Forget James Bond, Ethan Hunt Or Aiyaary And Watch These 5 Eclectic Spy Movies Instead!
Every week, we will curate a collection of titles - movies, TV, general miscellanea - for you to watch (and in some cases, read, or listen to), in a series we call Weekend Binge. The selection will be based on a theme which binds the picks - which could be extremely blunt in certain instances, or confusingly abstract in some. No rules apply, other than the end goal being getting some great entertainment to watch.
While the idea is to base the theme on the week’s major events - it could be the release of a new movie, or show - we could also use this opportunity to comment on our world in general, and turn to art to wrap our heads around some of the more difficult stories of the past seven days.
Real spies can’t afford to look like Daniel Craig or Tom Cruise (or Sidharth Malhotra, for that matter), they’d get caught in a jiffy. Real spies look like Philip Seymour Hoffman or John Malkovich, and your inability to immediately recall which spy movies they’ve acted in is the reason more aren’t made. Unless, of course, they star James Bond or Tom Cruise.
Hoffman appeared in Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man, in which he played the leader of a covert group assigned to recruit Islamic youth who could inform on terrorists. His, let’s say, non-traditional appearance plays a significant role in the film. We won’t be talking about A Most Wanted Man any more, we will be talking about John Malkovich’s CIA character, and four other films in which the spies actually look like people who you wouldn’t be able to spot in a crowd.
The 39 Steps
Based on the serialised novel by John Buchan, The 39 Steps has been adapted for the screen (and stage) several times, but we’ll be discussing the movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935, before he moved to Hollywood and made some of the most memorable spy movies ever. In The 39 Steps, a British man is falsely accused of the murder of an agent goes on the run in Scotland and tries to thwart an evil spy group’s plans of stealing secret British documents. It’s one of those great little early Hitchcock movies that have sort of faded away under the sheer volume and quality of his later work, and that’s a good enough reason to seek it out.
The Lives of Others
Besides propagating the falsehood that real spies look like Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty - as we’ve already established, they don’t - real spies also don’t leap off skyscrapers and drive invisible cars. They probably file tons of paperwork, or, like the central character in The Lives of Others, they spend an unhealthy amount of time spying on people’s phonecalls. Directed by the fantastically named Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who derailed three careers - Johnny Depp’s, Angelina Jolie’s and his own - with his follow-up, The Tourist, The Lives of Others is a German thriller in the vein of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation - tight, claustrophobic and scary.
Perhaps you’ve seen Steven Spielberg’s deeply moving story about the Israeli men chosen to avenge the murders of their countrymen at the 1972 Munich Olympics at the hands of Palestinian terrorists, but you can never watch Munich enough times. It’s one of Spielberg’s most underrated movies, and along with Bridge of Spies and the recent The Post, it falls into this new niche that the legendary director has created that exists under his epic adventures.
Burn After Reading
Two idiotic gym instructors played by Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand find (a CD they assume contains) secret CIA documents and attempt to blackmail the owner - a particularly ill-tempered agent played by the aforementioned John Malkovich - to collect funds for the plastic surgery they’ve wanted to get done forever. If that set-up isn’t enough to make you want to watch the Coen Brothers’ outrageously hilarious dark comedy, nothing will. Not even the promise that it features the best Brad Pitt performance you’ve never seen.
The Debt is neither the best nor the most authentic spy movie on this list. But it has a certainty unknown quality that is enough of a reason to include it here. After all, isn’t the purpose of this for you to discover new movies? It stars Jessica Chastain and Helen Mirren, who play the younger and older Rachel Singer, a Mossad agent who in the ‘60s was tasked with tracking down a Nazi war criminal. Certain decisions she made in her youth compel the older Rachel to retrace her steps and revisit her past.