Special Report

The 25 Best Spy Movies Based on True Stories

Courtesy of Open Road Films

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.

Click here to see the 25 best spy movies based on true stories

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.)

Source: Courtesy of IFC Films

25. The Catcher Was a Spy (2018)
> IMDb user rating: 6.2/10 (8,872 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 50% (522 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer score: 32% (75 reviews)
> Starring: Paul Rudd, Pierfrancesco Favino, Tom Wilkinson

Moe Berg, a scholarly former Boston Red Sox catcher, goes undercover with the Office of Strategic Services during WWII to determine if German physicist Werner Heisenberg is on the brink of developing an atomic bomb.

Source: Courtesy of Overture Films

24. The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)
> IMDb user rating: 6.2/10 (129,801 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 39% (239,122 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer score: 51% (218 reviews)
> Starring: Ewan McGregor, George Clooney, Kevin Spacey

A reporter meets a former member of a secret U.S. Army Special Forces unit that attempted to employ psychic abilities including remote viewing and invisibility as wartime strategies.

Source: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

23. Daniel (1983)
> IMDb user rating: 6.6/10 (1,175 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 55% (100 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer score: 43% (7 reviews)
> Starring: Timothy Hutton, Mandy Patinkin, Lindsay Crouse

Based on the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of spying for the Soviet Union in 1951, “Daniel” is a fictionalized account of a man exploring the lives and deaths of his parents, whom he believes were wrongfully convicted.

Source: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

22. The Good Shepherd (2006)
> IMDb user rating: 6.7/10 (104,561 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 51% (182,268 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer score: 55% (172 reviews)
> Starring: Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Robert De Niro

Based loosely on the career of James Jesus Angleton, chief of counterintelligence for CIA from 1954 to 1975, this film recounts the early days of the spy agency and one man’s obsessive efforts to find a mole in his department.

Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

21. M. Butterfly (1993)
> IMDb user rating: 6.7/10 (10,319 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 67% (5,332 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer score: 43% (21 reviews)
> Starring: Jeremy Irons, John Lone, Barbara Sukowa

Based on the relationship between French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and the Chinese opera singer Shi Pei Pu, M. Butterfly recounts a tale of love, willful ignorance, and deceit during China’s 1960s cultural revolution.

Source: Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

20. Mata Hari (1931)
> IMDb user rating: 6.6/10 (3,563 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 55% (1,355 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer score: 63% (8 reviews)
> Starring: Greta Garbo, Ramon Novarro, Lionel Barrymore

Based on the life and death of the Dutch exotic dancer and courtesan known as Mata Hari, this film follows the ill-fated woman as she uses her wiles to spy for the Germans in France during WWI.

Source: Courtesy of Open Road Films

19. Snowden (2016)
> IMDb user rating: 7.3/10 (154,178 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 70% (28,770 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer score: 61% (261 reviews)
> Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo

This biographical thriller recounts the events leading up to whistleblower Edward Snowden’s release of classified documents revealing the NSA’s illegal mass surveillance of the American people.

Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

18. Syriana (2005)
> IMDb user rating: 6.9/10 (131,385 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 67% (226,907 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer score: 73% (198 reviews)
> Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Amanda Peet

“Syriana” weaves together numerous storylines, including an assassination plot, on multiple continents to detail the lengths that some will go to in order to secure control of oil fields in the Middle East.

Source: Courtesy of Paramount Vantage

17. A Mighty Heart (2007)
> IMDb user rating: 6.6/10 (27,781 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 70% (106,650 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer score: 79% (195 reviews)
> Starring: Angelina Jolie, Dan Futterman, Irrfan Khan

Based on the memoir by Mariane Pearl, the wife of journalist Daniel Pearl – who was kidnapped and executed in Pakistan in 2002 – this film tells the story of Mariane’s search for her husband and his captors.

Source: Courtesy of Focus Features

16. Kill the Messenger (2014)
> IMDb user rating: 6.9/10 (47,361 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 69% (16,640 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer score: 77% (131 reviews)
> Starring: Jeremy Renner, Robert Patrick, Jena Sims

Based on a book of the same name by Nick Schou and the controversial “Dark Alliance” by the late journalist Gary Webb, this thriller recounts Webb’s role in investigating the CIA’s involvement in the cocaine trade in order to fund Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s and how it led to his demise.

Source: Courtesy of Orion Pictures

15. The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)
> IMDb user rating: 6.8/10 (11,954 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 69% (6,064 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer score: 82% (22 reviews)
> Starring: Timothy Hutton, Sean Penn, Pat Hingle

Based on a true crime book by Robert Lindsey, this film follows two childhood friends, a disillusioned defense contractor and a cocaine smuggler, who sell U.S. secrets to the Soviet Union.

Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

14. Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939)
> IMDb user rating: 6.8/10 (1,553 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 56% (294 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer score: 100% (6 reviews)
> Starring: Edward G. Robinson, George Sanders, Francis Lederer

The first anti-Nazi film produced by a major Hollywood studio, this political thriller recounts an FBI agent’s investigations into Nazi spy rings active in the U.S. before the start of World War II.

Source: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

13. Breach (2007)
> IMDb user rating: 7.0/10 (60,266 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 67% (377,402 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer score: 84% (178 reviews)
> Starring: Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Dennis Haysbert

Breach follows FBI investigator Eric O’Neill as he keeps tabs on his boss, Robert Hanssen, due to his suspicions that Hanssen has been selling secrets to the Soviet Union for years – some of which have led to the deaths of U.S. operatives.

Source: Courtesy of Miramax

12. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
> IMDb user rating: 7.0/10 (89,246 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 75% (58,874 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer score: 79% (165 reviews)
> Starring: Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore, George Clooney

Based on the controversial autobiography of game show host Chuck Barris, this film details Barris’s dubious claims of having worked as a CIA hitman in the ’60s and ’70s.

Source: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

11. Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)
> IMDb user rating: 7.0/10 (119,719 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 73% (226,468 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer score: 82% (204 reviews)
> Starring: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman

Texas politician Charlie Wilson lends his support to CIA operative Gust Avrakotos during Operation Cyclone, a program that armed Afghan rebels during the Soviet-Afghan War.

Source: Courtesy of Pathe

10. Farewell (2009)
> IMDb user rating: 7.0/10 (6,823 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 76% (5,000 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer score: 86% (78 reviews)
> Starring: Guillaume Canet, Emir Kusturica, Alexandra Maria Lara

Disillusioned KGB agent Vladimir Vetrov passes secrets to France in the early ’80s in order to reveal the network of Soviet spies that are attempting to steal technology from the West.

Source: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

9. American Made (2017)
> IMDb user rating: 7.1/10 (188,290 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 78% (26,388 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer score: 86% (270 reviews)
> Starring: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright

A TWA pilot is recruited by the CIA to run covert flights over Central America and gets in over his head when he begins smuggling drugs for the Medellín cartel under Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar.

Source: Courtesy of Amazon Studios

8. The Report (2019)
> IMDb user rating: 7.2/10 (44,830 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 82% (1,058 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer score: 82% (240 reviews)
> Starring: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Jon Hamm

Senate investigator Daniel Jones and the Senate Intelligence Committee review CIA documents to uncover the organization’s use of torture in the post-9/11 Detention and Interrogation Program.

Source: Courtesy of New Line Cinema

7. Thirteen Days (2000)
> IMDb user rating: 7.3/10 (59,734 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 80% (30,172 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer score: 83% (124 reviews)
> Starring: Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, Shawn Driscoll

A dramatization of the Cuban Missile Crisis, this film follows the Kennedy administration as it races to prevent the Soviets from placing missiles in Cuba while also strategizing to avoid a nuclear world war.

Source: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

6. Munich (2005)
> IMDb user rating: 7.5/10 (229,404 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 83% (330,282 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer score: 78% (211 reviews)
> Starring: Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Marie-Josée Croze

After a Palestinian terrorist ring slaughters 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Mossad carries out a covert operation to bring the terrorists to justice by any means necessary.

Source: Courtesy of IFC Films

5. Official Secrets (2019)
> IMDb user rating: 7.3/10 (49,024 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 89% (361 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer score: 82% (166 reviews)
> Starring: Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode

British translator Katharine Gun turns whistleblower when she leaks information revealing a joint U.S. and U.K. operation aiming to blackmail members of the United Nations Security Council into sanctioning the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Source: Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

4. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
> IMDb user rating: 7.4/10 (304,492 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 80% (197,285 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer score: 91% (302 reviews)
> Starring: Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt

This dramatization recounts the CIA’s decade-long search for Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden after 9/11, as well as his assassination by U.S. Navy SEALs during Operation Neptune Spear.

Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

3. JFK (1991)
> IMDb user rating: 8.0/10 (158,513 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 88% (62,651 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer score: 84% (64 reviews)
> Starring: Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Jack Lemmon

After the assassination of President Kennedy, a district attorney in Louisiana believes that Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t act alone and attempts to uncover what he believes is a conspiracy involving high-level government officials.

Source: Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

2. Bridge of Spies (2015)
> IMDb user rating: 7.6/10 (313,980 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 87% (65,587 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer score: 91% (312 reviews)
> Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda

After an American U-2 spy plane is shot down over the Soviet Union, the CIA attempts to facilitate a prisoner swap to retrieve pilot Gary Powers in exchange for convicted KGB spy Rudolph Abel, with the help of Abel’s defense attorney, James B. Donovan.

Source: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

1. Argo (2012)
> IMDb user rating: 7.7/10 (617,860 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes audience score: 90% (208,987 votes)
> Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer score: 96% (359 reviews)
> Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman

Based on a memoir by CIA operative Tony Mendez, Argo is the story of how the CIA created press for a fake sci-fi movie and posed as a Canadian film crew in order to rescue six Americans being sheltered by Canadian diplomats in Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis.

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