A-List: Best Modern Spy Movies

By J. Don Birnam

July 28, 2016

I bet Gary Oldman is an actual real spy.

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Jason Bourne is back in theaters and the current movie mania with agents, the CIA, and espionage, continues. God help us. Yeah, the Jason Bourne movies, especially when helmed by Paul Greengrass are well made and highly entertaining. But it’s not lost on you, surely, that even Robert Ludlum’s spy has the same initials as Ian Fleming’s. So to say there is a glut of movies of this genre is perhaps an undercover understatement.

And as I was preparing to make the list of best spy movies ever I was quickly crushed under a barrage of bullets and fake passports - it would be nearly impossible to distill the wheat from the chaff. Three Days of the Condor? Notorious? Or all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films? Watching four chase scenes across a multitude of cities in the new Bourne movie stressed me out enough.

So the rule for this column will be thus: the movie has to be a 21st Century movie, and it can’t be a Bourne or a James Bond film. Let’s think a bit outside the box of that Terrible Century and look at the best the latest generation of snoop flicks has to offer.

If you’re the Spy Who Loved, or Hated Me, tweet me about it here. Before I get there, though, some honorable and dishonorable mentions. Bridge of Spies is a superb movie, and it makes a top list of anything any day. Except is it really about spies? It’s more like undercover diplomats, isn’t it? So I left it off for that reason. And 2012 Best Picture winner Argo is one of the worst, in my opinion, in a long time. I even said so in my latest analysis of the Best Picture slates! So while, yes, Affleck and gang are definitely infiltrators on a secret mission, you won’t ever see me list this movie high when other options abound.

Oh, and J. Edgar is pretty bad too, sorry Clint.


5. The Good Shepherd (2006)

This movie was first panned by critics but I expect it may get a second look years down the line. Directed by no other than Robert De Niro, who also stars along with - who else!! - Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie, the movie is basically about the rise of the CIA from the small days as a Yale secret society around the elder Bushes.

Set against the backdrop of Nazism, World War II, and the rise of the Soviet Union, the movie poses the question that more hooky spy movies ask today: what price would you pay to protect your country? To save yourself in the eyes of a threat? The movie is brutal in its answers: anything.

It shines, too, because it helped Damon polish his acting as the thoughtful, meticulous, ruthless spook. Calculating, meticulous, and unshakably cold to a fault, Damon is not afraid to betray love, family, and fatherhood for the ultimate goal he’s convinced himself is for the greater good.

A movie like The Good Shepherd, in many ways like many Bourne movies, is almost like a horror movie - it’s a scary concept to have a human act so much like a machine, so devoid of emotion and so devoted to emotive ideas. Spies in a film like this one are more than just sexy vixens trapezing around Europe and conquering the girl. They’re lean, mean killing machines.

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