Spy movies have an enduring appeal. With suspenseful intrigue, exotic locations, government conspiracies, and threats from foreign enemies, they’re endlessly captivating. The James Bond films, for example, comprise one of the most successful movie franchises in history, running since 1962.
While many spy films – like the Bond movies – are too fantastical to believe, dozens are dramatizations of things that really happened. To determine the best spy movies based on true events, 24/7 Tempo developed an index using average ratings on IMDb, an online movie database owned by Amazon, and a combination of audience scores and Tomatometer scores on Rotten Tomatoes, an online movie and TV review aggregator, as of April 2023, weighting all ratings equally. Cast credits are from IMDb. (Whether based on real events or total fantasies, these are the 30 best spy films of all time.)
Many of the films on this list are set during the Cold War, when espionage between the United States and the Soviet Union burgeoned. Some are based on books – memoirs, biographies, or investigative reports. The films cover such events as the Iran Contra affair, the assassination of JFK, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Munich Massacre at the 1972 Olympics, as well as several incidents of whistleblowers leaking information to the press about illegal government activity.
A few explore stories that have been refuted by the CIA, including the organization’s involvement in the crack epidemic of the ‘80s, while many others are based on events that are corroborated by declassified CIA documents. Although some events have been fictionalized, this range of films shows that truth is often more fascinating than fiction. (Read about 16 of the most outrageous operations in CIA history.)
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