Nothing quite brings in the start of the holiday season like spy movies. For years, the new James Bond movie seemed to open up around Thanksgiving (or maybe that’s just when we saw it in theaters). Plus, cable television used to have James Bond movie marathons so you could see your favorite British spy thwarting his enemies and saving the world once more.
While James Bond movies seem larger than life, the real world of espionage can be even more astonishing, with feats of daring-do, incredible disguises, and so much more. So in honor of spy craft and the holidays, here is a list of eight spy documentaries that came out recently to watch with friends and family during the holidays. Sometimes real life is stranger than fiction.
The Pigeon Tunnel (2023) directed by Errol Morris
The name David Cornwell may not ring a bell, but if you're interested in anything espionage, you probably know the name John le Carre, best known for his books Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Constant Gardener. This documentary focuses on Cornwell’s final interview, talking about both his career as a spy and his writing career. It’s a peek behind the proverbial curtain into Cornwell's world.
Spy Ops (2023) directed by Marek Bures
While the other documentaries on this list focuses on the more distant past, this Netflix series focuses on more recent episodes of espionage across the world, from the Middle East to Panama. This series is told from firsthand testimony from intelligence officers from the CIA, Mossad, MI6, and other agencies. However, some critics have taken issue with the overt jingoism of some of the episodes, so watcher beware.
Neither Confirm Nor Deny (2023) directed by Philip Carter
This one is for people who are really fascinated with nuclear submarines. This documentary tells the harrowing story of how the CIA retrieved a sunken Soviet nuclear submarine over the course of six years. To help the effort, billionaire Howard Hughes pretended to be mining undersea as a cover story for the machinations in the ocean. It’s a story worthy of John le Carre or one of the many submarine movies in the past few decades.
The Real Spies Among Friends (2022) directed by Nick Tanner
When the Soviet spy ring was uncovered in the UK, it was one of the biggest scandals in espionage history. A group of Cambridge students became interested in communism and were recruited by the Soviets to spy for them. They each got elite jobs in the British government and passed along critical information to the Soviets. This one-hour television documentary gives background about the Cambridge Five and serves as a companion to A Spy Among Friends, a 2022 TV miniseries with actors Guy Pearce, Damien Lewis, and Anna Maxwell Martin.
A Compassionate Spy (2022) directed by Steve James
Instead of the government bureaucrat spies, this documentary focuses on Ted Hall, a talented physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project. While he was suspected of espionage in the U.S., he was not arrested. Director Steve James interviewed Hall’s wife, Joan Hall, and their two daughters discussing his life, his ideals, and his spy craft passing secrets about the US nuclear program to the Soviets. Not only does it follow Hall’s life, but it’s also a window into the world of the Cold War.
Spycraft (2021) directed by Maria Berry, Jan Spindler, and Marek Bures
I’m not sure why Netflix has such a flurry of spy documentaries and movies, but I'm not complaining! While Spy Ops focuses on missions, Spycraft looks at the tools of the trade from high-tech surveillance, deadly poisons, and code breakers. It also explores how these technologies have changed over the decades. As someone who is fascinated by the technologies of espionage, I’m excited for these deep dives into the craft part of spying.
The Silence of the Mole (2021) directed by Anaïs Taracena
Most spy stories are about government agents infiltrating other governments or clandestine rings. This Guatemalan documentary, also known as El Silencio del Topo inverts that, showcasing a mole inside the government passing information to the people outside. At great personal and professional cost, journalist Elías Barahona infiltrated the repressive and violent Guatemalan government in the 1970s to uncover evidence of its political violence and abuses, passing on these secrets to resistance movements. It’s an incredible true story of one man’s resilience and unwavering mission in the face of political danger and death.
The Spy Behind Home Plate (2019) directed by Aviva Kempner
Since we have lots of Cold War espionage stories, here’s a great documentary focused on fighting the Nazis. It features Morris Moe Berg, a Jewish baseball catcher who played in the major leagues in the 1920s and 1930s. But when he wasn’t fielding baseballs, he worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA, to go undercover in Europe to spy on the Nazis.