What Are the Best Cold War Movies?

The recent release of Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, starring Tom Hanks as the Eisenhower era lawyer tasked with defending a Soviet spy (played by the awesome Mark Rylance), got me wondering:

What are the best Cold War movies?

I actually dedicated a three-post series to the question of the best war movies back in 2013, so I thought I’d start by reviving that methodology…

  1. I made a list of all films with the key word “Cold War” in the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) and recorded the ratings for any that had been reviewed by at least 5,000 users.
  2. Then I added the critics’ ratings from the Rotten Tomatoes (RT) aggregator and discarded any film from the IMDB list that hadn’t received enough critical reviews in RT.
  3. I combined the two ratings, giving a higher weight to IMDB because the RT sample varies so significantly. (More recent films might have hundred of critics weigh in; older and more obscure movies only a handful.)

Overall, the Cold War has produced a lot of movies (104, by my criteria), the majority of them quite forgettable. At least as defined by IMDB — and the connection to the conflict can be pretty loose — Cold War movies’ median score (6.8/10) placed well behind World War I (7.5), World War II (7.4), and the Vietnam War and American Civil War (both 7.2).

Perhaps not surprisingly, given that there’s a fair amount of overlap between the two categories, the Cold War results mirrored what I found for Vietnam: “…while good Vietnam movies are pretty terrific, bad Vietnam movies are equally atrocious.”

First, the atrocious. Eighteen of the Cold War movies on my list couldn’t even reach the mediocre score of 6.0, with the likes of Superman IV (3.4), Ishtar (4.0), Red Scorpion (4.5), and Rambo III (5.3) bringing up the rear.

Proportionally, the Cold War hasn’t produced as many terrific films as the Second World War. Fully a quarter of my WWII list scored 8.0 or higher; only one in 10 Cold War films reached that level. But it’s still an outstanding list:

  1. Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (8.7)
  2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (8.6)
  3. North by Northwest (8.6)
  4. The Lives of Others (8.4)
  5. Anatomy of a Murder (8.3)
  6. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (8.2 — the 1956 original, though the 1978 remark also did well, earning a 8.2 from critics)
  7. The Right Stuff (8.2)
  8. The Manchurian Candidate (8.2 — the 1962 original)
  9. The Iron Giant (8.1)
  10. Judgment at Nuremberg (8.1)

I haven’t seen The Iron Giant (the directorial debut of Brad Bird, coming five years before The Incredibles), but the others are all terrific. Showing Dr. Strangelove is a regular highlight of my Cold War class, and I always kick myself for not leaving enough time at the end of that semester in which to show students The Lives of Others, about an East German playwright and the Stasi agent who spies on him. North by Northwest is pretty much the most entertaining movie ever made, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers one of the scariest.

(Bridge of Spies hasn’t had enough user ratings at IMDB to qualify, but currently it clears the 8.0 threshold.)

But three of these films don’t belong on the list. I know there are a couple of Soviet characters in 2001, but I bet I could ask 100 people and not one would describe it as a “Cold War movie.” There are pre-Cold War hints of burgeoning tension in the politics of Judgment at Nuremberg, but if we’re going to count that kind of thing, then Carol Reed’s post-WWII film noir The Third Man should bump Judgment from this top ten. (It would finish just behind Dr. Strangelove in this system.) And while I’d be happy if all this post did is get one person to watch Anatomy of a Murder for the first time — or to look for its Duke Ellington score on Spotify — its only connection to the Cold War is that the judge is played by Joseph Welch, the attorney whose nationally-televised rebuke of Sen. Joseph McCarthy helped end that witch hunt.

So which three would I add to the mix in the race for greatest Cold War movie?

There’s a clutch of great movies that came in just below the 8.0 threshold, any three of which would be excellent additions to the mix. For the sake of variety, I’d pick the sci-fi warnings of The Day the Earth Stood Still and the fast-paced comedy of Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three over the more predictably tense dramas Fail Safe and Seven Days in May. Then I’d reserve a spot for my favorite James Bond film, From Russia with Love, which treats superpower tension as a misdirect and features Kurt Weill’s widow in a villainous supporting role!

But my favorite Cold War movie is actually a TV miniseries: the 1979 BBC adaptation of John Le Carré’s spy novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I could watch Alec Guinness underplay George Smiley for hours and hours; rarely has a protagonist been at once so restrained, reduced, and yet powerful. (There is a slightly less satisfying sequel, Smiley’s People, that has a brief but crucial appearance by a pre-Picard Patrick Stewart.) The washed-out color cinematography is even more apt than the B&W shadows of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (7.7 in the IMBD/RT system). And the grimy London of the late Seventies is the perfect setting for an interpretation of the Cold War in which unsentimental heroes win a victory that feels like defeat. Then there’s the music (and Gospel) that closed every episode…

4 thoughts on “What Are the Best Cold War Movies?

  1. Reblogged this on AC 2nd and commented:

    Having already done similar posts on the two world wars, Vietnam, and the Civil War, Prof. Gehrz wondered this morning which Cold War movie stands above the rest…

  2. My favorite Cold War movie is “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” (TSTCIFTC). The themes of the “good” West adopting the very same wicked operational methods as the evil East, and the sub-theme of “Kill the Jew!” point to two very important points. Filmed in 1964, the same year as “Fail-Safe” and “Dr. Strangelove”, TSTCIFTC remains perhaps the most authentic and realistic depiction of the loneliness and ideological line-blurring of all the CW-Era films. It correctly identifies (more so in the book) that the “Jewish Problem” and the existance of Israel will be a major Cold War theme. Perhaps TSTCIFTC’s best contribution was that it correctly foreshadowed that there would be no clear winner in this war, that “to the Victor go the spoils” would mean a united, but liberal-socialist Europe, for a mildly-less communist Russia. Was it worth it?

  3. Just sent this link around to students in my recent US History class. They have a paper on 1960s pop culture due soon, so this is timely.

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