Ask someone for their favorite political thrillers and you’re likely to get a list of Oscar-winning classics, from JFK to The Day Of The Jackal, Blow Out to Argo. But what about those electrifying tales that have slipped under the radar, been largely forgotten or just didn’t get the love they deserved? Here are 25 political thrillers which are underappreciated but brilliant.
25. The Amateur (1981)
Generally, the first hostage to get shot in a heist movie is considered insignificant; luckily this time the young woman killed by terrorists has a devoted boyfriend who vows to avenge her death. Charles Heller (John Savage) already works for the CIA, so he’s able to use secret information to blackmail his bosses into letting him go in search of revenge. Unfortunately for him, they’re nodding and smiling while plotting to kill him as soon as his back is turned, so his quest is even more eventful than it might have been.
While uncovering layers of deception, there are some enjoyably explosive deaths (including a swimming pool bomb worthy of a Bond film) and the climactic shoot-out takes place in a warehouse full of chandeliers, for no apparent reason other than it looks a bit flash. Bonus: Christopher Plummer as the head of Czech Counter Intelligence.
24. The Wave/Die Welle (2008)
There are no presidents, CIA agents, or conspiracy theories in this movie but it has a powerful political message all the same. Jürgen Vogel plays Rainer Wenger, a teacher trying to convey to his high school class how easily the masses can be manipulated. Generations after World War Two, the students confidently assert that there’s no way they’d ever fall for fascism again. He begins an experiment, creating a set of class rules designed to make them feel united and superior to students not included in the clique – which becomes more dangerous by the day.
Incredibly, the movie is based on the true story of teacher Ron Jones’ experiment in 1967, which was also made into a TV movie in 1981. Oh, and the kicker? The real-life exercise which morphed into a nightmare took place in California. But don’t let that worry you.
23. Rendition (2007)
For a movie featuring Reese Witherspoon, Meryl Streep, Jake Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard, this was surprisingly low on awards and luvvie attention. Egyptian-born Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) is living the American dream with pregnant wife Isabella (Witherspoon). However, on his way back to the States from South Africa, he is detained on suspicion of terrorist activities. Worse luck, the law allows this extraordinary rendition (and subsequent interrogation under torture) to take place in total secrecy.
His wife only has a credit card bill to prove that officials are lying when they say he missed his flight; meanwhile CIA analyst Doug Freeman (Gyllenhaal) is getting jittery about the methods used to extract information from an apparently innocent man.
Closet Land (1991) offers a Kafka-esque take on the subject of mysterious political interrogations, with Alan Rickman giving Madeleine Stowe a hard time in a compelling, surreal two-person movie.
22. Shadow Dancer (2012)
Losing a kid brother to street violence during the troubles in 1970s Belfast is all the motivation Colette (Andrea Riseborough) needs to join the IRA when she grows up. Twenty years later she’s in London attempting to plant a bomb on the tube, but when she’s caught, MI5 officer Mac (Clive Owen) blackmails her into becoming an informant. Unfortunately she’s a lousy liar (surely a problem for real-life sources who don’t happen to be Oscar-caliber actors?) and the lack of mobile phones in 1990s Northern Ireland makes it tricky to get messages to Mac without arousing suspicions.
To exacerbate the situation, Mac’s superior officer Kate (Gillian Anderson) is oddly cagey about plans which could make it blindingly obvious to Colette’s community that she is the leak. It’s an edge-of-your-seat ride with some nice little twists and great performances.
21. Seven Days In May (1964)
Kirk Douglas’ star quality sizzles off the screen in this gripping thriller; he plays Colonel ‘Jiggs’ Casey, who becomes suspicious of some weird goings on with the Joint Chiefs of staff (led by Burt Lancaster as General Scott). He concludes they’re planning a mutiny: not everyone is happy about the nuclear disarmament treaty the President (Frederic March) is signing with the Soviets. At first a coup seems so unlikely – “Next week… we’ll all be laughing about this” – but as the evidence builds, so does the tension.
Douglas and Lancaster made seven movies together, their professional rivalry and long-term connection giving the frenemies fantastic chemistry on screen. This film (their fifth together) was set vaguely in the future, with cutting-edge technology meant to suggest the 1970s. It was remade in 1994 as TV movie The Enemy Within, but the original deserves a new generation of fans.
20. The Debt/Ha-Hov (2007)
World War Two politics are a sub-genre I’ve avoided delving into (we could be here all day) but this 2007 Israeli film comes up with an intriguing post-war alternative history. It’s 1964, and three Mossad agents are assigned to capture a Nazi wanted for war crimes (his character apparently based on infamous concentration camp doctor Josef Mengele). Rachel (Gila Almagor) poses as a new patient and the agents scheme to kidnap the doctor, but all doesn’t go to plan. Thirty years later they are still picking up the pieces, not to mention the emotional complications; whose bright idea was it to place two male agents with one woman?
It was followed by an arguably superior 2010 remake which racked up the suspense and the shocks. It starred Jessica Chastain and Helen Mirren as Rachel, but a bizarre quirk of casting results in the men looking confusingly like each other’s older counterparts.
19. Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977)
Set in the futuristic world of 1981 and starring your favourite crazy uncle, Burt Lancaster, this movie’s split screen action resembles a cool comic strip. Renegade ex-general Lancaster and his pals have escaped from prison and now plan to seize control of nuclear missiles. Can the president give in to their demands, one of which is becoming their hostage?
It’s an oddly unloved movie, doing badly at the box office and not working well on VHS back in the days when low resolutions didn’t do split screens justice. Despite being a tad over-long, it’s full of nail-biting sequences and tense moments. For all its action and comically memorable lines (“I always knew you were arrogant, but not insane!”) it deals with some quite serious themes; Charles Durning is fantastic as the president in turns incandescent with rage and terrified of his fate.
18. The Package (1989)
What’s that? You fancy seeing those wonderfully craggy-faced and charismatic actors Gene Hackman and Tommy Lee Jones, going head-to-head as maverick army sergeants? Look no further. Sparkling with wit and warmth, this movie also has enough snow and car chases to become an essential part of your Christmas action viewing (slotting neatly between True Lies and Die Hard 1 and 2, obviously).
Gallagher (Hackman) is tasked with accompanying a prisoner from Germany to the US: Boyette (Jones) is a cheeky, disgraced ‘sergeant who keeps slugging officers’. Unfortunately, en route Boyette starts a downward spiral of trouble for Gallagher, who turns to his ex-wife (the enjoyably feisty Joanna Cassidy) and cop buddy Dennis Franz for help. But as the US and Soviet leaders come together to sign an anti-nuclear treaty, the plot thickens and Gallagher’s gang is in a race against time to stop a politically devastating assassination…
17. Breach (2007)
Loosely based on real events, this stars Ryan Philippe as Eric O’Neill, the FBI rookie assigned to shadow Robert Hanssen, an agent whose goody two-shoes persona is at odds with his habit of selling American secrets to Russian intelligence. Chris Cooper gives a stellar performance as the intimidating man who uses religion as an excuse to be thoroughly unpleasant to everyone.
O’Neill reports to Laura Linney, who gives him pep talks when his loyalty wavers; it’s hard to betray a boss when you’re beginning to bond with him. Even with full FBI support, O’Neill has some hair-raising moments in his attempts to gather evidence; constantly trying to get Hanssen out of his office/car is like planning the world’s meanest surprise party, and depends on Hanssen trusting him completely. Can O’Neill live with himself for leading the guilty man to justice?
16. Illustrious Corpses/Cadaveri Eccellenti (1976)
Sinister thrillers are so rarely named after silly party games, but you can see why the unpredictable nature of Exquisite Corpse (look it up, it’s brilliant) is reflected in the twists and turns of political conspiracy.
Directed by Francesco Rosi and now considered an Italian classic, this stars Lino Ventura as police inspector Rogas, who is investigating the murder of a district attorney. When two judges are killed he realises there is a connection between the victims, and corruption may be the key that unlocks the mystery. But he is heavily discouraged from following this line of inquiry… Could his enquiries lead him into danger, or possibly break down the very fabric of society?
Eerie visuals, Max Von Sydow as a memorably arrogant supreme court president, and a general sense of slow-burning doom make for compelling viewing.
15. Winter Kills (1979)
it’s not often I describe a political thriller as ‘zany’, but this one has more than its fair share of bizarre moments. Jeff Bridges plays Nick Kegan, younger brother of a president who was assassinated 19 years ago. Although the mystery was thought to have been solved, a dying man’s confession brings the danger right into the present.
Richard Condon (author of classic The Manchurian Candidate) penned the source novel; his allusions to JFK are so thinly veiled as to be completely transparent, with suspicion falling on both the mob and the Hollywood studio who lost money when the president’s movie star mistress committed suicide.
Despite the star-studded cast (John Huston as the outrageous Kegan patriarch, Elizabeth Taylor in an uncredited cameo) the production was repeatedly shut down and at one point declared bankrupt; a story told in the delightfully gossipy documentary Who Killed ‘Winter Kills’? (2003).
14. Gorky Park (1983)
William Hurt is Renko, a police investigator working on the case of three dead people with their facial skin peeled off – no wonder the KGB showed an interest at the murder scene. The film progresses with an enjoyably morbid sense of humour as Renko carries the sawn-off heads to a professor (Ian McDiarmid) who can’t resist the invitation to reconstruct the faces.
The clues lead Renko to some intriguing characters: an American cop vowing revenge on the Soviet police – or anyone really – for his brother’s death, the young woman whose ice skates were found on the dead girl’s feet, and Lee Marvin, a rich American businessman involved in the fur trade. What’s his connection with the three corpses?
Alexei Sayle pops up as a black marketeer, people helpfully announce “I’m KGB” when attempting assassinations, and furry little sables run through snowy forests in this cracker of a film.
13. Deterrence (1999)
Although this ’90s film was actually set eight years in the future (and mentions a presidential candidate named Trump – spooky!) it appears to have been given a deliberately timeless feeling. The backwoods diner epitomises small town America, and on one strange night, the President is stranded there due to a snow storm. What are the chances that Udey Hussein, now leader of Iraq, would choose right now to invade Kuwait?
With the other diners offering the president their home-spun wisdom or lack thereof, we’re reminded that behind official politics there are simply people: having conversations, getting annoyed with each other and sometimes refusing to back down because of childish pride. The movie is full of great lines and has enough intensity to keep you on your toes, but the ending feels a little hollow; the key question is ‘What happens after this?’
12. The Shooter/Skytten (2013)
Mia (Trine Dyrholm) is a high-flying journalist who holds TV debates with politician Thomas Borby; she rakes him over the coals for not delivering on the environmental promises that got his party elected. He implies that she’s trying to incite riots against him, so it’s unfortunate when a sniper begins shooting at suitable targets in a campaign of intimidation. Geophysicist Rasmus (Kim Bodnia) is determined to make the government face up to their responsibilities; he contacts Mia with proof that the government is lying about their ‘green’ intentions.
In this remake of Denmark’s 1977 film The Marksman, the two lead characters are emotionally engaging and the tension racks up as Rasmus becomes increasingly desperate to prevent environmental disaster caused by dishonest politicians out to make money. Mia has enough on her mind with the imminent adoption of a child, but can she stop Rasmus from doing something regrettable?
11. The Recruit (2003)
Bartender James Clayton (Colin Farrell) is a bit of a no-hoper, but CIA instructor Walter Burke (Al Pacino) spots his potential and brings him to ‘the Farm’, a top-secret CIA training facility. When everything could be a test, the lines of reality are blurred, and life gets confusing and potentially dangerous as Burke entrusts Clayton with the role of non-official cover (NOC). Going off-grid means no protection; he won’t officially exist. Bridget Moynahan is the sexy rival recruit who may have loyalties elsewhere, and Clayton has to figure out who’s telling the truth and who is a double-crosser.
The movie got panned at the time of its release – it was too unlikely and silly. But it’s genuinely exciting to watch, it has unexpected twists, an entertaining insight into what CIA training might be like, and Al Pacino saying “My dick is on fire!” – what more do you want?
10. Z (1969)
Any list of amazing political films will feature several directed by Costa-Gavras; Z is one of his earliest efforts and while it has Oscars and critical acclaim, it deserves a wider current audience.
The credits read “Any resemblance to actual events, to persons living or dead, is not the result of chance. It is DELIBERATE”. Perhaps it’s not surprising that this enthralling film was once banned in Greece – the plot is unashamedly based on the 1963 assassination of Grigoris Lambrakis and the events which followed.
Pacifist Yves Montand struggles to deliver a speech (funny how venues become unavailable when your message doesn’t jive with the current political leaders) and amid the chaos of the crowd he gets fatally conked on the head. The police insist it was a traffic accident, but can a magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) uncover the truth?
9. Unthinkable (2010)
Yusuf (Michael Sheen) is a former US soldier and Muslim convert; he’s enraged at the way his homeland treats largely Islamic countries. When he threatens to explode nuclear bombs in mystery locations, Special Agent Brody (Carrie-Anne Moss) is brought to the secret facility where he’s being held. She’s teamed up with ‘H’, a maniacal interrogator with a macabre sense of humour and several screws loose (Samuel L Jackson, giving an electrifying performance in more ways than one).
Films often repeat the message that by torturing a terrorist, you sink to their level; here it’s given a twist, questioning the wisdom of remaining ‘civilized’ at the cost of innocent lives. Should you let millions die because you’re too principled (or squeamish) to watch someone suffer? H has lost his own humanity, but could it be a worthy sacrifice if it saves the rest of the world? Unthinkable will get you pondering.
8. The Parallax View (1974)
Although it’s now reached cult classic status, I can’t resist including The Parallax View, the least critically lauded of director/producer Alan J. Pakula’s ‘Paranoia’ trilogy.
News reporter Paula Prentiss is witness to the assassination of a presidential candidate, and she’s getting worried – other witnesses are being bumped off one by one, even though they’re not aware of seeing anything significant. She seeks help from her ex, hunky journalist Joe Frady (Warren Beatty). His investigations lead him to the mysterious Parallax Corporation, who recruit potential assassins. Their induction training involves an iconic and alarming montage, but things become even more nerve-wracking as he’s pulled deeper into a world of conspiracy.
(On the bright side, apparently air travel in the 1970s was akin to getting on a bus; as well as being allowed to smoke you just wait for the ticket collector to come round, and pay while you’re flying.)
7. The Devil’s Double (2011)
Dominic Cooper is clearly having the time of his life in the dual roles of Saddam’s son Uday Hussein, and Latif Yahia, the lookalike commandeered into working as his double. When you have the bad luck to resemble a man who needs a decoy for all those assassination attempts, saying no isn’t an option.
Uday is a playboy who loves fast cars and partying almost as much as raping and murdering; he’ll happily torture friends and enemies alike, and Latif is forced to witness all the depravity of a man even Saddam himself thought was a bit much. It’s a visually dazzling but incredibly disturbing story which heats up as Latif desperately plots to escape; the detours into artistic license are interestingly plausible.
For more doppelganger fun, check out The Assignment (1997) in which Aidan Quinn portrays both Carlos the Jackal and the double hired to destroy him.
6. The Siege (1998)
This pre-9/11 story which features Middle Eastern terrorists feels uncomfortably close to the bone, but it’s far more thoughtful and less jingoistic than you might expect. Denzel Washington gives an enormously charismatic performance as FBI special agent Anthony Hubbard, who is on the trail of bomb-happy terrorists. He is in turns helped and hindered by CIA agent Elise Kraft (Annette Bening), and comes up against a US army Major (Bruce Willis) who has a pretty lax attitude to those all-American rules on not torturing prisoners. Martial law is declared in a nightmarish vision of what happens when multi-culturalism isn’t tolerated.
The spectre of American responsibility is raised, and the take-home message in this thinking person’s explosion movie is that the real danger comes not from foreigners or bombs, but the panic and paranoia that leads to rounding up anyone who looks ‘different’.
5. The Ghost Writer (2010)
Ewan McGregor stars as the nameless ghostwriter sent to a remote spot to work on the memoirs of ex-Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). Lang is holed up there in an awkward ménage à trois with his wife (a splendidly prickly Olivia Williams) and PA (Kim Cattrall).
The ghost discovers that his predecessor died in suspicious circumstances, and tracing his steps leads to people who clam up when Lang is mentioned; not surprising perhaps, when the ex-PM has been accused of war crimes. (Source novelist Robert Harris confessed that Blair was an inspiration.) As he uncovers lies and a feeling of constantly being watched, the ghost doesn’t know who he can trust…
With blustery weather, gloomy grey seas and McGregor’s everyman quality, it feels satisfyingly reminiscent of an early Hitchcock film; Roman Polanski creates an atmosphere of growing dread in this clever, mysterious slow-burner that deserves more love.
4. Traitor (2008)
Devout Muslim Samir quotes the Qu’ran: “if you kill an innocent person it’s as if you’ve killed all mankind.” So what is he doing with a bunch of bombers who are planning numerous attacks to create a feeling that ‘nowhere is safe’? Don Cheadle gives an absorbing performance as the conflicted man who perfectly fits the government’s idea of a potential terrorist. Guy Pearce is the FBI agent on his tail, while another US intelligence contractor (Jeff Daniels) also has a connection with him.
The story deals with the current political atmosphere with intelligence as well as providing some enjoyable action and heart-stopping twists. It also raises the question “Is it ever ok to kill people in the quest for ‘your side’ to win?” Bearing in mind that everyone thinks they’re the good guys…
3. Fail Safe (1964)
Fail Safe suffered at the box office for coming out shortly after Dr. Strangelove; covering similar ground story-wise, the satire made Fail Safe seem unintentionally comedic in comparison. It has enjoyed a renaissance in later years, with Stephen Frears directing George Clooney and Richard Dreyfuss in a TV play which was televised LIVE in 2000.
It’s a beautifully simple plot: American pilots on a routine course to their failsafe points are mistakenly sent the ‘go-code’ which instructs them to attack Russia. At this point communication breaks down and armed forces are helpless to avert this act of war, so the president (Henry Fonda) has to convince the Soviet chairman that it’s all a horrible mistake. (Over the phone. Via a translator. Not ideal when the fate of the world hangs in the balance.) Every possible twist is wrung out for maximum tension, with an incredibly dramatic and powerful ending.
2. The Whistleblower (2010)
Rachel Weisz plays Kathryn Bolkovac, an American cop who takes a peacekeeper job in Bosnia for some quick cash. Always a diligent worker, she’s soon promoted to be head of gender affairs. But all is not well; she learns that UN workers are not particularly strict on sex traffickers because they partake of their services and even help them along. It takes all of Bolkovac’s courage and determination to fight the system: the sickening truth is that the UN are willingly covering up the crimes to protect their organisation’s reputation.
Shockingly, The Whistleblower is based on real events; it took writer/director Larysa Kondracki almost a decade to get it made after buying the rights to Bolkovac’s story. Harrowing as it is, details were changed to make the film more palatable (for instance, no children were included in the fictional victims) but it’s still not an easy watch.
1. No Way Out (1987)
Based on 1948’s The Big Clock, the ropey-80s-fashion-and-music-filled No Way Out doesn’t look like anything special at first glance, but it makes number one because after a slow beginning, it transforms into one of the most nail-biting, spine-tingling films I have ever seen. It’s full of twists and ‘How the hell are you going to get out of this, then?’ moments, all whipping along at breakneck speed.
Navy man Tom Farrell (Kevin Costner) is introduced to the U.S. Secretary of Defense David Brice (Gene Hackman) and ends up working for him at the Pentagon. He also meets Sean Young, and a passionate affair ensues. Unfortunately he is not her only beau, and it turns out that being in a love triangle with your boss is a terrible idea. When things go wrong Farrell is put in the awkward position of heading up a manhunt to find and arrest… himself.
Three Days Of The Condor (1975): A tad too successful to count as ‘underrated’ but less well-known than other 1970s spy classics. Robert Redford works in CIA admin, in the kind of cosy office where one person pops out to get the lunches – but what happens when you return to find everyone dead?
The House On Carroll Street (1988): Kelly McGillis and Jeff Daniels team up in this likably old-fashioned tale of McCarthyism and war criminals in 1950s America.
Flashpoint (1984): I would have loved to include this delightful Kris Kristofferson buddy movie, but its links to politics are somewhat tenuous. Two border patrol guards make a historical discovery in the desert which puts them in all kinds of danger; hijinks ensue.
Ground Zero (1987): In this Australian thriller, a cameraman uncovers secrets about nuclear tests the British government carried out in the 1950s, regardless of the effect they have on local Aborigines. It’s an original plot that’s perhaps due for a glossier remake.
The Whistle Blower (1986): Nigel Havers is the British intelligence linguist who can’t help noticing some strange things going down, Michael Caine the father who steps in when his son’s investigation takes a deadly turn.