The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is the world’s most powerful intelligence unit, ranking above Israel’s Mossad, England’s MI6, Russia’s GRU (Main Intelligence Agency), and China’s Ministry of State Security.
The CIA itself will tell you that its job is to “collect and analyze foreign intelligence and conduct covert action.” The CIA basically exists to manipulate world events to the United States’ advantage.
The Agency didn’t even exist until 1947, when US President Harry Truman signed the National Security Act to create a bureau that would collect foreign intelligence in an effort to investigate its new post-WWII rival, the Soviet Union and, by extension, the spread of world communism.
It differs from the FBI in that the CIA covers foreign intelligence-gathering, while the FBI handles domestic information. It operates in such secret that even the taxpayers who fund it are not able to know for sure what its annual budget is.
Conservative commentator and two-time presidential candidate Pat Buchanan writes, “Our own CIA has a storied history of interfering in elections. In the late ’40s, we shoveled cash into France and Italy after World War II to defeat the communists who had been part of the wartime resistance to the Nazis and fascists.”
In the 1970s, Democratic Senator Frank Church of Idaho led a committee that established the CIA actively manipulates the American media: “In examining the CIA’s past and present use of the U.S. media, the Committee finds two reasons for concern,” Church said. “The first is the potential, inherent in covert media operations, for manipulating or incidentally misleading the American public.” Church’s investigation also concluded that throughout the Cold War, the CIA used Hollywood to promote pro-American and anti-communist propaganda throughout the USA and the world.
CIA movies are filled with double agents, double-crossing, espionage, action, blackmail, and murder. Here are several of the most famous CIA movies ever made.
The Best CIA Movies
Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor was released the year after the Watergate Scandal caused president Richard Nixon to resign in shame. As a result, the American public had a lower trust in their government than at any previous time in history. Robert Redford stars as Joe Turner, code name “Condor,” a Manhattan-based CIA researcher. Redford returns to his office from lunch one day to find all of his coworkers dead. When Turner summons a superior to brief him about the incident, the man shoots at him, causing Turner to go on the lam and into the arms of a beautiful and sympathetic woman (Faye Dunaway). Roger Ebert wrote, “‘Three Days of the Condor’ is a well-made thriller, tense and involving, and the scary thing, in these months after Watergate, is that it’s all too believable.”
Rumpled but lovable veteran character actor Walter Matthau portrays Miles Kendig, a dissatisfied but brilliant CIA desk clerk who one day decides he needs to get out of the business. In an attempt to dissuade the Agency from taking revenge against him, he starts to write a book about his years in the CIA and sends one chapter at a time to the rest of the world’s intelligence agencies. He absconds to Switzerland and into the arms of the beautiful Isobel von Schonenberg (Glenda Jackson) as he writes his tell-all book and seeks to evade the CIA’s clutches. Matthau improvised and wrote much of his dialogue in the film. Hopscotch is based on a best-selling novel by Death Wish author Brian Garfield.
Jerry Fletcher (Mel Gibson) is an animated but paranoid New York City cabdriver who harbors a pet conspiracy theory to explain everything that happens in the world. He suddenly finds himself being monitored by the government when it turns out that one of his theories is actually true—problem is, he doesn’t know which one. One day, Fletcher is kidnapped by the men he’s been tailing and wakes up strapped to a wheelchair in a government mental hospital. His friend and secret crush Alice Sutton (Julia Roberts) works for the government and is trying to figure out who murdered her father. Do Jerry’s conspiracy theories and Alice’s personal saga somehow overlap? Roger Ebert writes, “‘Conspiracy Theory’ cries out to be a small film—a quixotic little indie production where the daffy dialogue and weird characters could weave their coils of paranoia into great offbeat humor. Unfortunately, the parts of the movie that are truly good are buried beneath the deadening layers of thriller cliches and an unconvincing love story.”
Robert Redford plays Nathan Muir, a veteran CIA agent on the verge of retirement when he embarks on one final mission. Muir’s protégé, Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt), has been arrested in China, and the US government is reluctant to intervene on Bishop’s behalf for fear of ruining a major trade agreement. Muir then recounts his history with Bishop as he attempts to manipulate the government into getting Bishop freed.
When men on a fishing boat in the Mediterranean Sea rescue a man who is covered with bullets, neither they—nor, at that point, he—have any idea who he is. His name is Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), and memories of his identity come floating back to him in fragments. A laser device implanted in his hip leads him to a Swiss bank vault containing a huge load of cash and a cache of passports all containing his picture. After he realizes that government agents are trying to kill him, he escapes with a new female friend named Marie (Franka Potente), skipping from place to place to evade his captors as he tries to rebuild his very sense of self. Reel Views writes, “The Bourne Identity doesn’t have much of a story to speak off—the plot is a jumping-off point and a means to keep things rolling from one action sequence to the next….In all likelihood, Robert Ludlum fans will not be pleased by this adaptation of one of the spy master’s best-received novels.”
Set two years after the events in The Bourne Identity, this sequel finds Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) and his girlfriend Marie (Franka Potente) still in exile to evade the CIA’s detection but under the mistaken impression that the past is behind him. But when a CIA plot to obtain classified documents is bungled, a rival agent shows up in the remote seaside village in India where Jason and Marie have been hiding under pseudonyms. Bourne finds himself framed for a murder that occurred during the botched operation. Paul Greengrass directed The Bourne Supremacy due to differences between the studio and Doug Liman, the director of the first Bourne movie. Greengrass would go on to direct The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) and Jason Bourne (2016).
In Daniel Craig’s debut as author Ian Fleming’s MI6 Agent 007, AKA James Bond, the suave and charismatic spy finds himself at the Casino Royale in Montenegro, where he is assigned to beat a man named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a banker who funds the world’s terrorist organizations, at a high-stakes poker game. Most of the film’s second act takes place at the poker table. CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) assists Bond in his poker battle against Le Chiffre James Berardinelli writes, “It has been a long time since Bond has been this human….Yet there’s no better way to humanize a superhero than to make him fall in love….For Daniel Craig, this is a triumphant debut. Not since early Connery have we seen a Bond this magnetic.”
The Good Shepherd (2006) tells a largely fictionalized version of the life of James Jesus Angleton, one of the founding officers the CIA. Matt Damon plays Edward Wilson, a character loosely based on Angleton. Through a series of flashbacks, viewers follow Wilson’s life as he rises through the CIA to eventually become the first head of the organization’s counter-intelligence activities. The the movie’s marketing overstates its basis in truth, it is still a solid CIA drama with a stellar cast including Matt Damon, Robert De Niro, Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin, Eddie Redmayne, Joe Pesci, and many more.
Based on true events, Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) stars Tom Hanks as the titular Charlie Wilson, a real-life congressman from Texas. Set in 1980, Wilson begins the film as a member of the US House of Representatives who prefers partying to politics. A set of circumstances leads Wilson to become involved in the politics of the Soviet-Afghan war after visiting an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan. This ultimately leads to telling the story of how Charlie Wilson became a driving force in Operation Cyclone, a CIA program that armed and funded the Mujahideen in their fight against the Soviet Union. In addition to Tom Hanks, Charlie Wilson’s War has a phenomenal cast including Julie Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, and John Slattery.
Not technically a CIA movie, this film nonetheless involves a real-life Cold War story involving international intelligence agencies. Based on John le Carré’s 1974 spy novel of the same name about the “Cambridge Five,” KGB moles who were working within British intelligence agencies to leak information to the Soviets, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy stars Gary Oldman as a retired MI6 agent who is called out of retirement to investigate rumors that there are traitors working within British intelligence. Roger Ebert writes, “Yes, we imagine, international espionage is probably pretty much like this. No thrilling car chases and no big action scenes, but rather a series of weary men, smoking and drinking tea or whiskey, in a series of conversations that circle an enigma….The film, set mostly in London in the early 1970s, is bathed in browns, shadows and pale lighting.”
A rookie CIA agent, Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), is assigned to a safe house that becomes the scene of an interrogation for former CIA agent and current criminal Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington). When the safe house is attacked, Weston and Frost are the only two who manage to escape. The pair are forced to go on the run when Frost convinces Weston that someone inside the CIA may have been responsible for the attack.
Much of the so-called War on Terror, including the US military invasion of Afghanistan that wound up lasting 20 years, was initially intended to track down and bring to justice al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, who’d been fingered as the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Zero Dark Thirty, a movie which focuses on the manhunt for bin Laden by homing in on the dogged efforts of a female CIA operative named Maya (Jessica Chastain), had started production before bin Laden was killed at the hands of Navy S.E.A.L.s in Pakistan in May of 2011. After bin Laden’s death, the script was entirely revised to reflect this fact. Reel Views notes that Chastain’s character is “Ahab and bin Laden is the whale. She will go to any and all extremes to kill him. Obsession is her defining characteristic; she is fully invested in the hunt, to the point where she proves unable to answer two simple questions: ‘Do you have any friends?’ and ‘Where do you want to go now?’”
The fictional CIA analyst John Patrick Ryan, Sr. was created by novelist Tom Clancy and has a been a fixture of his bestselling novels for three decades and running. He first appeared as a cinematic character in 1990’s The Hunt For Red October and was played by Alec Baldwin. In this installment, Ryan (Chris Pine) is a US Marine whose spine was injured while fighting in Afghanistan. As he recovers, he meets a CIA agent who recruits him. During his investigations, Ryan uncovers a Russian plot to crash the USA economy by secretly inflating the value of Russian and Chinese currency for years. He also discovers that the entire plot was also related to the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2011.
Based on the real-life story of Gary Webb, a journalist for the San Jose Mercury-News, who was hounded by the CIA after he published a series of stories in 1996 establishing that the Agency facilitated the flooding of crack cocaine to LA’s black neighborhoods in exchange for running guns and money to the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua. Although Webb’s stories were never discredited, his paper refused to stand by him after the CIA revealed damaging personal information about him, essentially ruining his life. Reel Views writes, “Imagine, if you will, All the President’s Men with Robert Redford’s Bob Woodward brought down by attacks on his journalism. That’s the tale told by Kill the Messenger, in which a published newspaper series shining the light on ethically dubious practices of the CIA brings the full weight of that agency’s influence to bear on the man who wrote the stories.” During production and after release of Kill the Messenger, numerous cast and crew members said they received “push-back” from the US government.
From director Denis Villeneuve, Sicario (2015) stars Emily Blunt as Kate Macer, and FBI agent recruited to a joint task force overseen by CIA officer Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Made up of personnel from the US Marshals, Delta Force, and the CIA, the team’s mission is to take down the head of a powerful Mexican drug cartel. Agent Macer quickly learns that the task force has ulterior motive and dubious methods of operation. Sicario received near-universal acclaim for its acting, writing, and directing. The success of the film led to a sequel in 2018, Sicario: Day of the Soldado, though Denis Villeneuve was unable to return to direct it.
After the 2011 civil war in Libya and the execution of Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi, the country fell into chaos. What were previously 200 US military outposts in the country plummeted to only one—an unofficial CIA base in the Libyan town of Benghazi. On September 11, 2012—exactly eleven years after the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks on the USA—militant locals surrounded and attacked the CIA compound, leading to the death of four Americans. 13 Hours is director Michael Bay’s fictionalized rendering of this world-changing and highly politicized event. Reel Views writes, “It’s cowboys and Indians, except the location is Africa and the participants have machine guns, mortars, and rocket launchers instead of rifles and bows….13 Hours is a triumph of the ‘traditional’ (pre-1970s) school with a whole lotta explosions thrown into the mix.”
Matt Damon returns as Jason Bourne, the former CIA operative who survived an Agency attempt on his life and then exposed Operation Blackbriar in the film The Bourne Ultimatum. In the interim, Bourne has “gone dark” and settled into a world where he makes money by participating in illegal bare-knuckle fights. But one is never really a “former” CIA operative, and Bourne is dragged into the spy world again in a film that takes him from Iceland to Germany, Greece, England, and Las Vegas. Reel Views writes, “Jason Bourne is more than just a worthy addition to a popular franchise—it’s the cherry on the top….Jason Bourne is two hours of exhilarating, unrelenting cinema.”
Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron (Monster) portrays Lorraine Broughton, an undercover MI6 agent in Berlin during the waning days of the Cold War. After a KGB agent shot and killed an MI6 agent and stole his wristwatch—which contained a file of the identities of all agents in Berlin on both sides of the Cold War—Broughton’s task is to retrieve the watch. Reel Views writes, “Atomic Blonde combines the storytelling intrigue of a LeCarre/Deighton Cold War spy novel with the in-your-face kinetic style of John Wick. Atomic Blonde offers the kind of kick-ass female action hero the non-superhero side of the genre could use more of.”
American Made is based on the true story of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), AKA “The Gringo That Always Delivers,” an American pilot who became entangled with the CIA during the 1980s and wound up as a drug runner, money launderer, and gun smuggler as he interacts with all the major players in Central America’s wars and drug trade during that tumultuous era. James Berardinelli writes, “American Made is enjoyable because, although fabrications abound, there’s a nugget of truth at the core about how, from an intelligence agency’s viewpoint, the ends always justify the means, no matter how corrupt and contradictory those means may be.…American Made is breezy and fun and makes its points without subjecting the viewer to a browbeating.”
James Silva (Mark Wahlberg) is a member of Overwatch, an elite CIA paramilitary team that is sent to Indonesia to retrieve a foreign operative (Iko Uwais) who has promised to reveal where a secret stash of radioactive material that can possibly be turned into terrorist weapons is being hidden in exchange for safe asylum in the USA. Overwatch’s task is to transport the foreign operative 22 miles across hostile territory to a remote airfield where a plane will only be able to wait 10 minutes for him once it’s landed. If the mission gets bungled, it’s highly possible that World War III will be launched. James Berardinelli writes, “Mile 22 delivers precisely what’s expected from a violent, escapist action film and does so with brevity and shock power.”
After beautiful Russian ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) suffers a career-ending leg injury, she must find another way to make money to pay for her ailing mother’s medical care. She becomes a recruit of the “Sparrow School,” a covert agency whose operatives seduce others for intelligence-gathering purposes. She is assigned to seduce CIA operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) and uncover exactly which KGB agent is feeding him information. But in the course of seducing him, she also develops an attraction to him. James Berardinelli writes, “Red Sparrow is a deliciously perverse, unflinchingly violent thriller – a modern-day espionage tale that breaks with the tradition of making the spy business the purview of suave and debonair characters. Red Sparrow is a reasonable choice for those who don’t mind a fair amount of graphic sex and violence mixed in with the spying, back-stabbing, and double-dealing expected from this genre.”
Adam Driver plays Daniel Jones, a Senate staffer whose boss (California Senator Dianne Feinstein) assigns him to investigate the activities of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program after 9/11. What he finds is not only damning evidence of illegal torture, but a trail of evidence-destroying, deception, and evasion in the Agency’s attempts to hide their misdeeds from the American public. Arts Review says The Report takes place in “an America rebuilding itself following a national tragedy, include sleep-deprivation, physical violence, waterboarding and humiliation” and praises the film as “a deeply enthralling look into the American Senate’s investigation of the CIA and their use of torture practices post 9-11.” The Report is based on real-life events.
Anna Poliatova (Sasha Luss) is a frail-looking but beautiful blonde model from Moscow who used her beauty and fame to climb into the world of the Russian elite. What’s not known is that before becoming a model, she was a KGB assassin who had left piles of bodies in her wake. Will the CIA give her refuge, or will her machinations and lies finally cause her life to implode? Anna was written, produced, and directed by legendary filmmaker Luc Besson, who was accused (but not convicted) of sexual harassment during the making of the film.
Set in the early 1960s in the heat of the Cold War, The Courier tells the story of Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), a British salesman who MI6 recruits to be a spy. His mission is to ingratiate himself with a high-ranking but disgruntled KGB operative and pry information out of him. The San Francisco Examiner writes, “On the one hand, this is indeed a creaky old period piece, but on the other hand, it offers a relevant, timely message about not listening to hate-spewing maniacs and reaching out across the aisle to try to work together.”
Although an adaptation of Tom Clancy’s 1993 novel of the same name, Without Remorse shares almost nothing with its source material. As the sixth film adaptation of a Clancy novel, it is the first to feature the spy John Kelly (Michael B. Jordan) rather than Jack Ryan. Under the name John Clark, the spy had been one of the most popular characters in Clancy’s books. After Russian soldiers kill his family—including his pregnant wife—as revenge for his role in a CIA operation, Kelly vows to avenge his loved one’s deaths. But first, he must figure out who was behind the conspiracy. The San Francisco Examiner writes, “At its essence, it’s nothing more than a simple, boiled-down revenge story—but it does feel like a lean, trim, neatly paced action movie….It’s largely thanks to the powerful, charismatic Jordan that the movie works as well as it does; it effortlessly becomes the most entertaining Clancy movie since the days of Harrison Ford and Alec Baldwin.”
More Great CIA Movies
- Dr. No (1962) is not only the first James Bond movie—it may also be the first drama film to mention the CIA. Jack Lord plays an American CIA agent who is asked to assist British Agent 007.
- The Man With One Red Shoe (1985) In this silly comedy, Tom Hanks plays a man who is oblivious to the fact that he has become the center of a CIA operation when he is framed as a key witness in a plot involving a crooked CIA agent.
- The Hunt for Red October (1990) Sean Connery stars as a rogue Russian submarine captain who seeks to defect to the US; Alec Baldwin plays a CIA agent who correctly assesses the situation, but his task is to persuade the rest of American intelligence that Connery’s character really isn’t seeking to launch a nuclear attack on the US mainland.
- Mission: Impossible (1996) Brian de Palma directs this first film in the successful series of spy movies starring Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt.
- Man on Fire (2004) Denzel Washington stars as a former CIA Special Activities Division officer and current bodyguard who is out for revenge after a nine-year-old girl is abducted.
- Syriana (2005) George Clooney stars as Bob Barnes, a character based on real-life CIA case officer Robert Baer, in this politic thriller telling four parallel stories about the politics and bloodshed involved in the oil industry.
- Taken (2008) A former CIA agent (Liam Neeson) uses his particular set of skills to save his kidnapped daughter.
- Argo (2012) In Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning film, Affleck plays an undercover CIA agent posing as a Hollywood producer but whose goal is to rescue the US hostages taken during 1979’s Iranian Revolution.
- A Good Day to Die Hard (2014) In the fifth installment of the Die Hard series, John McClane (Bruce Willis) takes the fight all the way to Russia where his son Jack, a CIA agent, is in serious trouble.
- The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015) A CIA agent (Henry Cavill) and a KGB agent (Armie Hammer) join forces to prevent an international crime syndicate from unleashing global chaos. Also features Alicia Vikander.
- Spy (2015) This spy-movie parody stars Melissa McCarty as a CIA analyst who is most comfortable sitting behind a desk, but who is thrust into the field when she volunteers to investigate when her partner is thought to be killed.
- Snowden (2016) Oliver Stone’s dramatization of the real-life saga of Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an NSA operative whose leaks of classified data led him to seek asylum in Russia.
- Central Intelligence (2016) Dwayne Johnson plays a CIA agent who gets help from his former friend, an accountant played by Kevin Hart.
- Criminal (2016) The memories of a dead CIA agent are implanted into a convicted sociopath’s mind. Stars Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, and Gal Gadot.
- American Assassin (2017) Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) and Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) are CIA operatives who discover that a Turkish agent is attempting to start a war throughout the Middle East.
- The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018) Mila Kunis stars as a woman who was dumped by her boyfriend, who also happens to be a spy for the CIA; then she finds herself and a female friend entangled in a conspiracy.
- Tenet (2020) In director/writer Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi action thriller, a CIA agent known only as Protagonist is on a time-manipulating mission to protect the world from destruction.
- No Time to Die (2021) Daniel Craig returns as James Bond when a friend in the CIA asks him to help thwart a rogue operative who is armed with a dangerous new weapon.