Top 10: Best Political Thrillers

Espionage, cover-ups, assassination, and clandestine activities; political dramas have always fascinated audiences. Whether they are slow-burns (e.g. “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” or “The Lives of Others”) or heart-stopping narratives (e.g. “Enemy of the State” or “Munich”), political thrillers artfully capture moments in our sociocultural/political history. With their heyday in the 1970s and a resurgence in the 1990s, these films offer intriguing storylines, action, drama and great acting performances to boot. 

Here, we offer a list of some of the best political thrillers. There are so many admirable choices to make, and these films deserve an Honorable Mention: “Enemy of the State,” “In the Line of Fire,” “Argo,” “The Lives of Others,” “The Hunt for Red October” and “JFK.”

Check out the list down below:

10“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939)
dir: Frank Capra  

Although not what first comes to mind when you hear the term “thriller,” this Frank Capra film put a spotlight on our inherently flawed political system. Inspirational at its core, this impactful film leaves viewers on the edge of their seat rooting for the underdog. And it doesn’t hurt that James Stewart offers up one of the best film performances ever.

9“Zero Dark Thirty” (2012)
dir. Kathryn Bigelow

Based on the hunt for an ultimate assassination of Osama bin Laden, this controversial film was nominated for Best Picture. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, the CIA-based thriller elevated some powerful performances, especially from Jessica Chastain, which garnered her a second consecutive Oscar nomination.

8“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011)
dir. Tomas Alfredson

Featuring an all-star cast, this film set in the height of the Cold War, tells the story of an espionage veteran uncovering a Soviet Agent within MI6. Starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones, John Hurt, and Mark Strong, “Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy” is full of tension, a complex plot, fascinating characters and strong performances from its ensemble cast.

7“Z” (1969)
dir. Costa-Gavras

Following the fictional assassination of a Greek politician, this controversial film is filled with satire and suspense and commentary on Greek governance. As impactful as it is artful, “Z” is full of rabbit holes and keeps audiences enthralled from beginning to end.

6“Three Days of the Condor” (1975)
dir. Sydney Pollack

“Three Days of the Condor” is considered a true classic amongst political thrillers. A CIA analyst finds himself on the run after everyone in his office is assassinated. With a star-studded cast (Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson, and Max von Sydow), this fun watch is full of paranoia, thrills and superb action.

5“Munich” (2005)
dir. Steven Spielberg

This Steven Spielberg film is based on the true story of the aftermath of the 1972 assassination of the Israeli Olympic team. The selection offers some great performances from Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciarán Hinds, and Marie-Josée Croze, among others. At its time-ticking core, “Munich” urges audiences to tackle questions of morality, justice, and vengeance. 

4“The Ides of March” (2011)
dir. George Clooney

This is one of the few great political thrillers that focus on the election and not circumstances that occur once the position of power is decided. “The Ides of March,” tells the story of an idealistic staffer for a presidential candidate who gets a crash course on dirty politics while on the campaign trail. Directed by George Clooney and starring Ryan Gosling, Clooney, Paul Giamatti, Evan Rachel Wood, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, and Marisa Tomei, “The Ides of March generates great intrigue for our political system and was nominated for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay in 2012.

3“The Manchurian Candidate” (1962)
dir. John Frankenheimer

Another entry considered a true classic, this Frank Sinatra vehicle tells the story of a former prisoner of war who is brainwashed into an unwitting assassin for a Communist conspiracy. Also starring Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury and Laurence Harvey, set in the Cold War era (fodder for political thrillers) “The Manchurian Candidate” is so quintessential that even its title is now part of the political lexicon. Ahead of its time and still relevant today, its a film that makes audiences question the desperate bipartisanship found in today’s political climate.

2“The Post” (2017)
dir. Steven Spielberg

Another Steven Spielberg Best Picture Oscar nominee, “The Post” tackles the cover-up that spanned four U.S. Presidents and the battle between freedom of the press and the government. With stellar performances from yet another Oscar nominated role for Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, and Matthew Rhys just to name a few, “The Post” reflects on the social consciousness on one of the most divisive issues of contemporary politics, reminiscent of our final selection.

1“All the President’s Men” (1976)
dir. Alan J. Pakula

Arguably the unassailable political thriller, this true story portrays the journalistic quest for freedom of the press against the limits and reach of the executive powers. Following the Washington Post writers, Woodward and Bernstein, “All the President’s Men” uncover the Watergate scandal that ended in Nixon’s resignation and garnered four Oscars. And it has spectacular turns from Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford to boot.

What’s your favorite political thriller? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

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