Ask someone for their favourite 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’s 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 rubbish liar (surely a problem for real-life sources who don’t happen to be Oscar-calibre 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?’