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube)

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