Why Can’t Americans Make Good Spy Movies?

The question came about 5 minutes into utterly trivial ‘Salt.’ Americans grovel before a larval Counter-Intelligence State (a term the deservedly respected, former DIA veteran John Dziak so aptly used for the Soviet Union). America’s tolerance for militarization and threat-addiction is so high now it shrugs off formerly toxic-level dosages without notice. So why can’t it make a good spy movie?

What’s the criteria is a valid first question. We’re excluding generic action-adventure blow ’em ups relying on buzz words to fill holes, mask discontinuity or fill time as mere exposition.

So no to Bourne vehicles and their Bond mimics, ‘Casino Royale’ and the inexplicably titled ‘Quantum of Solace’. Another genre. (We count ‘American made’ as Hollywood, so while Eon Productions is a British vehicle, MGM is the (now moribund) studio). Same for Ridley Scott’s tedious ‘Body of Lies’ (another hollow actioner using buzzwords and lazy characterizations to obscure the MacGuffin), fluff like ‘Knight & Day,’ the above-mentioned Jolie flick or the generic stuff that blends into one bad cable afternoon -‘Enemy of the Mercury State Rising’, etc.

Notable Mentions

DeNiro’s ‘The Good Shepherd’ is perhaps the most notable effort. We believe it failed simply as movie and purported character study. We find grating its self-congratulatory pastiche of some true life personalities, cloying inside-jokes and smug self-references and ostentatiously understated pornographic use of tradecraft to demonstrate that because Milt Beardon and others were around, De Niro was an honorary ‘made man’.

At least it tried to tell some hard truths about class, privilege and the prevailing social contract. Perhaps the most important service portraying the reality of emotional havoc and violence clandestine service often meant to families, especially children back then. (This at a time when ‘clandestine’ meant more than ‘waiting in the green room for the next segment’ or punching the clock for a later book deal.)

‘Charlie Wilson’s War’ doesn’t fall neatly into the ‘spy genre’. It was more or less a stylized docu-drama. Still, although Tom Hanks wasn’t able to summon Wilson’s full Texas-persona, it gets points for hitting the major notes in time and in key.

The cable show ‘The Company’ provides excellent entertainment even if correlation to actual events (also fictionalized in ‘Shepherd’) went out the window. Keaton, for example, as both actor and as the ahistorical part was written, is so much the anti-Angleton they might as well have cast Jim Carrey. But if we had to choose which DVD to be stranded with on an island, ‘Shepherd’ goes into the shredder first.

‘Syriana’ is simply an incoherent mess. Although like ‘Shepherd’ the Clooney-son dynamic is not inauthentic.

So what does work? Mostly, non-American productions and mostly television, so technically not movies either. Here’s our favorite list:

Good Ones

1). ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’: Alec Guiness and cast, script and production are brilliant. One is immersed into intelligence services, people and society from the most intimate detail to sweeping commentary all within a bitingly accurate social context. Many Americans serving at the time despised its world-weariness and cynicism – which says alot then and even now.

2). ‘Smiley’s People’: Not in the same league with TTSS in original written form, the screenplay and cast are still riveting.

3). ‘Reilly Ace of Spies’: Great cast, terrific script – and Tom Bell is the best Felix on screen to date. As one imagines he could have been as he realized too late what he has allowed to happen to himself and Russia.

4). ‘Topaz’: Because of Hitchcock, people tend to view this as a suspense movie. We thought it good entertainment within its time piece and its non-clumsy references to real world events. If Topaz counts, then we’d add the original (only) ‘Manchurian Candidate’.

5). ‘The Hunt for Red October’: Perhaps this doesn’t belong on the list. It is largely an action movie. The only decent Clancy movie (and book). One soon forgets the absurdity of Connery’s wig and accent and can follow well drawn characters acting plausibly within semi-realistic dynamics. Of course, it’s ludicrous beyond the telling of it that any analyst (Jack Ryan) would be doing 98% of what he does (OK buying the teddy bear at the end is within reason). More important are the Soviet aspects, perspectives and even dialogue. All ring true for the Stiftung. Plus, Harrison Ford isn’t in it.

6). The Prisoner (original only): Number Six. Also extrapolated from actual British sequestering during the war.

We’re sure there’s more. What have we missed? Are we wrong about American movies?


  1. DrLeoStrauss says

    Long but entertaining. Lucas and Spielberg said Indy in 1980 was their re-invention of Bond action spectacular. They even addressed the oedipal thing directly by having Connery as Indy’s father. True Lies was more subversive in concept – Bond as a suburban flustered dad. (Still think Tom Arnold’s performance there was pitch perfect). No mention of Judi Dench’s archetype, younger Bonds and Harvey Mansfield at all, alas.

  2. porky says

    when you say “americans cant make good spy movies” you are seriously mistaken…. For one, Salt is probably the worst excuse for a movie ever made so of course its not going to be a good spy movie. And if even consider salt to be review worthy, you have very shallow taste in film. Watch some of these before you say that americans make bad spy movies…

  3. Aldershot says

    By the by, I don’t know how realistic they are, but I like Redford’s ‘Spy Games,’ DiCaprio’s ‘Body of Lies,’ and I’m a real sucker for the Borne trilogy, especially the first one.

  4. Comment says

    Though technically not a great movie and a bit more of an action movie than spy movie – Hackman was also good as a rogue sigint type in that Will Smith movie about total info – that was made pre 9/11.

  5. cb says

    “The Conversation” is a great spy movie, even though it’s not a spy movie. Gene Hackman, 1974.

    • Dr Leo Strauss says

      Great catch, Hackman as usual is terrific. It does deserve a place on the notable exceptions list.

  6. Dr Leo Strauss says

    re Europeans and Westerns — Sergio Leone did ok even if he like most of the 70s Hollywood ‘rebels’ stole from Kurosawa. At least Coppola and Lucas had the decency later to help fund ‘Kagemusha’ when Kurosawa er, ran into financial problems.

  7. Comment says

    Falcon and Snowman has its moments – Third Man – There were a number of 50s noirs that qualify – TTSS is in a separate class – Jackel was an international prodution

  8. Nazgul35 says

    @Dr Leo Strauss
    In retrospect, I guess you can say that Condor falls into that action/threat genre film (also a product of the “don’t trust the CIA” films from the 70s.

    Ipcress could just be because I like Michael Caine.

    Breach was spying within the spy agency…and I like Chris Cooper’s performance.

    Just trying to expand the discussion.

    Did you touch on Jackal? I love that movie though it is getting dated.

  9. Dr Leo Strauss says

    Manchurian Candidate was on the list so we agree there. And ‘Third Man’ was a valid omission. Perhaps ‘Spy/Cold’, too – although have mixed feelings about it as a film on its merits as opposed to mythic retrospective place by canonical reflex. Will re-think that one.

    Can’t agree with Ipcress, Three Days, Falcon, Breach, Man Never Was. (You can see our review of Breach, for example, by doing a search). Certainly agree that Falcon succeeded on its own merits as a movie and certainly incorporated enough verisimilitude to rise above the mean. What was it precisely though that made it a good spy movie?

    We deliberately excluded the Condor types although Faye Dunaway’s performance is certainly memorable. Why? If you did a Mad Lib and replaced ‘CIA’ with ‘BP’ or ‘Dick Cheney’s Office’ you’d get the same performance, moral tone and in fact movie.

    ‘Operation Mincemeat’ is now encountering a boom of sorts with new books and commentaries this year perpetuating the half-century old British exaggeration that their ‘Man Who Never Was’ had the massive strategic impact that it did. (Careful study of OKW and OKH documents are less flattering to the British myth machine, and contrary to belief, by summer 1943 the Abwehr was *not trusted by the corporal’s inner circle (and besides at senior levels was actively working against him, even if they internalized the information, raising the question of who was really fooling whom)).

    ‘Mincemeat’ also had almost nothing to do with the July 1943 denial to Von Manstein to continue the tactically static (let alone strategically useless) grinding against the 5th Guards Tank Army. Nor did ‘Mincemeat’ have anything to do with the later successive Soviet operations that led to liberation of Ukraine that year.

    German operations in Sicily were more affected and complicated by their Italian problem than a British stunt. Moreover, the dispatch of Rommel to Greece more a question of German military/corporal court politics about what to do with an unemployed propaganda star (loathed by the General Staff) than British legerdemain.

    This one still wouldn’t make our list as a good spy movie or even entertainment. Perhaps our devaluation of it as a spy movie is thinking about what was really going on from the German point of view. But if one reacts otherwise, certainly we can understand different reactions.

    Didn’t see ‘The Good German’ so can’t comment. Thanks for the suggestion to check it out.

    NxNW and Notorious to us fall in the Topaz borderline area. But if one wants to expand the Venn diagram a bit, they’re certainly good movies.

    Would be curious if you mind sharing, why for example Three Days of the Condor, Ipcress or Breach were good spy movies?

  10. Nazgul35 says

    The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
    The Third Man
    North by Northwest
    The Manchurian Candidate (original)
    The Lives of Others
    The Ipcress File
    Three Days of the Condor
    The Man Who Never Was
    The Falcon and the Snowman
    Watch on the Rhine
    The Good German

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