10 Underrated Movies Based on Actual Real-Life Spies

In the thrilling world of espionage, where secret missions and covert operations reign supreme, there exists a hidden trove of cinematic gems. These are the underrated films that delve into the clandestine lives of real-life spies, and unsung heroes who operated in the shadows of history. While James Bond and Jason Bourne dominate the spy movie landscape, there are some lesser-known but equally captivating films that shed light on the real world of being a spy. Let’s explore some of the films that deserve the spotlight as the genre’s hidden gems.


The Courier (2020)

A scene from the Cuban Missile Crisis spy movie, The Courier
Lionsgate
Roadside Attractions

Benedict Cumberbatch stands out as one of the busiest actors in the industry today, with a seemingly insatiable appetite for roles. Among his recent works, The Courier deserves special attention. This film draws inspiration from the life of Greville Wynne, a real-world businessman who found himself unwittingly thrust into the heart of the Cold War by American intelligence agencies.

Wynne’s pivotal role in diffusing the tension of the Cuban Missile Crisis comes to life on screen, where he collaborates with a Russian spy to gather vital intelligence. What sets The Courier apart is its unique approach to the true story. Rather than a high-octane thriller, it takes on the guise of a classic and engaging spy movie.

Bridge of Spies (2015)

mark-rylance-bridge-of-spies-movie (1)
DreamWorks Pictures

Steven Spielberg, renowned for his directorial prowess, has consistently delivered captivating spy movies throughout his career. Bridge of Spies stands out as one of his late-career masterpieces, weaving a narrative around the true story of Rudolf Abel, portrayed brilliantly by Mark Rylance, a Soviet Union spy ensnared in the Cold War’s web.

However, the film’s focus transcends traditional spy narratives, delving deeper into the role of an attorney orchestrating the exchange of Abel for an American pilot, held captive by the Soviets. This pivotal exchange transpired on the iconic Glienicke Bridge connecting Potsdam and Berlin. Bridge of Spies marked Rylance’s breakthrough, earning him an Academy Award.

Breach (2007)

Phillippe and Cooper in Breach (2007)
Universal Pictures

Breach portrays the unsettling story of Robert Hanssen, brought to life by Chris Cooper, who betrayed his homeland by becoming a double agent. A native of Illinois, Hanssen pursued studies in chemistry and Russian. Subsequently, he added accounting to his skill set and initially worked with the Chicago Police Department before being recruited by the FBI.

In 1979, while employed in counterintelligence, Hanssen commenced selling classified information to the Soviets. Though he temporarily halted his activities, in 1985, Hanssen resumed his espionage activities. This movie navigates the moral ambiguity of Hanssen’s actions and the catastrophic consequences of his betrayal.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind- Drew Barrymore and Sam Rockwell
Miramax Films

An adaptation of Chuck Barris’ memoir, the movie delves into the life of the game show creator and host famous for his classics. Barris, however, adds an astonishing twist to his story – he alleges that, in addition to his television career, he worked as a CIA assassin. The 2002 film faithfully brings this non-fiction narrative to the screen.

Yet, intriguingly, the movie also playfully satirizes some of Barris’ more extravagant claims. Within Charlie Kaufman’s filmography, Confession of a Dangerous Mind stands out as a gem, distinct from his usual self-deprecating and emotionally intense works. It offers a fresh and entertaining departure from the norm, crafting a cinematic experience that keeps the viewers engaged.

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Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)

Charlie Wilson’s War
Universal Pictures 

While Tom Hanks might have missed out on various roles, his prolific presence in the world of spy movies compensates for those absences. Alongside Bridge of Spies, Charlie Wilson’s War stands as another Hanks-fronted spy film rooted in reality, albeit with a notably different tone.

The mix between comedy and drama in the movie is excellent. It chronicles the journey of Charlie Wilson, a congressman from East Texas who orchestrates the supply of weapons to Afghanistan and supports soldiers in their battle against the Soviet Union. Charlie Wilson’s War is a must-watch if one craves spy action.

The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)

Christopher Boyce, nicknamed The Falcon due to his passion for falconry, undergoes a disillusionment with his country while working as a federal agency file clerk in the mid-1970s. This discontent led him to sell national secrets to the Soviets. He enlists the help of The Snowman, Andrew Lee, a small-time cocaine dealer. However, Lee’s recklessness becomes their downfall.

The Falcon and the Snowman delves into the complex motivations of its characters, displeasure, and the moral ambiguity surrounding their actions. The tension and intrigue escalate as their covert operations unravel, leading to a dramatic and suspenseful climax. The film’s authenticity is based on actual events. It adds to its allure, making it a thought-provoking watch.

Fair Game (2010)

Fair Game
Summit Entertainment

Valerie Plame, a CIA operative with over a decade of service, found her covert identity exposed. This occurred after her husband, former US Ambassador Joe Wilson, penned a critical op-ed revealing misleading information about Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons. In retaliation, CIA insiders exposed the fact that Wilson was married to a spy specializing in atomic warfare to a journalist.

The 2010 film Fair Game, partly based on Plame’s memoir, portrays the far-reaching consequences that ensued for Plame. This film earns its acclaim by depicting a real-life story of undercover adventures, betrayal, and personal sacrifice. Naomi Watts delivers the emotional turmoil and resilience of a woman whose life was upended by political forces.

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The Good Shepherd (2006)

The Good Shepherd
Universal Pictures

The movie purports to unveil the hitherto concealed origins of CIA counter-intelligence, drawing loose inspiration from the enigmatic figure of James Jesus Angleton. Although a work of fiction, The Good Shepherd serves as a testament to Angleton’s enduring influence, inspiring numerous subsequent films.

Among the most renowned episodes from Angleton’s tenure as the head of the Central Intelligence Agency is his fervent belief in the existence of a mole within the agency’s ranks. This fixation catalyzed a destructive witch-hunt, a storyline that has been a cornerstone of many crime thrillers. This leaves a lasting impact of his controversial legacy on the spy movie genre.

Farewell (2009)

Poster for Farewell
Pathé

Farewell focuses on Vladimir Vetrov as Sergei Grigoriev, a high-ranking Soviet LGB agent in the late 1970s. However, blinded by the Soviet leadership, he decided to share vital KGB secrets with the French. Under the code name Farewell, Vetrov cleverly misleads the Soviets. Eventually, Vetrov was apprehended by the Soviets and executed for treason.

The film navigates the labyrinth of the Cold War secrets, blending suspense and emotions while shedding light on a little-known chapter of history. It’s an insightful exploration of the personal and political choices that shape the course of international relations. Moreover, the performance by Emir Kusturica as Sergei adds depth to the narrative.

American Made (2017)

Tom Cruise in American Made
Universal Pictures

Barry Seal, once an ordinary pilot, made a series of ill-advised choices. He was lured into smuggling drugs for Pablo Escobar’s associates, leading to his capture by U.S. authorities. To evade a lengthy prison term, he agreed to act as a spy for the DEA. Seal’s actions eventually led to a contract on his life, and he met his demise at the hands of assassins.

The action-comedy American Made, starring Tom Cruise as Seal, chronicles this fascinating tale alongside a talented ensemble cast. The movie blends elements of action and comedy, creating an entertaining and adrenaline-pumping ride. With its strong cast and thrilling storyline, American Made offers a captivating cinematic experience to the audiences.