Cold War Movies
I graduated high school in the middle of the 1960’s, a time rife with cold war intrigue which often showed up in theatres and on the front page of newspapers. I know, because I folded those papers before delivering them, giving me a chance to read the news thoroughly each morning. No wonder I graded so well in Civics and History, but I digress. I was a young, distant, and casual observer of the geopolitical environment and have been ever since (except the young part). And that is why I have this list.
The list is specific to the West vs. Soviet competition, thus omitting other great espionage genre films that focus on other competitions. Casa Blanca, The Manchurian Candidate and others are not included as a result.
The list is organized newest to oldest, IMDB scoring is shown in parentheses. I tried to come up with a favorite top three from the list, but it can’t be done.
The Courier – 2020 (7.1) Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange) delivers a masterpiece of storytelling in his portrayal of a simple salesman called on to perform yeoman duty in the intrigue of spycraft. This one is a close cousin to Bridge of Spies. Badly underrated in my opinion.
Bridge of Spies – 2015 (7.6) Tom Hanks has done a lot of good work, this is one of his best. An insurance lawyer, he is minding his own business when he, of all people, is called to represent a Soviet spy. He does so with great integrity in spite of the way the deck is stacked, and that is just the beginning.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – 2011 (7.0) Gary Oldman steps into the role of George Smiley, called on to find the mole who is confoundig MI6. The Smiley novels were authored by John Le Carre, who really was a MI6 agent. This is not Bond.
The Good Shepherd – 2006 (6.7) Matt Damon’s character is loosely based on the life and career of James Jesus Angleton, CIA’s mole hunting guru who became psychotic in the process. The film is a mashup of Skull and Bones culture, CIA misadventure, and the demons that can consume us. Dark but very well done, and well worth a higher rating.
Thirteen Days – 2000 (7.3) I was in junior high when the Cuban missile crisis held the world hostage, and I remember the are-we-going-to-end-the-world-over-this? tension. The movie doesn’t live up to the grittiness of reality, but it is a good view of how the Kennedy White House operated.
The Hunt for Red October – 1990 (7.6) Tom Clancy’s first book is still one of if not his best. The movie is loyal to the book, portraying a credible view of superpower military confrontation. This one gets air time at our house.
Funeral in Berlin – 1966 (6.8) Michael Cane is at it again, this time attempting to spirit away an East German (remember East Germany?) spy who has much to tell. But it is never simple or straightforward, is it? Formulaic but well done.
The Bedford Incident – 1965 (7.3) A psycho Navy Captain, a Soviet submarine, a nosy reporter on assignment, and a crew worn to the breaking point by high seas hijinks. This movie is why I joined the Air Force and not the Navy (just kidding – sort of).
The Ipcress File – 1965 (7.2) Michael Cane as Harry Palmer in this tale of disappearing scientists, double crosses, and moles. Based on Len Deighton’s novel of the same name, so the plotting is good if a bit tiring.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – 1965 (7.6) Another Le Carre story, this time exploring the gap between morality and the actions of intelligence services. Disinformation and betrayal abound in the era of the Berlin wall and Soviet/West competition. The book made Time Magazine’s Top 100 novels list.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb – 1964 (8.4) This classic cold war satire tops my personal ranking. I love Peter Sellers’ genius playing three primary roles, and the scene with Slim Pickens riding the bomb down is a fitting end. Besides … Stanley Kubrick … need I say more?
Seven Days in May – 1964 (7.8) A military coup in the U.S. over negotiations with the Soviets? As implausible as it sounds there were real concerns of such at one time, and there are conspiracy theories along the same lines that link the military to president Kennedy’s assassination. Yes, the 1960’s were an interesting time to be a kid.
Fail Safe – 1964 (8.0) An American general having strange dreams sits down to dinner with a supposedly brilliant guy who happens to believe that killing millions is a fair price for ending Communism. What could possibly go wrong? Lots, apparently. I read the book while in tenth grade and almost stopped reading forever.
On the Beach – 1959 (7.1) Basically, the northern hemisphere is a nuclear waste thanks to WWIII. The good folks of Australia are wondering what happens next and send an American submarine (now attached to RAN) to find out. Hint: It isn’t good.