If you think about it, the fact that we even know spies exist is probably a problem for every nation’s security. Fortunately we have countless spy movies, which entertain audiences worldwide and give the distinct and probably entirely inaccurate impression that their whole job involves seduces hot people, high speed car chases and deactivating nuclear weapons on day-to-day basis.
The truth is probably a lot more mundane than films like Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation would have you believe, but also probably a lot more serious and frightening. Give us the movies any day, and give them to us now, as fast as possible, online, and at the click of a button. This week, Now Streaming highlights the five best spy movies currently available for the cost of a subscription fee, from services across the web. (However, for whatever reason the pickings on most services are pretty slim when it comes to the spy genre; this week’s entries are almost exclusively from Netflix.)
Check Out: Now Streaming: The Best Video Game Movies
So get your decoder rings, fire up your x-ray specs and take a gander at the best spy movies currently available. We’ve got erudite dramas, wacko history and Hollywood blockbusters galore.
Confessions of the Dangerous Mind (Netflix / Amazon Prime)
George Clooney, as a director, is best known for his serious and nostalgic films about 20th century American history. But before Good Night and Good Luck and The Monuments Men, Clooney made his behind the camera debut with a wholly untrustworthy biopic about TV producer Chuck Barris. In the 1960s and 1970s, Barris produced a string of enormously popular and utterly tawdry game shows, including The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show. At the same time, Barris claims, he also worked as a hitman for the CIA. (The CIA denies this, but then of course they would, wouldn’t they?)
Written by acclaimed bizarro screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich), Confessions of a Dangerous Mind lives up to its title. It never questions Barris’s suspicious claims, but never shies away from depicting just how absurd they are. Sam Rockwell’s performance is unhinged, and unhealthy, and absolutely captivating. It’s an atypical and energetic film from Clooney, who would swiftly mellow out a bit, but it’s clear that while making Confessions he felt he had something to prove, and he proved it: this is a unique take on the Cold War spy genre, and one deserving of a wider audience. Check it out.
Mission: Impossible (Netflix)
Compared to every other Mission: Impossible movie – good and bad alike – the first entry in the franchise feels almost slight, even with its bravura helicopter vs. bullet train climax. Brian De Palma was brought on board to spearhead the first theatrical adaptation of the hit 1960s TV series about an “Impossible Mission Force,” and proceeded to pull out all the stops, crafting a twisty tale of espionage, deception and post-Berlin Wall anxieties.
Tom Cruise leads an impressive cast on a mission to avenge his original, brutally slaughtered team of spies, which forces them to switch sides, break into the CIA and question every loyalty. The plot was considered convoluted when Mission: Impossible first came out, but although it’s unnecessarily elaborate the story isn’t so much confusing as elaborate. And considering how big and brassy the series would eventually become, watching the original – with its moody aesthetics and a centerpiece heist that relies on silence, not explosions – is a refreshing treat.
Three Days of the Condor (Netflix)
One of the great spy thrillers. Robert Redford stars as a nerdy CIA researcher who goes out to lunch, and returns to find everyone in his office assassinated. The only suspect, he shacks up with a snarky bystander played by Faye Dunaway (“You can always depend on ol’ spyfucker”) and struggles to evade a wraithlike hitman, played by Max Von Sydow, until he can clear his good name.
Three Days of the Condor emerged in the wake of the Watergate scandal, and helped popularize the paranoid thriller genre that still persists today, when only a year ago it served as a significant inspiration for Captain America: The Winter Soldier (which also co-starred Redford.) It’s easy to see why it was so popular: the cast is exceptional and Sydney Pollack’s direction is suspensefully tight, and amusingly scary. It doesn’t rely on action, but it evokes the same thrills anyway. It’s a classic.
The Conversation (Netflix)
In 1974, Francis Ford Coppola released two movies – The Godfather Part II and The Conversation – and they were both nominated for Best Picture. The Godfather won, and eventually all but eclipsed The Conversation in the eyes of the public, but this unsettling espionage film should never be forgotten. Gene Hackman stars as Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who records a clandestine meeting between two young lovers, and becomes obsessed with deciphering their cryptic exchange, increasingly fearful that his skillful work is going to get them killed.
The Conversation is one of the great paranoid thrillers, but also a spectacular character piece for Hackman, who plays Caul as a guilt-ridden paranoiac in a perpetual moral quandary. The film’s big reveal is one of the most unexpected and creepy ever filmed, and it’s ultimate conclusion is both terrifying and sad. It’s a quiet film but an impressively powerful one. The Conversation remains as fascinating and mysterious as ever.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Netflix)
Intricate and refined, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an incredible adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 spy novel, about a disgraced former espionage agent who is brought back into the game to uncover a mole in the British Secret Intelligence Service. Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, a quiet man with a knack for keen observation and a lifetime of regret in the back of his mind. An all-star cast of suspects includes Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, John Hurt and Benedict Cumberbatch. And off they go, spinning webs of elaborate lies with unthinkable consequences for national security.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a complicated film, not the sort of thing you can idly watch whilst playing Bonza on your iPad. Every little detail is important, but all of them make sense in the end if you pay as close attention as George Smiley does. It’s a rewarding experience that challenges the intelligence of the audience and wraps you up in secrets and mystery, and really packs on the suspense in its quiet, extraordinarily British way. Oldman was Oscar nominated for his performance, and with good case: this may be the best performance of his entire career.
Not Streaming: The Quiller Memorandum
Since most spy movies are populist affairs, the majority of them are readily available online… if you’re willing to pay a few extra bucks. One film that isn’t available at all on instant streaming is the ripping 1966 thriller The Quiller Memorandum, which stars Peter Segal (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) as a secret agent investigating a possible neo-Nazi ring operating out of West Berlin. Before long his mission goes awry, and he finds himself in the clutches of a deliciously sinister Max Von Sydow, whose interrogation methods are hypnotically creepy and effective.
The Quiller Memorandum co-stars Sir Alec Guinness (Star Wars), who doesn’t get enough screen time, and it’s more about the hero’s wounded will than explosions and car chases, but it’s an excellent entry in the genre that doesn’t get nearly enough respect, and is disappointingly unavailable for online viewing. However, it’s still in print on DVD, and can easily be purchased via services like Amazon.