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Espionage Thrillers You Should Put On Your Must-Watch List

The idea of clandestine operations where stealth operatives carry out missions has been a storytelling trope for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. However, the age of cinema has brought us all the tension, anxiety, and thrills that come with modern operatives working undercover to accomplish the mission at hand. Sometimes, damning state secrets, corruption, or manipulative efforts in a bid for power become the subject of black operations in espionage thrillers. Other times, once loyal patriots become disaffected after learning dark truths. Whatever the case may be, the world of espionage is rife with potential for juicy dramas and action sequences.

Some of cinema's biggest heroic icons were born from the espionage thriller genre, including James Bond, Ethan Hunt, and Jason Bourne. Author Tom Clancy created a series of works that practically live in the world of espionage and are consistently receiving film adaptations. Let's take a look at some of the best espionage thrillers that every fan of the genre should see at least once.

The Recruit

The Colin Farrell-led spy thriller "The Recruit" follows the exploits of a highly-experienced computer programming wizard. Farrell stars as James Clayton, a man sought after by the CIA for his programming talent. After being recruited by CIA agent Walter Burke (Al Pacino), he enters a training program alongside Layla Moore (Bridget Moynahan). Both of them are abducted and tortured, but James eventually breaks and spills secrets. Of course, it was all a simple test and James did not pass. However, Burke still connects with James and lets him know that his failure was all a ruse to cover for his actual assignment of getting close to Layla and investigating her for stealing CIA intel for foreign adversaries. James is brought back into the agency under the designation of a non-official cover (NOC) operative and granted basic securities in order to reunite with Layla and spy on her. Of course, James winds up learning far more than he bargained for and Layla becomes the least of his worries.

The film is a bit of a cat-and-mouse situation as James uncovers a web of lies and deceit. Ultimately, the goal is to completely subvert the audience's expectations. But after a certain point, the endgame becomes clear. Despite some of the predictability that eventually creeps into the narrative, "The Recruit" is still a worthy spy thriller with an intriguing premise.

Safe House

"Safe House" is an amalgamation of the spy thriller and action genres, and this blended concoction is one potent mix. The film follows Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) who works for the CIA as a housekeeper –- an operative charged with overseeing the security of a safe house. Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) is an ex-CIA operative on the run after stealing sensitive intel and attempting to sell it for big money on the black market. Eventually, Tobin is captured and brought into Matt's safe house to be tortured and interrogated. However, the safe house is assaulted and Matt barely escapes with Tobin still handcuffed. Matt quickly learns that he doesn't know whether he can trust his fellow CIA compatriots. And, of course, the mystery surrounding the data file in Tobin's possession only deepens.

Washington is a powerhouse, channeling the a sage persona coupled with heightened killer instincts. Reynolds compliments his counterpart with a fiery conviction and sound intellect. He may be a young operative, but Reynold's Matt Weston can't be fooled easily. Fans of both actors will undoubtedly be enthralled with "Safe House."

The Good Shepherd

Nothing makes a better premise for an espionage thriller than recounting what led to the establishment of counter-intelligence programs within the CIA. "The Good Shepherd" stars Matt Damon as CIA officer Edward Wilson and deals with events that occurred in the post-war era as well as the Bay of Pigs. Edward and his associates find that the Soviets are strategizing against the West which promotes the creation of counter-intelligence tactics and strategies to be employed by the Central Intelligence Agency. While the film suggests that the story is rooted in reality, there are many fictional elements of the film including the character of Edward Wilson. The adaptation of the real-life story is "loose" at best.

Still, "The Good Shepherd" spins a narrative that ultimately comes full circle as Edward begins recognizing that truth and integrity often coincide. The truth will shine a light on conspirators, aggressors, corruption, and all manner of opposition. Despite the irony of an agency shrouded in secrecy, its counter-intelligence programs seek to protect the American homeland from destructive plots both abroad and within — the focal of point of "The Good Shepherd."


This Liam Neeson thriller takes a psychological turn. At the start of the film, Martin Harris (Neeson) he is about to attend a conference with his wife. After a sudden accident sends puts him in a coma, he awakens to find that his wife is with another man and she doesn't even recognize him. Feeling like he might be going crazy or have some bizarre case of mistaken identity, he starts to gather details about his life and proof that he is who he says he is. The narrative takes many twists and turns and there is certainly a larger scheme at work.

"Unknown" came out after the Neeson's 2009 hit film "Taken" putting the actor on the map for action-thrillers. This film operates more as a mystery and the action only intensifies in the third act. However, it's a thrilling narrative to say the least, and one that will keep viewers glued to their seats until the bitter end.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Based off of the John le Carré novel of the same name, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" revolves around British Intelligence, often known simply as "the Circus." Gary Oldman plays the part of George Smiley, an officer within the Circus who was forced to retire after a botched mission results in the seeming assassination of an agent. Smiley and his former boss, Control, have suspected that one of the senior intelligence officers within the Circus is, in fact, a mole embedded by the Soviets. Sometime later, Smiley is asked by undersecretary Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) to return and help spearhead an investigation. In order to speak in secrecy about the alleged mole within the intelligence agency, Control had originally given the suspected officers codenames from an old English children's rhyme called "Tinker, Tailor." The film is a rousing game of "whodunit" and weaves in red herrings along the way.

George Smiley sets out to uncover the truth. Along the way, he also learns other unsavory truths about those in his own life and within the agency. "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier ,Spy" is a brilliant adaptation of the source material and boasts a highly talented cast including Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Hurt, and many more.

The Post

The Academy Award-nominated film "The Post" chronicles a tumultuous time in the history of the United States. While the film doesn't touch on spies or intelligence agencies, it does focus on uncovering the government's deception of the American public regarding the Vietnam conflict. The film stars Meryl Streep in the role of Katharine Graham, the owner of "The Washington Post." She finds herself in the midst of a game of tug-of-war with the legal system, her colleagues attempting to influence her, and her friends which include former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

After obtaining the documents now known as the Pentagon Papers, which highlight an unsavory view of American involvement in Southeast Asia, Katharine must choose: Ignore a federal injunction on the material being published in hopes of the court ruling in favor of journalism and free speech, or bow to the legal threat and miss out on the opportunity to establish The Washington Post as journalistic juggernaut. The film is a shocking indictment of the potential for government secrecy to deceive the public.

True Lies

This comedic action romp about secret spies and terrorists stars Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead role of Harry Trasker. He leads a double life as a family man and as a counterterrorism agent. His wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) and daughter Dana (Eliza Dushku) have no idea that he is actually a spy. Harry must stop a terrorist outfit from obtaining nuclear warheads to threaten the United States with — as many heroic secret spies do. 

A bit of light-hearted drama between Harry and Helen ensue, letting audiences know that this film is not overly serious. They simply need to reconnect, especially after Harry's multiple absences as a secret spy. Their marriage gets the injection of excitement that it truly needs after Helen becomes entangled with Harry's current assignment. 

Arnold brings all the typical '90s action bravado to the role as expected. Most of the film's humor comes from Jamie Lee Curtis, who plays the role of a bored wife desperate for some action in her life. Of course, she often gets much more than she bargains for and haplessly stumbles her way through it all. "True Lies" is light on drama and heavy on the laughs and action sequences, but still manages to be a fun espionage film.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

If there were a Mount Rushmore of famous fictional spies and secret agents, Ethan Hunt would likely be one of the four faces carved into the side of that mountain, right next to James Bond. The character, as portrayed by Tom Cruise, has had an enduring career in cinema. "Mission: Impossible –- Ghost Protocol" is the fourth film in the series. The film sees the fictional IMF agency compromised with false accusations of attacking the Kremlin. However, the attack on Russian soil was actually enacted by a terror cell named Cobalt with nuclear access. The United States government has initiated the Ghost Protocol, which means that it is disavowing any knowledge or connection with IMF.

Like each successive "Mission: Impossible" film, "Ghost Protocol" goes bigger and bolder with the stunts Ethan Hunt must perform — for instance, scaling the outside of the world's tallest skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Most of Ethan's adventures are wild rollercoaster rides filled with deceit, double agents, and death-defying undercover operations. "Ghost Protocol" is no different and even presents a new scenario where Ethan and his team are left on their own after being disavowed. It's perhaps one of the most thrilling movies in the entire "Mission: Impossible" series of films.

Zero Dark Thirty

On May 2, 2011, US Navy Seals carried out an operation to assassinate the most prominent 9/11 mastermind, Osama bin Laden. After the death of the terror leader was announced, Hollywood became abuzz with the possibility of a theatrical film chronicling the achievement of both American intelligence organizations and operators. "Zero Dark Thirty" is the cinematic adaptation of the real-life manhunt for the famed Al-Qaeda terror leader.

The film begins where everything started nearly a decade prior. Chasing bin Laden was a years-long affair. Because the hunt for the Al-Qaeda leader was a lengthy process, many individuals were involved in bringing the events of May 2, 2011 to fruition. The film follows the perspective of a fictional CIA intelligence officer named Maya Harris (Jessica Chastain). She witnesses everything from the interrogation and torture practices under the Bush administration to the attack on Camp Chapman in 2009 that killed and wounded several CIA officers. While most of the details may be public information, this inside look at the intelligence community and their efforts to bring bin Laden to justice is both educational and thrilling.

Bridge of Spies

The work of spies and intelligence gathering comes with its own set of risks and dangers. Real-life spies put their lives on the line as they attempt to maintain cover. "Bridge of Spies" tells the true story of a lawyer by the name of James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks). At the height of the Cold War in 1957, Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested and convicted in New York City. James lobbies to spare his life from the death penalty in the event that he might be needed for a future prisoner exchange. It just so happens that only a few short years later, the US would be able to put that idea to use, after a CIA spy plane pilot is shot down over the Soviet Union and the pilot is captured.

The film follows the harrowing story that unfolds as the two nations attempt to communicate a prisoner exchange which would take place at the Glienicke Bridge that connected East and West Berlin -– hence, the film's title. While tensions were high between the two nuclear powers, cooler heads often prevail. James B. Donovan was one such level-headed advocate that these men desperately needed.

The Hunt for Red October

Tom Clancy made a name for himself in the world of espionage and black operations. The novelist created a sprawling world that not only exists in the pages of his novels but has also been adapted into video games, TV shows, and film. "The Hunt for Red October" is a 1990 film based on Clancy's 1984 novel of the same name. The story chronicles a new Soviet ballistic missile submarine with stealth capabilities. The submarine's captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) begins making questionable maneuvers that gain the attention of the CIA. After doing some research, analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) believes that the captain and crew of the submarine known as Red October want to defect to the United States. Of course, convincing others of such comes with its own set of hurdles.

"The Hunt for Red October" marks the first instance that Tom Clancy's famous character Jack Ryan appears on screen. He'd later be portrayed in future films and TV projects by other actors including Ben Affleck, Chris Pine, and John Krasinski. Fans of the author shouldn't miss out on this adaptation.


Any discussion of espionage would be a tad faulty without the inclusion of the famous MI6 agent James Bond. Agent 007 has embarked on countless adventures in cinema thwarting the evil plots of the most colorful villains each more eccentric than the last. One of Bond's most notable adventures on the big screen is 1964's "Goldfinger" starring Sean Connery in the lead role as the suave British agent James Bond. His foe? The titular Auric Goldfinger –- a bullion dealer and a barbaric, high-functioning psychopath with an extreme obsession for all things gold. Goldfinger shares the company of other strange, yet violent minds like the muscle-bound Oddjob – Goldfinger's number two who's bowler hat acts as a lethal frisbee. Another Goldfinger ally, Pussy Galore, a femme fatale with an outfit of female pilots, also throws a wrench in Bond's plans.

Like other James Bond adventures, "Goldfinger" danced along the lines of both reality and complete fantasy. While the film's don't contain any supernatural or reality-bending ideas, the James Bond films court the most colorful and over-the-top villains that almost make these hero-versus-villain stories seem like they're ripped out of a comic book. "Goldfinger" is often considered one of the greatest spy films ever made by critics and fans alike, and is a must-see for all who intend to find the best that the spy-themed subgenre has to offer.


This Ben Affleck-directed film is set against the backdrop of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. At the time, several Iranians stormed the US embassy and took hostages. Six of the embassy staff hid inside the home of a Canadian ambassador. The central story of "Argo" concerns the operation concocted by the CIA to retrieve the six individuals in hiding without alerting the Iranian forces in the area. Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), a CIA specialist, devises the plan to fake a movie production. The devil is in the details, and all involved must take extra care to ensure this fake film project appears as authentic as humanly possible. The goal is for the embassy staff in hiding to be exfiltrated quietly, posing as Canadian filmmakers. The film then carries viewers through the harrowing process of enacting this perilous plan with the help of contacts within Hollywood.

The central character in this story, Antonio "Tony" Mendez, wrote and published a book in 1999 titled "Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA" detailing his exploits. In 2007, a Wired article authored by Joshuah Bearman aptly named "How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran" further shed light on the historical event. The screenplay for "Argo" was adapted from these sources managing to capture the essence of this wild and dangerous operation amid the Iranian Revolution. The film won multiple Academy Awards including Best Picture.


Luc Besson crafted a thrilling story about a retired CIA operative named Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson), whose daughter had been taken by international human traffickers. The 2009 film "Taken" is an action thriller that puts Bryan's determination and anger front and center. As a skilled combatant capable of retrieving intel, he tracks down each of the men responsible in his daughter's kidnapping. Before exacting lethal justice, as he promised that he'd do, he squeezes each of his victims for a new lead to finding his daughter through torture and righteous fury.

This revenge quest was ultimately a true crowd-pleaser. Witnessing Bryan systematically tear a dark and grim operation to pieces using nothing but his wits, experience, and tactical know-how is the exacting justice audiences are thrilled to see. "Taken" was a true revelation in the realm of action heroes, and it spawned two more sequels while sending Neeson on a full-fledged action-thriller pivot in his acting career.

The Bourne Identity

While the Robert Ludlum novel was already adapted once as a made-for-TV movie in the '80s, it was Matt Damon's portrayal of Jason Bourne that truly put the character on the map. The 2002 film "The Bourne Identity" follows an amnesia-plagued agent who attempts to uncover his identity as a black ops assassin working covert CIA outfit Treadstone. The film takes viewers alongside Bourne on a journey to recalling his past and deciding his future. "The Bourne Identity" is big on action spectacle and government conspiracy. Damon's successful turn at the character would ensure an enduring career for Jason Bourne that'd span four movie entries, as well as a spin-off film focusing on a separate character played by Jeremy Renner.

The film largely received rave reviews from critics who noted that the formula felt fresh and genre-defining. Furthermore, Damon's intensity and focus relayed a perfect sense of paranoia and mystery surrounding his involvement with clandestine affairs. "The Bourne Identity" will continue to endure as a highlight of Damon's career for years to come.

The Bourne Ultimatum

Cut off one head and another head grows in its place. As far as Jason Bourne is concerned, the secrets of the CIA might as well be akin to Marvel's villainous Hydra organization. "The Bourne Identity" saw the closure of Treadstone, the black ops program Jason Bourne was a part of, after the death of its director Alexander Conklin. However, both the second film "The Bourne Supremacy" and the third film "The Bourne Ultimatum" deal with the original behavior modification program that supplied Treadstone with agents. The program known as Blackbriar is led by a few shadowy figures who are vying to keep the illegal actions of the program buried. Because Jason is inevitably a part of everything, he's also a lose end. What the CIA didn't count on is that poking the bear might have gnarly consequences. They simply should have left him alone.

For a time, "The Bourne Ultimatum" rounded out a superb trilogy of films that seemingly brought an end to Jason's Bourne's conflict with the CIA. Of course, two more films followed that'd explore additional elements beyond Robert Ludlum's original novel trilogy. Still, "Ultimatum" remains a pinnacle in the franchise of expert storytelling that brings Jason Bourne's narrative full circle. Additionally, it's a satisfying conclusion to his conflict with Treadstone and Blackbriar where his journey as Jason Bourne began.

North by Northwest

Have you ever had a case of bad luck that was so terrible that you get mistaken for a United States secret agent and captured by villainous spies who attempt to stage your death via drunk-driving, only for the police and your own mother to not believe you when you tell them what actually transpired? Well, that's the case of the hapless Roger Thornhill. His unlucky turn continues after a wild combination of circumstances places him at the scene of a UN diplomat's murder. Roger is on the ride of his life as he stumbles into the most entertaining and adrenaline-inducing career of his life –- that of a secret agent. At one point, he goes with the flow and embraces his newfound (though mistaken) identity as he aims to thwart the shadowy villain who once attempted to have him killed.

This Alfred Hitchcock classic might seem like a comedy on paper. But in reality, it's a true-blue espionage thriller, and one that would become an icon serving to inform future films in the genre. "North by Northwest" is a thrill-a-minute as Roger Thornhill gets swept up in the whirlwind of heroes and villains. The film is highly regarded as one of the greatest cinematic adventures of all time. This 1959 classic should be on every spy fan's must-see list.