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10 thrilling films about the Cold War

BY James Oliver

1st Jan 2015 Film & TV

10 thrilling films about the Cold War

Our latest top ten looks at some of the very best movies about the frigid fight that was the Cold War…

Between 1945 and 1989 (or thereabouts), the world was shaped by a face-off between the Soviet Union (and associated nations) and the USA (and her allies). While direct confrontation was avoided—nuclear weapons do focus the mind somewhat—they found plenty of indirect ways to fight each other in a conflict known as the Cold War.

Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, starring Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance, is getting rave reviews from critics and movie-goers alike. It’s apparent there is an appetite for the era, and this collection of thrillers returns to the tense old days of the Cold War.


Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

To call John Le Carré a 'spy novelist' is like saying Joseph Conrad wrote adventure stories: factually true, yet somehow missing the mark. Le Carré's books are about about ambiguities, uncertainties and betrayals, albeit informed by his own experiences as a spook.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy draws on the great treachery of Kim Philby, whose duplicity crippled British intelligence. t had previously been filmed by the BBC in a version many felt was definitive but this 2011 film version is a fine companion piece, with Gary Oldman as the taciturn George Smiley, hunting a traitor amongst those closest to him.


From Russia with Love

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We have to have a Bond film on here since they are the most famous cultural product of the Cold War years. Although, to be thoroughly pedantic, the Bond films weren't really about the Cold War. Most-if-not-all movies pitted Bond against freelance megalomaniacs or, as here, SPECTRE.

Still, there's a bit of espionage here. And it's got 'Russia' in the title. More importantly, it's also one of the very best of the Bond films so it's not like even hardcore pedants can complain about its inclusion too bitterly.


Jet Pilot

...Because not all cold war movies can be taken entirely seriously. This story of American pilot John Wayne who falls for Russian aviatrix Janet Leigh was begun by Josef von Sternberg.

He was elbowed aside by producer (and rabid anti-communist) Howard Hughes. The finished product is highly entertaining, if not quite for the reasons Hughes intended.


The Kremlin Letter

Blame James Bond: the 1960s produced hundreds of spy movies trying to ape his success. This, directed by John Huston, is one of the most interesting. It's a convoluted game of international intrigue in which a naïve young agent finds himself playing against some dangerous old pros.

The film's cynicism made it unpopular with Bond fans. Today, that same quality ensures it is held in much higher regard.


Les Espions

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Henri-Georges Cluzot made so many utterly outstanding films (The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques are two of them) that his merely excellent work tends to get overlooked.

This characteristically caustic take on the Cold War deserves more attention. It's set in a shabby clinic which is treating a mysterious patient. Could this be a high-ranking secret agent? No one is entirely sure but that doesn't stop rival spy networks trying to grab him just in case.

It also features fluent French speaker Peter Ustinov. He had his own connection to the Cold War as his father Jona von Ustinov was a long standing agent of MI6.


The Manchurian Candidate

American paranoia became even more pronounced during the Cold War, what with talk of fifth columns and reds-under-the-beds.

Those fears fed into The Manchurian Candidate, a film about a brainwashed Korean War veteran reprogrammed as a political assassin.

It's either a chillingly plausible tale of psychological warfare or a satire on right-wing hysteria. Less contentiously, it's also a bloody good thriller.


The Right Stuff

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Not the most obvious cold war movie but this account of the early years of the space exploration provides one of the best explanations of how people thought during those times. Why put a man into space? Because the Soviets have. Why send a man to orbit the world for a day? So we can go one better than the commies.

Such was the space race. All that money, all that energy and inspiration—all of it was expended in a gigantic game of one-upmanship. Still, at least we got the non-stick frying pan out of it. 


Animal Farm

Here's another unconventional cold war film. Of course, this animated adaptation of George Orwell's allegory is none too complimentary about the communist system but it's included here for other reasons besides. You see, this here film is an authentic Cold War artefact.

Although you won't see them mentioned in the credits, Animal Farm was funded by the actual CIA, intent on winning hearts and minds through the medium of cartoon animals. (Spoiler: it didn't work.) 


The Man Who Saved the World

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The other films on our list are all fictions but here is a genuine story from the front line, a documentary about a gentleman called Stanislav Petrov, a gentleman who did, just as the title promises, save the world.

Back in 1983, the Soviet high command confused a NATO war-game with a genuine invasion; Petrov declined to launch a nuclear strike. But he doesn't want to play the hero; he is a splendidly crabby fellow, mellowing only when he meets his hero—Kevin Costner.


The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

We started with Le Carré; we'll end with him too. This film adaptation of his breakthrough novel is an outstanding tale of compromise and disillusion.

Apparently Le Carré was unhappy Richard Burton was cast in the lead (he wanted Trevor Howard as the titular spy) but to more objective viewers, Burton is outstanding as the beaten, broken man who has done too many questionable things. The moral ambiguities of the hidden war were never laid so bare.


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