The best political thrillers include All the President's Men, Argo, and No Way Out.
When political thrillers are done right, they are some of the most exciting watches on the big screen. What makes them especially watchable is the fact that many of these films are based on real-life political incidents that make for compelling stories. Kevin Costner arguing about presidential assassinations, Ben Affleck as a government agent, or Robert Redford uncovering political scandals. It’s all here. Not all are fact-based, but even those have the ability to entertain. Here are the 10 Best Political Thriller Movies of all time.
10 BEST POLITICAL THRILLER MOVIES OF ALL TIME
1. All the President’s Men (1976)
You can thank former President Richard M. Nixon for the Watergate scandal and All the President’s Men. Political thrillers were not uncommon in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, the genre seemed to turn it up a notch.
The film, one of the 10 best political thrillers, is based on the true story of investigative Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward, here played by Robert Redford, and Carl Bernstein, played by Dustin Hoffman. It is about their relentless pursuit of the truth behind the Watergate scandal. Never before has the term “Deep Throat” been used in such high regard.
The reporting by Woodward and Bernstein, whose story broke on January 20, 1973, led to the disgraceful resignation of President Nixon and the inauguration of Gerald Ford, Nixon’s vice president, on August 9, 1974, as the 38th President of the United States. Ford would finish his term in 1977.
2. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Government dishonesty and the suspicion of conspiracy. Sounds like we are talking about the political atmosphere of today. But this was also present in the ‘60s as evidenced by the 1962 John Frankenheimer political thriller, The Manchurian Candidate.
As one of the 10 best political thriller movies of all time, the film stars Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra, as Major Bennett Marco. He is heading an investigation into Korean War Vet Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey), whose family are major players in national politics.
Shaw was in the Korean War, but his unit was captured. While in captivity by the communists, Shaw is brainwashed and upon his return to the US, he becomes an assassin for the communists. Their goal? To have Shaw assassinate a presidential nominee – with the hopeful result in the overthrow of the United States government.
3. Argo (2012)
Argo is the 2012 Best Picture Academy Award-winning film by director Ben Affleck, who also starred in this film based on a true story.
In 1979 the United States Embassy in Tehran was invaded by Islamic terrorists in retaliation to an unpopular earlier move by President Jimmy Carter when he gave the Shah US asylum. 66 hostages were taken, but six of the Embassy workers were able to avoid capture and found shelter in the home of Ken Taylor, the Canadian Ambassador.
With the six escapees a secret, the US starts to formulate a plan on how to get them out of Tehran. Enter Agent Tony Mendez (Affleck), an exfiltration expert. Although he continues to shoot down possible solutions, he doesn’t have one himself. Not until one night he finds inspiration by watching the film Battle for the Planet of the Apes.
His idea is to pass him and his team off as Canadian filmmakers who are scouting locations far and wide for a science fiction film (Argo) they are planning to make. It just may work.
4. JFK (1991)
Talk about political thrillers of the highest level. Oliver Stone carefully crafted a thought-provoking epic surrounding the events and the players leading up to the brutal assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. Stone leaves no stone unturned as he expertly maneuvers Kevin Costner and an eclectic cast through the conspiracy.
The film sits at well over three hours in length, even longer on the director’s cut. It goes into great detail concerning district attorney Jim Garrison’s (Costner) investigation into the murder. He was intent on proving that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone and essentially could not have fired the fatal bullet.
The film also stars Tommy Lee Jones, Joe Pesci, Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek, Michael Rooker, Kevin Bacon, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Oldman, and a host of other big names in minor roles.
Take it for what you will, but Stone and his game cast lay out an impressive argument surrounding the assassination of the 35th President of the United States. If you haven’t seen the movie, give it a viewing and see if you don’t agree.
5. Z (1969)
If you like your political thrillers with a foreign slant to them then Z will be the one for you. The film was made in 1969 and directed by Costa-Gavras and tells the story of the events surrounding the political assassination of Grigoris Lambrakis, a Greek democratic politician back in 1963.
The film follows a pacifist deputy who is scheduled to give a speech concerning nuclear disarmament. But the location where the speech is to take place has been changed. On his way over to the new locale, the deputy is hit on the head by a protestor, but still manages to give his speech. After the speech, the deputy is crossing the street when an assailant in the bed of a passing truck clubs the deputy.
What follows next is a coverup by the police as they manipulate witnesses in such a manner that the official police report has the deputy being run over by a drunk driver. But the police do not control the hospitals and when the autopsy comes out, it proves that the police were lying.
Even though the examining magistrate has sufficient evidence of an assassination, nothing eventually comes of it as witnesses end up dead, the prosecutor is removed from the case, and various other incidents that show who truly is in charge. Z, meaning “he lives and is a popular Greek protest slogan, became the very first film to be nominated for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film (which it won) at the Academy Awards.
6. Three Days of the Condor (1975)
When a political thriller stars Robert Redford, you know you are in for a good time. In this one, based on the James Grady novel, Six Days of the Condor, Redford stars as Joe Turner, a bookish CIA analyst with the nickname of Condor.
He performs his CIA duties at the New York City American Literary Historical Society, which is actually a CIA office. One day, Turner leaves by the backdoor to go get lunch for his workmates. While he is out, gunmen enter the office and kill the CIA staffers. When Joe returns, he sees the bloodshed, grabs a gun, and flees.
Now Turner, with the help of Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway) must figure out why his coworkers were killed and why an assassin (Max von Sydow) continues to pursue him. Coverups and double-crosses keep Turner searching for the truth, but will he find it? If he does, will he do anything about it?
7. Munich (2005)
In 1972, horror struck the Summer Olympics, which were being held in Munich, Germany. Palestinian terrorists from the Black September group stormed into the Olympic Village, taking the Israeli Olympic team hostage, and killing 11 members. Immediately, Mossad agent Avner Kaufman is chosen to head the mission to track down and eliminate the 11 terrorists who were involved in the brutal massacre.
Munich stars Eric Bana as Kaufman and is supported in the film by Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, and Geoffrey Rush. The film is another one of Steven Spielberg’s great films though it wasn’t a bigger winner in the United States, instead making most of its box office on the international market.
The film has been critically acclaimed and in 2017, The New York Times named the film the 16th “Best Film of the 21st Century So Far.”
8. No Way Out (1987)
Kevin Costner stars as Navy officer Tom Farrell in this riveting and suspenseful film that is one of the 10 best political thriller movies. Farrell is posted at the Pentagon, reporting to the Secretary of Defense, David Brice (Gene Hackman).
Farrell is invited to an inaugural ball where he is to meet his new boss, but he also meets Susan Atwell (Sean Young). The two begin an affair and after some time, Susan confesses she is Brice’s mistress. When Brice confronts her over his suspicions, Susan tells him to leave. Brice becomes enraged and ends up pushing Susan over her upstairs railing, killing her.
In a panic, Brice brings in his general counsel, Pritchard (Will Patton), to help clean up his mess. Pritchard suggests the whole scenario can be blamed on “Yuri,” a suspected sleeper agent within the Pentagon ranks.
During the investigation, Pritchard discovers a negative picture that Susan had taken of Farrell. The picture is blurry and can’t quite show the identity of the person in the picture, so Pritchard takes it to have the photo enhanced, a process that could take a couple of days.
Now Farrell is running out of time. He knows if the picture becomes enhanced that it will show him, making him a prime suspect in Susan’s murder. But he also now knows Brice is connected and has to prove it before the picture comes back clear. And then there is Yuri.
9. Marathon Man (1976)
“Is it safe?” If you have yet to see Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man, one of the 10 best political thriller movies, it is one that needs to be watched. You may never want to go to the dentist after seeing it, though.
Hoffman is Thomas Levy, a man who loves to run and is a candidate for a Ph.D. in history but finds himself embroiled in nefarious affairs after his brother Doc (Roy Scheider) is stabbed and dies in his arms. In a rare turn as a bad guy, Lawrence Olivier plays creepy as Dr. Christian Szell, a Nazi war criminal who has no problem using horrific torture techniques to get what he wants, which is a very valuable diamond collection.
Both Olivier and Hoffman are fantastic as hunter and prey. The film doesn’t follow the traditional political thriller tropes as it doesn’t have political settings. But as it deals with former members of the Third Reich and their search diamonds that were stolen from the Jews killed at Auschwitz, it definitely has its political leanings.
10. The Day of the Jackal (1973)
The Day of the Jackal is a 1973 British/French film about an assassin, simply known as the Jackal, who has been hired to assassinate French president Charles de Gaulle. The film takes place in 1962 when de Gaulle and the French government grant independence to Algeria, upsetting the OAS, an underground militant organization.
The OAS then try to take matters into their own hands by attempting to assassinate de Gaulle. The attempt fails and the leader of the OAS and a number of other OAS members are caught, the leader being executed.
The remaining members of the OAS then hire The Jackal to complete the job. As he gets closer and closer to making the attempt, Deputy Claude Lebel steps in to try to foil the plan. Edward Fox stars as the Jackal with Michel Lonsdale as Deputy Commissioner Claude Lebel in this tense film that is one of the 10 best political thriller movies of all time.
- GFR Score calculated using averages of audience and critical reactions across multiple platforms.