Tag Archives: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Our Favorite Spy Films

Last Friday the spy movie Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit came out. With it’s January release date, it seemed like it wasn’t going to be an earth shattering piece of film. And the verdict on rottentomatoes seems to confirm this: “It doesn’t reinvent the action-thriller wheel, but Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit offers a sleek, reasonably diverting reboot for a long-dormant franchise.” With a 60%, it’s just passable as a movie to see.

But it got us thinking about…what are the best spy films? And what does best mean? By critical consensus or by box office receipts? We decided to sort of mix the two criteria with our own subjective favorites.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
The Párizsi Udvar in Budapest, the setting for the opening scene that sets the plot in motion.

Some critics and viewers complained that this film is slow. The pace is better described as deliberate. Real spycraft is a gradual, steady game of either spinning a web of deception or cornering your opponent. In the case of le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it’s a superbly crafted mole hunt for the traitor inside “the Circus” a.k.a. MI6. Rather than explosive actions and personalities, this movie was about Gary Oldman’s quiet, resourceful and cunning George Smiley using deduction and reason, instead of gadgets and car chases, to defeat the enemy.  Shrouded in muted, drab colors and set in a gray early 1970s London, the film’s look evokes the moral ambiguity of espionage as personnel and assets are thrown out once their use is gone. Really a great recent spy film—and excellent book.

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

The Hunt for Red October
The Red October is the name of the Soviet Typhoon-class submarine that has gone missing. Red October is an allusion to the Bolshevik Revolution that took place in October 1917.

This movie’s actually more of an action/thriller than spy film, but since its central character is Jack Ryan, a CIA analyst, we consider it an espionage movie. The plot concerns a Lithuanian naval captain, played by Sean Connery, who’s dissatisfied with the U.S.S.R. and decides to defect to the Americans. When he attempts to do so, the entire Soviet navy is sent after him while the U.S. navy—believing that this renegade Soviet commander is actually a madman about to start a nuclear war—also hunt him. Only Jack Ryan, played by Alec Baldwin before he got into comedy, believes that Captain Marko Ramius is defecting. The film has great characters, settings, military and technological aspects, and stands up well to the test of time. Nothing about it seems dated.

Body of Lies (2008)

An underrated spy thriller, Body of Lies may at times be a little hard to follow, but it’s easily one of the best movies about post-9/11 espionage and al-Qaeda.  Leonardo DiCaprio is field agent Roger Ferris who jumps between the U.S., Iraq and Jordan trying to ensnare a terrorist leader named Al-Saleem. Russell Crowe plays his boss who routinely messes up Ferris’s field operations by running his own operations without informing his subordinate. British actor Mark Strong is the head of Jordan’s intelligence group, G.I.D., in a great performance that highlights the complexities of spycraft in the Middle East. It’s a dense, but smart plot that shows the complex nature of society and culture in Arab countries.

Goldfinger (1964)

Goldfinger introduced the concept of the Bond car, equipped with all sorts of weapons and gadgetry.

Critics and the cast may like From Russia with Love the most out of the early Bonds, Goldfinger is, however, the quintessential 007 movie. Hardly a realistic spy film, this Connery flick laid out the formula: it had the quirky gadgets, the pre-credit action sequence, the song played over the opening credits, uniformed henchmen, and so much more that all subsequent Bonds would borrow from.

North by Northwest (1959)

Before Bond hit the big screen, Hitchcock rolled out this impressive Cold War spy thriller. In probably the worst case of mistaken identity, Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill is mistaken for a government agent by a group of foreign spies. It’s got some amazing scenes: Thornhill running through an open field as a plane tries to run him down,  a chase across Mount Rushmore, and an iconic dramatic score to underpin it all. Eva Marie Saint is also excellent as the semi-femme fatale.

North by Northwest
After Cary Grant evades a chasing plane, it crashes into an oil tanker. Just because the film’s from 1959 doesn’t mean it can’t have over-the-top explosions like modern films.

Those are our choices, but it’s by no means definitive. There were a lot that we didn’t include for reasons of time. To name a few that we also love: Casino Royale, Three Days of the Condor, Eye of the Needle, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Munich, The Quiet American. We suggest you see them all.

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