From Atomic Blonde to Three Days of the Condor, Real Spies Reveal Their Favorite Cold War Movies

Which espionage movies do real spies want to watch? We found out!

SPYSCAPE went straight to the top, asking 25 intelligence pros and SPYEX experts - many trained by the CIA, FBI, DIA, Mossad, and Russia - to reveal their favorite Cold War movies for our exclusive countdown. 


Atomic Blonde


17. Atomic Blonde (2017)

Atomic Blonde: MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton is in Berlin to retrieve a top-secret list of agents and keep an eye out for a KGB-MI6 double agent causing headaches for Britain.

SPYSCAPE Review: “My favorite spy movie is, without a doubt, Atomic Blonde,” said Emily Crose, a former CIA, NSA, and US Army Intelligence & Security Command infosec specialist. “I have as much respect for the depth of realism many other movies have with respect to tradecraft, but… I'm selecting a movie that is just plain fun to watch.” 

From Atomic Blonde to Three Days of the Condor, Real Spies Reveal Their Favorite Cold War Movies

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Which espionage movies do real spies want to watch? We found out!

SPYSCAPE went straight to the top, asking 25 intelligence pros and SPYEX experts - many trained by the CIA, FBI, DIA, Mossad, and Russia - to reveal their favorite Cold War movies for our exclusive countdown. 


Atomic Blonde


17. Atomic Blonde (2017)

Atomic Blonde: MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton is in Berlin to retrieve a top-secret list of agents and keep an eye out for a KGB-MI6 double agent causing headaches for Britain.

SPYSCAPE Review: “My favorite spy movie is, without a doubt, Atomic Blonde,” said Emily Crose, a former CIA, NSA, and US Army Intelligence & Security Command infosec specialist. “I have as much respect for the depth of realism many other movies have with respect to tradecraft, but… I'm selecting a movie that is just plain fun to watch.” 

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Torn Curtain


16. Torn Curtain (1966)

Torn Curtain: Physicist (Paul Newman) defects to East Germany to work with the Soviets. His fiancée (Julie Andrews) follows him behind the Iron Curtain.

SPYSCAPE Review: “First of all, Newman is playing it so damn good. And the story is so realistic. I saw the movie for the first time around 1984, and I think I’ve seen it twice a year for the last 10 years,” said Ulrich Larsen, a former mole who worked undercover in North Korea.


15. Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)

Charlie Wilson’s War: US Rep. Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), socialite (Julia Roberts), and CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) plot to fund Afghan fighters to defeat the Soviet Union and end the Cold War.

SPYSCAPE Review: “It has many problems in terms of real life and real history, but Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the best Chief of Station ever,” said Alex Finley, an ex-CIA officer and expert on Russian intelligence.

Jason Bourne franchise

14. The Bourne franchise (2002 - )

The Bourne Franchise: On the run from CIA hit squads, Jason Bourne tries to uncover hidden truths about his past. The movies are a modern take on Robert Ludlum's Cold War-era novels, with Bourne still struggling with self-discovery.

SPYSCAPE Review:
“Shows what happens when you are caught up in someone else’s complete falsehood - ‘expendable’ being the catchphrase all too often used to cover inept bureaucrats,” said ex Special Forces veteran Nick Brokhausen. He rates Three Days of the Condor for the same reason.

Dead Season


13. Dead Season (1968)

Dead Season: A Soviet spy discovers a former German war criminal is developing a deadly chemical gas tested on WWII POWs.

SPYSCAPE Review: Janosh Neumann, an ex-Russian Federal Security Services (FSB) counterintelligence officer, ranks Dead Season among the best Russian movies along with the Soviet Cold War film The Secret Agent's Blunder (1968), a psychological thriller about a KGB officer (Mikhail Nozhkin). 



12. Fail Safe (1964)

Fail Safe: US bomber pilots are mistakenly given a nuclear attack order and the US president (Henry Fonda) must scramble before bombs are dropped on Moscow.

SPYSCAPE Review: “The dialogue-heavy scenes were masterfully performed by Henry Fonda as the president and Larry Hagman his translator. As a kid growing up in Hawaii during the Cold War, I remember clearly the ‘duck-and-cover’ drills in school, monthly air-raid siren tests, fallout shelters, and watching the developments in Cuba on television, as well as surface testing of thermonuclear devices in the Pacific that lit up the evening sky over Honolulu,” said intelligence analyst and SPYEX consultant Alvin Acain.


The Spy Who Loved MS


11. The Spy Who Loved Me (1997)

The Spy Who Loved Me: 007 (Roger Moore) plots to defeat a shipping magnate threatening to destroy New York City with nuclear weapons.

SPYSCAPE Review: “During the Cold War, this film proves that when there is a common enemy to the East and the West, they can be friends,” former Mossad Lt. Colonel Avner Avraham told SPYSCAPE. “The romantic ending scene between Bond and the Russian agent in a small submarine - while the intelligence chiefs on both sides look at them - is proof that love wins and world peace is realistic.”


The Manchurian Candidate


10. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

The Manchurian Candidate: A platoon of US soldiers is captured and brainwashed near the end of the Korean War. Back home, the platoon commander (Frank Sinatra) is tormented by nightmares as a deadly plot unfolds. 

SPYSCAPE Review: Bob Hamer, an ex-FBI undercover operative, has The Manchurian Candidate (1962) at the top of his list. Case closed.

13 Days


9. Thirteen Days (2001)

Thirteen Days - For 13 days in October 1962, the world stood on the brink of nuclear war amid the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kevin Costner and Bruce Greenwood star.

SPYSCAPE Review: “It gives us a sense of how close we came to make MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) a reality. It also is a great example of how a group of leaders grapples with the biggest challenge in their lives without panicking. This is something sorely missing in the Western World today,” said Jack Barsky, a former KGB sleeper agent in New York during the Cold War.


8. The Good Shepherd (2006)

The Good Shepherd: Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) finds his calling at the US Office of Strategic Services and later as a founder of the CIA. But duty comes with a price.

SPYSCAPE Review: “It captures the inherent loneliness and alienation of being an intelligence officer, as well as the toll it takes on personal and familial relationships,” said Lindsay Moran, an ex-CIA operations officer. 



7. Bridge of Spies (2015)

Bridge of Spies: The Soviet Union shoots down a U-2 spy plane flown by US pilot Francis Gary Powers and sentences him to prison. Powers' only hope is lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks), recruited by a CIA operative to negotiate a prisoner swap. 

SPYSCAPE Review:
“As a Spielberg-Hanks movie, it doesn’t get any better than that!” said Francis Gary Powers Jr., whose father was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960.
 

The Third Man with Orson Wells


6. The Third Man (1949)

The Third Man: Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in postwar Vienna to visit his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) and finds him dead. He soon develops a conspiracy theory involving a ‘third man’ who killed him.

SPYSCAPE Review:
“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” said John R. Seeger, a former CIA Senior Intelligence Service officer. Seeger also rates The Ipcress File (1965) starring the legendary Michael Caine.


North by Northwest


5. North by Northwest (1959) 

North by Northwest: A New York advertising executive (Cary Grant) is mistaken for a government agent and pursued by a spy (James Mason). He meets mysterious Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) along the way.

SPYSCAPE Review: “My favorite Cold War movie is North by Northwest because Hitchcock was a genius,” said Darrell Blocker, a 28-year veteran of the CIA’s Clandestine Service, once considered by President Biden to head the Agency.

4. The Hunt for Red October

The Hunt for Red October: Soviet submarine captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) abandons his orders and heads for the US east coast.

SPYSCAPE Review:
​​Rosanna Minchew, ex-CIA directorate of operations, is one of three ex-intelligence officers who put the film at the top of their list. Minchew likes the unfolding game of perception vs. reality: “Ramius (Sean Connery) defects in a way that makes it look like he’s a hero to his men, like he went down with his ship (submarine in this case). In fact, he saved his ship (for the Americans) and sunk a Soviet sub in hot pursuit.” Timothy Patrick Gill Sr, an ex-FBI senior officer and CIA deputy chief, rates the movie for highlighting multiple source intelligence collection and motivations/behaviors of adversaries and potential defectors.


The Spy Who Came in From the Cold with Richard Burton


3. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold: British spy Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) is ready to retire but takes on one last undercover assignment in East Germany to get intel about captured colleagues.

SPYSCAPE Review: Five ex-spies put John le Carré’s thriller at the top of their list including Shawnee Delaney, an ex-US Defense Intelligence Agency clandestine officer. “I like the take on spreading disinformation, which is still relevant today, and how viewers can see that espionage is a lonely game.” Kenneth Dekleva, a former Department of State psychiatrist and medical officer, described the film as ‘the very best’: “It captures the mood, moral strains, and psychological aspects of Cold War espionage.”

Three Days of the Condor


2. Three Days of the Condor (1975)

Three Days of the Condor: 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: No less than six intelligence officers made the movie their top pick. “Three Days of the Condor paints a very interesting picture on CIA’s involvement in covert influence operations and making every effort to compartmentalize,” said Timothy Patrick Gill Sr, an ex-FBI senior officer and CIA deputy chief.
 


1. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011 movie, and the 1979 BBC series)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: A general who knows the identity of a Soviet spy in MI6 dies before revealing his secret so it is up to MI6’s George Smiley (Gary Oldman) to find the mole.

SPYSCAPE Review: An incredible 12 of the 25 intelligence officers polled ranked John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - either the BBC 1979 series or the 2011 film - as a favorite, although not everyone was impressed. (Darrell Blocker enjoyed the book but thought the movie was ‘terrible’.) Nevertheless, le Carré’s Cold War classic hit a nerve with his 1974 novel and film/tv adaptations.

“He writes literature which is rarely seen in this genre,” said Barry Broman, who met le Carré in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in the mid-1970s at the American Embassy when the author was researching The Honourable Schoolboy.

We played darts in the small, private all-male club in Phnom Penh, the Chamber of Commerce of Kampuchea, otherwise known as the COCK club,’ said Broman. “Unbeknownst to John, the room included American intelligence officers and American, Australian, and possibly Soviet agents. A good time was had by all.”

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