Real-Life Spies Rate Their All-Time Favorite Spy Movies 

Which spy movies do real-life spies watch when they’re off the clock?

SPYSCAPE asked ex-intelligence officers from the CIA, Mossad, and more to discover what the real pros stream. You won’t believe the gems we’ve uncovered!


The Amateur

The Amateur (1981)

Plot: CIA agent Charles Heller (John Savage) hunts down the terrorists who killed his wife in Germany even though he’s a code specialist with no combat expertise.

Real-Life Spies Rate Their All-Time Favorite Spy Movies 

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Which spy movies do real-life spies watch when they’re off the clock?

SPYSCAPE asked ex-intelligence officers from the CIA, Mossad, and more to discover what the real pros stream. You won’t believe the gems we’ve uncovered!


The Amateur

The Amateur (1981)

Plot: CIA agent Charles Heller (John Savage) hunts down the terrorists who killed his wife in Germany even though he’s a code specialist with no combat expertise.

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: “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,” Timothy Patrick Gill Sr, an ex-FBI senior officer and CIA deputy chief, told SPYSCAPE.

The Departed (2006)

Plot: Undercover cop Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) infiltrates an organization led by gangland chief Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson).

SPYSCAPE Review: “Leonardo DiCaprio captured the emotional impact of working undercover. While out there, you truly are on a high wire without a net. It’s as exciting as it gets yet sometimes it’s tough sorting out the good guys from the bad guys,” said Bob Hamer, an ex-FBI undercover operative.

The Day of the Jackal

The Day of the Jackal (1973)

Plot: A French paramilitary group intent on killing President Charles de Gaulle (Adrien Cayla-Legrand) hires a hitman known as ‘The Jackal’ (Edward Fox).

SPYSCAPE Review: “For a real experience, I like the original Day of the Jackal (good tradecraft),” said Jeff Miller, a former US Special Forces officer who worked in intelligence. Miller also rates Ronin.


Ronin (1998)

Plot: Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) puts together a team of experts including Sam (Robert De Niro), an ex-intelligence officer, to steal a mysterious briefcase.

“While an undercover operation is never this violent and the premise is absurd, the movie portrays the ambiguity that I have found consistent with the trade,” said J.R. Seeger, ex-CIA division chief of operations. 

The Little Drummer Girl (1984)

Plot: An Israeli agent (Klaus Kinski) uses a pro-Palestinian American actress (Diane Keaton) as a spy to catch a terrorist bomber.

SPYSCAPE Review: “
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,” said ex-CIA intelligence service officer Marc Polymeropoulos.

The Lives of Others (2006) 

The Lives of Others (2006) 

Plot: Stasi officer Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) spies on a playwright (Sebastian Koch) and his lover, becoming unexpectedly sympathetic to the couple.

SPYSCAPE Review: “Hands down The Lives of Others. It is an excellent portrait of the spying that went on inside East Germany,” said Jack Barsky, a former KGB agent born in East Germany who was a sleeper agent in the US during the Cold War.

Dr. No (1962)

Plot: 007 (Sean Connery) battles a scientific genius (Joseph Wiseman) bent on destroying the US space program. 

“Bond's first film. This is a breakthrough,” former Mossad Lt. Colonel Avner Avraham told SPYSCAPE. “He actually determined for most people in the world what the world of espionage looks like - while the world of espionage is so different from Bond movies! For the first time Bond introduces himself: ‘Bond, James Bond’ - and it has become a famous expression.”

The Package with Gene Hackman

The Package (1989)

Plot: An Army Sgt. (Gene Hackman) must shepherd a detainee, Thomas Boyette (Tommy Lee Jones), from Europe to the US but he goes missing.

: “I was in Det A (Detachment A), it had some nostalgic tendrils,” said Special Forces veteran Nick Brokhausen. 

Spy Game (2001)

Plot: CIA operative Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) learns China arrested his protégé Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) for espionage and sets out to free him.

SPYSCAPE Review: “The story shows how cruel the world of spying can be,” said Ulrich Larsen, an ex-mole in North Korea. “The way Pitt and Redford act is so real. And, in the end, it’s a person trying to save the life of a friend and colleagues. The main thing here is never to trust other people than yourself.”

Syriana (2005)

Plot: Veteran CIA agent Bob Barnes (George Clooney) uncovers an assassination plot as various storylines unfold amid the backdrop of the oil industry. Matt Damon also stars.

SPYSCAPE Review: “It shows how espionage is an integral component of geopolitical systems with myriad micro and macro ripple effects,” said Lindsay Moran, an ex-CIA operations officer. Moran also highly rates The Good Shepherd, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Argo.


A Call to Spy

A Call to Spy (2019)

Plot: At the dawn of World War II, British PM Winston Churchill orders his new spy agency to train women for covert operations to help undermine the Nazis in France.

“They responded to Winston Churchill’s call to ‘set Europe ablaze,’” said Michelle Rigby Assad, an ex-CIA undercover officer. “It was WWII which showed once and for all, how women have a depth and breadth of skills which are sorely needed in espionage.”

Red Joan (2018)

Plot: The British Secret Service arrest widow Joan Stanley for leaking details on the atomic bomb to the Soviet government. Starring Judi Dench.

SPYSCAPE Review: “It offers a more realistic take on espionage than a lot of the flashier spy thrillers we see from Hollywood,” said Christina Hillsberg, an ex-CIA intelligence analyst. “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… Where the film succeeds is in showing how powerful women can be - not just in espionage films, but in real life when the stakes are much higher.”

The death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin (2017) 

Plot: Dictator Joseph Stalin dies in 1953 and his cronies are in a power struggle to become the next Soviet leader, including the sadistic secret police chief.

SPYSCAPE Review: “Digging deep into long-forgotten characters of history for its source material, The Death Of Stalin has darkly comedic sensibilities and a solid cast that will likely be a hit with any audience who enjoys comedies with a historic twist,” said Emily Crose, a former CIA, NSA, and US Army Intelligence & Security Command infosec specialist. Crose also rates Atomic Blonde for the sheer fun of it. 

Argo with Ben Affleck

Argo (2012)

Plot: CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Afflick) rescues American hostages in Iran in 1979 by posing as a Hollywood producer scouting locations.

SPYSCAPE Review: “In addition to being an excellent movie, 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,” said ex-CIA undercover officer Peter Warmka. Ex-US Defense Intelligence Agency clandestine officer Shawnee Delaney said Argo illustrates the complexity of international espionage: “Many operations are not easy to engineer - be it initial contact, figuring out how to develop a relationship with someone you may have nothing in common with, or even how to communicate with assets.”

A Most Wanted Man

A Most Wanted Man (2014)

Plot: A German agent (Philip Seymour Hoffman) lays a trap for a well-regarded Muslim scholar suspected of financing terrorists.

“My favorite contemporary spy film is A Most Wanted Man starring Philip Seymour Hoffman because of the boat scene whereby his character convinces a reluctant spy to stay in the game. [It] is the closest to depicting how an operations officer - a.k.a. case officer, a.k.a. operative - handles an asset,” said Darrell Blocker, a 28-year veteran of the CIA’s Clandestine Service, once considered by President Biden to head the Agency. Doug Patteson, an ex-CIA operations officer, also rates A Most Wanted Man: “It does a great job of capturing the moral ambiguity of espionage.”

Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Plot: In the post-9/11 world, Osama bin Laden is the most-wanted man on the planet and a female operative (Jessica Chastain) proves instrumental in locating him.

: Janosh Neumann, an ex-Russian Federal Security Services counterintelligence officer, rates Zero Dark 30 for its portrayal of determination as well as bureaucracy. He also recommends Sicario (2015) because it illustrates how breaking the law is sometimes necessary.

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Plot: The USSR shoots down US pilot Francis Gary Powers in a U-2 spy plane. He survives but his only hope for release is lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks), recruited by a CIA operative to negotiate a prisoner swap. 

SPYSCAPE Review: Powers’ son, Francis Gary Powers Jr., was a consultant on Bridge of Spies, one of the most talked-about events of the Cold War, and in his opinion films don’t get any better than a story directed by Stephen Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Plot: A general who knows the identity of a Soviet spy in MI6 dies before revealing his secret, leaving MI6's George Smiley (Gary Oldman) to find the mole.

SPYSCAPE Review:Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy portrays the complexities of real human interaction set against realistic geopolitical tension. And it underscores something I would later learn in my professional life. The insider is the worst threat of all,” said Bob Gourley, an ex-Defense Intelligence Agency chief technology officer.


You’ll want to bookmark SPYSCAPE’s Cold War movies favorites - selected by real-life spies - if you haven’t already. In addition to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, intelligence officers repeatedly mentioned one other Cold War favorite.

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

Plot: CIA codebreaker Joe Turner (Robert Redford) suspects the Agency of murdering his colleagues and sets out to prove it - if he can stay alive.

SPYSCAPE Review: Ex-CIA Senior Officer James Lawler calls it his ‘favorite spy movie’ while Intelligence analyst and security consultant Alvin Acain considers it a “well-crafted film with good pacing and plot twists” with solid performances by Faye Dunaway, Robert Redford, and Max von Sydow.

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