In the real world, spying is often nothing more than clandestine meetings, paperwork, and the secret exchange of information. In the world of film, however, spy games are made out to be far more thrilling, often filled with backstabbing, chase scenes, and white knuckle moments of tension.
The best spy films are the ones that remain firmly rooted in the real world, examining just how intense and complicated international espionage can be. Of course, these films tend to stretch the truth, but there are still a few that remain firmly rooted in reality, telling their stories through a historical lens. These are the 10 best spy movies of all time.
10 No Way Out
No Way Out stars Kevin Costner, Sean Young, and Gene Hackman in a twisty spy thriller that perfectly blends romance and espionage. Tom Farrell (played by Costner) is a naval lieutenant who is put in charge of investigating the murder of his commanding officer's romantic partner, with whom Farrel also had a relationship.
When the truth is discovered, Farrell becomes a suspect, and the entire plot twists and turns in ways that are completely unexpected. No Way Out remains one of the most tightly plotted spy thrillers ever made and its absolutely breathtaking twist ending will leave any viewer totally satisfied.
9 Three Days of the Condor
Robert Redford may just be one of the most compelling and popular leading men in Hollywood, even to this day with his charismatic performance in The Old Man and the Gun. Of course, Redford was really in his heyday back in the '70s, appearing in classic films like the true political story All the President's Men and the spy thriller Three Days of the Condor.
The latter film, still considered one of the best in the spy genre, stars Redford as CIA codebreaker Joseph Turner, who comes into work one day only to find all of his coworkers murdered. As it turns out, the CIA was in on it and now Turner must find out why while being tailed by a ruthless hitman played by Max von Sydow.
8 Enemy of the State
We might take the idea that we are constantly being surveilled as just another part of everyday life in 2019, but back when Enemy of the State came out in 1998, the idea that you could be seen and heard anywhere, even in your home, was a novel one, and it was brought to electrifying life by director Tony Scott.
Will Smith stars as Robert Clayton Dean, a lawyer who is unwittingly caught up in a massive political scandal involving a murder ordered by a sitting senator when a video of the murder makes its way into his hands. With the help of former intelligence agent Brill (played with energetic and paranoid fervor by Gene Hackman), Clayton must find a way to clear his name and reveal the truth.
7 Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Some spy movies are packed with action in order to hold together a shaky plot that muddles ideas of selling secrets, planning attacks or plotting a hostile takeover. The beauty of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, based on the John le Carré novel of the same name, is that it takes its time in telling its tale of espionage, subterfuge, and international relations, letting the details drip out slowly before the final reveal.
Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, a former MI6 agent that has been forced into retirement. However, after the revelation that the Russians have a spy inside of MI6, Smiley is pulled back into the fold and forced to ferret out the single traitor lurking in the high ranks of the British intelligence agency.
6 The Bourne Identity
Possibly one of the most famous spy films of the last 20 years, The Bourne Identity based on the novel by Robert Ludlum, follows the story of Jason Bourne (played in four films by Matt Damon), a former black ops agent with a bad case of amnesia. When his superiors discover that he is alive, they send a team of agents to take him out for good.
While it was followed by four sequels (with one of them starring Jeremy Renner in place of Damon, in a different role), the first Bourne film remains the best one, featuring kinetic, world hopping action and a sense of momentum that most other spy films wish they could achieve.
5 The Lives of Others
While spy films are generally based in the real world, there is often a lot of fictionalizing and story building in order to make the more mundane aspects of spying more exciting. The Lives of Others, a film based on true events that took place in East Germany during the Cold War, pulls no such tricks, allowing the truth of history to serve as its backdrop.
The film finds a Stasi officer tasked with surveilling an East German playwright. However, the Stasi officer quickly becomes entwined in the playwright's life and begins to question his duties. The film is a powerfully accurate portrayal of life before the fall of the Berlin Wall and received the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2006.
4 Mission: Impossible
The three most recent Mission: Impossible films may stand as some of the best action and espionage films ever made, but it's the original that set the tone and the rhythm of the films that would follow it. This is where Tom Cruise got his start as IMF agent Ethan Hunt, a role he has now played for over 20 years.
The first Mission: Impossible, directed by Brian de Palma, set a new standard for spy films and originated the structure that almost all M:I films would follow afterward. Its crowning achievement is its hair raising heist scene, which continually raises the stakes of the agents getting caught and created one of the most famous scenes in film history: Ethan Hunt dangling precariously inches above the pressure sensitive floor of a secure room.
3 North by Northwest
Alfred Hitchcock is known as one of the old Hollywood masters of suspense. So much so, that his films have served as a major influence in contemporary moviemaking. One of his most influential and highly regarded films is North by Northwest, a thrilling adventure involving espionage, mistaken identity, and murder.
Cary Grant, in one of his most memorable roles ever, stars as a man who is confused for a secret agent and drawn into a world of spies, villains, and international intrigue. The film is known for its most famous scene, involving Cary Grant running from a crop dusting plane that is trying to take him out.
Munich may not be one of Steven Spielberg's most often remembered films, but it still stands as one of his best. If anything, it shows off just how adept Spielberg is at staging a tense scene using mainly sound design and cinematography. What makes the film even more interesting is its basis in history.
After the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, a Mossad agent is dispatched to take out 11 members of the Palestinian group who carried out the attack. The film stars Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, and Ciarán Hinds, and beyond providing some truly thrilling and tense moments, it also takes the time to ask difficult questions about the morality of the agents' mission.
1 Dr. No
Could any list of spy films really be complete without the inclusion of James Bond? While there have been plenty of great films in the Bond series (Goldfinger among the classics, Skyfall among the newer batch), the original James Bond film, 1962's Dr. No is the one that stands out as the best.
Complete with iconic imagery, a classic Bond villain, and plenty of action, Dr. No set the standard for all of the Bond films to come after it. The Jamaican setting also provides some gorgeous scenery and while he may not have his famous spy gadgets, Bond gets by on his wits, strength, and charm alone. This one is essential for any spy film enthusiast.