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The Most Accurate Movies About Espionage

Updated November 1, 2019 467 votes 101 voters 8.5k views13 items

List RulesVote up the films that best depict real-world espionage.

Espionage is, by its very nature, a secretive act, so it's unsurprising that most films depicting it miss the mark on a number of levels. Even though most spy movies and espionage action-thrillers are nothing like the real thing, there are a few. These films make the effort to recreate the actual practice of uncovering secrets, subverting plots, and damaging foreign powers.

Granted, unless you work in the field, there's no way to know for sure - and if you do work in the field, you'll probably never confirm what you've seen. However, with the passage of time, some details have emerged about the events depicted in various spy movies - and some films do somewhat mirror the real-life practices of espionage. 

These films are the ones that come the closest... so far as we know! Look through the list and find your favorite spy or espionage film you believe to be the most accurate. Don't forget to vote it up to see which one rises to the top!

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  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is based on a novel written by former spy John le Carré and stars Gary Oldman. The story follows an attempt by British intelligence to root out a mole in their organization.

    What It Gets Right: According to Jonna Mendez and Peter Earnest, who both worked at the CIA, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the most accurate spy movie ever made. As Earnest explains, "I was involved in counter-intelligence, and Tinker Tailor is very much a duel of wits. The bottom line of which is: You identify a traitor - someone who has betrayed your group. That happens in reality, and I have been very close to that. So the consequence of it, and the effect it has on people, are very real to me. So I particularly enjoy that kind of spy film."

    Where It Falls Short: Due to the nature of the film, and how it tackles the hunt for the mole through an intense process of elimination, there's not much about it that isn't accurate. Though the film is based on a novel written by an actual spy, it's likely that several details were altered to keep secret what needs to remain secret.

    • Actors: Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth
    • Released: 2011
    • Directed by: Tomas Alfredson
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  • Actor and director Ben Affleck's gripping tale depicts the rescue of several Americans from Iran following the outbreak of the Iranian Revolution.

    What It Gets Right: The general storyline follows the real-life tale of how Tony Mendez, a former CIA agent who was with the agency for 20 years, worked with the Canadians to enter Iran posing as a Canadian filmmaker working on a science-fiction movie called Argo. This actually happened, and it worked. The operation resulted in the rescue of six Americans who were hiding in the Canadian Embassy during the height of the Iran hostage crisis.

    Where It Falls Short: The film was widely criticized for taking dramatic license with the events depicted in the film, though the filmmakers stated they did this deliberately to make the film more entertaining. President Jimmy Carter, who oversaw the operation - known as the "Canadian Caper" while he was in office - praised Argo as a film, but did not hesitate to point out its flaws. In particular, he said, it gave short shrift to the Canadians who pulled it off.

    As Carter told CNN's Piers Morgan:

    90% of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian. And the movie gives almost full credit to the American CIA. And with that exception, the movie is very good. But Ben Affleck's character in the film was... only in Tehran a day and a half. And the main hero, in my opinion, was Ken Taylor, who was the Canadian ambassador who orchestrated the entire process.

    • Actors: Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, Taylor Schilling
    • Released: 2012
    • Directed by: Ben Affleck
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  • The Spy Who Came In from the C is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Most Accurate Movies About Espionage
    Photo: Paramount

    Richard Burton stars in this intense spy drama based on the novel written by John le Carré. The film revolves around a fake defector to East Germany tasked with sowing disinformation about an intelligence officer.

    What It Gets Right: The Spy Who Came In from the Cold has been praised for being believable and realistic despite not being based on actual events. Many of the depictions of East Germany, the Berlin Wall, and the difficulty in getting from one side to the other during the height of the Cold War are incredibly realistic.

    Where It Falls Short: There isn't anything in the film that appears to be done incorrectly, or isn't closely associated with espionage as it occurred during the time period. 

    • Actors: Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, Robert Hardy, Warren Mitchell, Sam Wanamaker
    • Released: 1965
    • Directed by: Martin Ritt
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  • Ridley Scott's Body of Lies sees Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, and Mark Strong tracking down "al-Saleem," a rebel leader wanted by both the American and Jordanian governments.

    What It Gets Right: The film has been praised for its accurate depiction of spy technology, which is considerably closer to reality than what is seen in films like James Bond. Tech seen in the film includes unmanned aerial vehicle footage, the use of cell phones in lieu of other means of communication, and the nomenclature of the various aircraft and other intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft.

    The film also shows operations being driven by people halfway across the world via communications and ISR assets, which is true of the real-life intelligence game.

    Where It Falls Short: Like most films depicting the use of technology, what is seen on screen demonstrates far better quality than what exists in reality. The resolution of captured imagery is more detailed than it is in real life, for example.

    • Actors: Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Mark Strong, Oscar Isaac, Annabelle Wallis
    • Released: 2008
    • Directed by: Ridley Scott
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