When you first get a security clearance, the best part of life is when someone asks, “How was your day?” and you get to respond, “I’d tell you but I’d have to kill you.” (This gets old quickly, but everyone has done it at some point.) It doesn’t matter if you’re a janitor or a cybersecurity specialist, a clearance means your job matters a bit more than most. You have a secret and know the secrets of others, and if you blab too much, lives might be put at risk. That’s an awesome responsibility and makes you feel like a secret agent. But of course janitors, cybersecurity specialists, and others aren’t secret agents. We have to get our kicks vicariously. Here are five great spy movies to help you do just that.
Charlie Wilson’s War
The best part about this movie is what isn’t there. Gust Avrakotos, played brilliantly by Philip Seymour Hoffman, doesn’t have a midair fight scene on the wing of a harrier jet before tossing a one-liner and killing the villain with an AMRAAM missile. Rather, he spends most of the film advising a congressman on how to wage a proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and fighting the intelligence bureaucracy at home. The movie is great, in other words, because it’s real, but it also deserves a nod for depicting the intelligence community as a group of smart, dedicated professionals. And it has one of the best exchanges in cinematic history—the “I am an American spy” scene.
The Bourne Identity
Nobody would describe the Bourne movies as pro-American propaganda. (Or even as making much sense, really. No matter how you explain it, implanting beneath your skin a laser with a Swiss bank account number is a pretty idiotic plan.) But for a super soldier movie, it’s a blast—Captain America without the shield or ridiculous costume. The plot has something to do with a conspiracy within the CIA to kill master-spy-slash-assassins who were once part of a secret project called TREADSTONE (which is a pretty good codename for a project). The film is mostly memorable for a great car chase scene involving a Mini Cooper, and a lot of fights that are filmed with shaky cameras. If you assume that almost nothing that the government does makes sense, then this film is aces.
The film is the opposite of Charlie Wilson’s War. Harry Tasker, played brilliantly by Arnold Schwarzenegger, has a midair fight scene on the wing of a harrier jet before tossing a one-liner and killing a villain with an AMRAAM missile. This is not a thinking man’s spy film, in other words; it’s James Bond as directed by James Cameron, the best action director in the business. If we’re living the lives of spies vicariously through film, True Lies is probably the one we want most to live. (The film also has that one scene with Jamie Lee Curtis. You know which one I’m talking about.)
This entire list could be filled with Bond flicks. I chose Skyfall because: 1. It’s the most recent, and 2. It’s really great. When Daniel Craig was chosen to be the new James Bond, most right-thinking people were concerned. Either Bond was about to get a “gritty” reboot, making the series indistinguishable from pretty much every other spy film out there, or there was a tragic miscast in the making. (“That guy wouldn’t order a vodka martini or wear a tuxedo!”) It turned out that Casino Royale was a lot of fun (read the book if you haven’t—it’s a pulp masterpiece and the novel that introduced the world to 007), and while Quantum of Solace was utterly forgettable (though surprisingly prescient), Skyfall masterfully delivered a reason for the Bond swagger we all love. It even directly acknowledged the precursor movies in the most glorious way possible. (If you didn’t get chills when the Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger appeared on screen, you’re probably ineligible for a clearance, anyway.) Looking forward to Spectre, the next film in the series, we have a 007 who could plausibly beat someone to death with a lead pipe before sweeping away a beautiful woman for an evening of martinis and romance. And isn’t that what all of us really want?
Tom Cruise is a strange duck, no arguments here, but the man earns his paycheck in pretty much every film of the Mission: Impossible franchise. Again, because it’s just a movie, you can’t really fault M:I for its flights of fancy. (Cyber warfare is never going to be taken seriously because it’ll never be able to compete with what computers can do in the movies.) The first film of the series is great if only for the distinct, palpable post-Cold-War sense of loss. The truth is that all of us miss the Soviet menace. Sure, nuclear Armageddon would be a terrible thing, but it was nice to know who the bad guys were. Mission: Impossible hit theaters in 1996—a time when there were no bad guys left and the American military was unstoppable. (We even defeated an alien invasion the same year.) The villain, instead, came from within, because when you’re the best spy agency in the best country in the world, the only worthy opponent you can count on is yourself. (Yes, I am outraged that an icon of American spy fiction was tarnished for a popcorn franchise, but what can you do?) But let’s face it: the movie was great because explosive bubble gum was used to destroy a helicopter that was flying in a railroad tunnel while the Mission: Impossible theme blared. What more could you ask for?
(I know, I know—what about North by Northwest or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy? What about The Hunt for Red October? It’s your turn. Take to the comments section and tell me all the great movies I missed.)