In a secret-filled world, spies can be hiding in every shadow. Whether secret agents are working for governments or acting as solo agents with their own positive or negative agendas, spies have become a backbone in both modern society and cinema. The Cold War in particular, with Americans constantly afraid of Communist agents hiding and operating in the United States, brought the world of espionage to the forefront of people’s minds and has become a go-to topic for filmmakers wanting to explore the world of undercover agents with hidden agendas.
If your hobbies include spying on your passersby with binoculars or sticking your ear up against a wall to eavesdrop on your roommates, spy movies are right up your alley. I know from personal experience that being a secret agent for the government can be difficult (crap, did I just say that out loud?), and these movies and television shows elucidate different aspects of that tricky world. Read on to discover the 15 best Spy movies (and a few TV series) currently on Netflix!
Of course, the most iconic fictional spy of all time was going to kick off this list of spy films and television shows. In the 2006 remake of Casino Royale, Daniel Craig donned a tuxedo and drank shaken martinis for the first time as James Bond.
In this film, Bond is still closer to the beginning of his storied career, and he is assigned with learning more about the financial exploits of terrorist financier Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen). With his newly assigned license to kill, Bond has to learn more about Chiffre’s organization and enter a high-stakes poker game to hopefully thwart their newest attempts to bring in massive amounts of money.
Like I mentioned in the intro, The Cold War is where the world of espionage and secret agents first entered the mainstream imagination. The 2019 film The Coldest Game follows Joshua Mansky (Bill Pullman), an American mathematician who is forced to become a spy for the government during one of the Cold War’s most dangerous eras.
Set during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the movie follows the alcoholic Mansky as he prepares and competes in a chess tournament in Warsaw while simultaneously trying to discreetly take in as much information about the Soviets as possible.
Sacha Baron Cohen is best known for outrageous comedic roles like Borat and Bruno, but in The Spy, a miniseries co-produced by Netflix, Cohen’s dramatic abilities are on full display.
In The Spy, Cohen plays Eli Cohen (no relation), a Mossad agent who was tasked with carrying out important tasks for the Israeli government in the buildup to the Six-Day War between Israel and Syria in 1967. Based on real-life events, the crux of the story follows Cohen as he disguises himself as a man named Kamel Amin Thaabet and integrates himself into Syrian society, eventually gaining the title of Deputy Defense Minister, in the hopes that the knowledge he gains and actions he takes will all benefit Israel in the long run.
Director Christopher Nolan is known for larger-than-life film concepts, and films don’t get much bigger than Inception. The film follows a team of individuals, led by Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), as they embark on a mission inside a businessman’s mind to implant (incept) an idea in his head.
As the squad goes deeper in Robert Fischer’s (Cillian Murphy) subconscious, the settings continually evolve and get more dangerous, forcing the dream team to adapt and constantly tweak their plans to get to the next level unnoticed.
An action-packed film, Inception is emotionally charged and ambiguous as hell, meaning audiences will have to pay attention if they want to pick up on everything Nolan is trying to throw at them.
Martin Scorsese focuses on a different kind of gangster in The Departed: Corrupt police officers and federal agents. Starring a who’s who of Hollywood A-listers like Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio, The Departed follows certain individuals who work as moles within the Massachusetts state police as well as the Irish mob in Boston. Without spoiling the numerous twists, I’ll say that this Best Picture Oscar-winning film is incredibly tense and makes the audience question every individual and their true intentions at all times.
Not only does it have a lot of iconic dramatic moments, but The Departed also has some incredible action to keep viewers hooked throughout the two-and-a-half-hour film.
There are literally dozens of James Bond films out there, but Netflix only has Daniel Craig’s first two outings available for U.S. customers. Picking up literally an hour after Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace sees Bond seek revenge for the loss of a loved one. While on the trail of the killer, 007 discovers a shadowy organization called Quantum. It falls to Bond to diffuse Quantum and Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), one of its shadow members, from plotting a coup in Bolivia in order to gain control over its water supply. Keeping with the gritty spirit of Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace is an action-packed, bloody film that shows James Bond going MUCH further in fight scenes than he had in the past as he embarks on a personal rather than fully professional mission.
After the success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo book series and subsequent Swedish film adaptation, David Fincher released an American adaptation of the series first chapter in 2011. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is investigating the mysterious disappearance of a teenage girl 40 years earlier. To help him get to the bottom of things, Blomkvist turns to the complex yet matter-of-fact hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). Together, the two of them embark on a dark journey to discover the truth that ends up nearly contradicting everything they first assumed about the situation when they started their mission. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a slick, incredibly well-acted film that will leave audiences both intrigued and entertained from start to finish.
The Angel, distributed by Netflix in 2018, tells the story of Ashraf Marwan (Marwan Kenzari), an Egyptian diplomat who was married to Egyptian President Nasser’s daughter and ended up working as a secret agent for the Israeli Mossad. Based on Israeli professor Url Bar-Joseph’s book The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel, The Angel, explores Marwan’s time working as a spy for Israel and the emotional struggles he went through in an effort to maintain peace between the two countries. Set in the aftermath of the Six-Day War between the two countries in 1967, the film is full of double-crossings, and loose ends that make it clear just how logistically and morally complicated being a spy can be.
Bob Ho (Jackie Chan) is affiliated with the CIA and used to taking down terrorists and saving the day, but now he has a dangerous mission he may not be qualified for: babysitting his neighbor’s kids. The Spy Next Door follows Ho as he deals with the trouble-making kids, but his old job quickly rears its ugly head as he has to reveal his identity to the kids and work with them to take down a group of bad guys threatening the world’s oil supply. Directed by Brian Levant, the director who brought family-friendly films like Beethoven and Jingle All The Way to the big-screen, The Spy Next Door is a silly, action-packed film perfect for everyone in the fam.
Directed by Thomas Meadmore, The Spy Who Fell to Earth is a documentary all about Ashraf Marwan (the subject of the previously mentioned The Angel), an Egyptian billionaire who worked as a secret agent for the Israeli government. Based on a book with the same name, the film tracks Marwan’s life, touching on everything from his life in the UK before becoming a full-fledged spy to his mysterious death. Including archival footage of everyone from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to Nikita Khrushchev, a former Premier of the Soviet Union, The Spy Who Fell to Earth is an interesting, time-spanning story that shows the importance and historical context of Marwan’s time as a spy.
Based on the book Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA’s Spytechs, from Communism to Al-Qaeda, Spycraft is a Netflix original docu-series that takes viewers through different key components of espionage and how they have evolved over the years. Released in late January 2021 to limited fanfare (potentially because the powers at be don’t want individuals to know the truth about American spycraft), the eight-episode series has entries on everything from the power of “sexpionage” to how agencies go about recruiting the individuals to become spies.
The final television series on this list, A Very Secret Service, looks at the world of espionage through a more satirical, comedic lens. A French production, A Very Secret Service, follows André Merlaux (Hugo Becker) after he is called in to be a trainee with the French Secret Services. Set in 1960 during the early days of the Cold War, the French are dealing with calls for independence in their then African colonies, especially Algeria, and a domestic populace growing more liberal every day that makes the government increasingly worried about Communist interference.
Few recent American figures are as divisive as Edward Snowden, and that’s exactly why the overtly political director Oliver Stone decided to make Snowden. The film explores Edward Snowden’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) life preceding his time as a subcontractor with the National Security Agency and, most importantly, his decision to leak classified documents that revealed espionage and data tracking operations carried out by the American government on its own citizens to a team of journalists. Even though the movie is based on two Snowden-focused books, Stone met with the real Snowden multiple times in an attempt to better understand him as well as a pick-up on some personality traits he could incorporate into the movie.
Jack Collins (Milo Gibson) is a former Navy SEAL and bounty hunter who is sent off to London to assist the CIA on a critical mission. All the Devil’s Men, written and directed by Matthew Hope, follows Jack as he becomes a part of a small team of operatives tasked with hunting down a former CIA agent intent on buying a nuclear warhead from Russian gangsters. Full of action and double-crossings, All The Devil’s Men will keep viewers on the edge of their seats as they try to put all the pieces together and watch Jack try to save the day and spare the world from a nuclear conflict.
Based on a true-story, Smoke & Mirrors follows the exploits of Francisco Pasea (Eduard Fernández), a Spanish agent who assisted the government fight a Basque separatist organization before ultimately being framed and exiled by the Spanish government. Years later, Pasea is allowed back in the country to assist Luis Roldán (Carlos Santos), the former Police commissioner, with a massive cash cover-up scheme. Still bitter about his past betrayal, Pasea plots how to take the money for himself in a manner that will hopefully leave him free from blame and flush with cash. Directed by Alberto Rodriguez, Smoke & Mirrors is incredibly entertaining as well as illuminating expose on how corrupt governmental institutions can be.