Films on CIA

The CIA gathers information internationally which is relevant to American security. The CIA also has the ability to evaluate the information and take action if the information suggests that the United States may be at risk. The CIA operates around the world, using a series of agents on the ground to relay information back to the central offices in Virginia. CIA agents often cooperate with other international intelligence agencies, especially wartime allies. If terrorists are planning an attack on the American government from outside the United States, for example, the investigation would be handled by the CIA.

While the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is concerned with gathering intelligence information, the National Security Agency (NSA) is concerned with US security, and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is concerned with law enforcement. All three are agencies of the American government. Each agency has a specific area of focus, although they do occasionally cooperate on cases to share information which could lead to a breakthrough.

CIA movies have always been popular, mainly because no one is really sure what goes on in that agency. The following Must-See movies are all based on true stories.

CIA: Shocking Stories Behind the Headlines

Documentary 2004 NR 2 discs. In an effort to discover the truth behind some of the most fascinating stories of the past 100 years, documentary filmmakers gained access to CIA files at the agency’s Langley, Va., headquarters. From historical events in Vietnam, Moscow, Cuba and Iran, and from historical figures such as the pope and Che Guevara, learn the riveting details that didn’t make headlines in these captivating stories.

Speaking Freely: Vol. 3: Ray McGovern

Lecture 2007 NR 52 minutes. Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern discusses the inner workings of the U.S. spy factory and explains how the agency’s mission has evolved from uncovering facts about global security to delivering conclusions that support White House policy. In this installment of the Speaking Freely film series, McGovern examines the CIA’s role in promoting the invasion of Iraq and speaks candidly about the rapidly changing geopolitics of the Middle East.

Chalmers Johnson: Speaking Freely: Vol. 4

Lecture 2007 NR 52 minutes. Writer and professor Chalmers Johnson warns of the dangers of American imperialism, a trend evidenced in the presence of U.S. military bases abroad, the passage of the Patriot Act and the executive branch’s use of military force.

The Panama Deception

Documentary 1992 NR 91 minutes. Filmmakers Barbara Trent and David Kasper explain the untold truths behind the United States’ 1989 invasion of Panama in this hard-hitting documentary that illuminates the complex relationship between Gen. Manuel Noriega and the CIA and U.S. government. Juxtaposing interviews with experts and eyewitnesses with historical media reports, the film shows how the press helped win the American public’s approval despite widespread condemnation abroad. See Full Review

Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up

Documentary 2010 NR 1hr 24m. This documentary chronicles half a century of hostile U.S.-Cuba relations. The film highlights decades of assassinations and sabotage at first backed by Washington, then ignored by the very government that launched a “war against terrorism.”

TWA: Flight 800

Documentary 2013 PG-13 1hr 31m. This provocative documentary examines the fate of TWA Flight 800 to Paris, France, which exploded in 1996 just minutes after takeoff from New York, and includes interviews with official investigators who claim that the catastrophe was no accident. See Full Review

Remote Control War

Documentary 2011 NR 52m. Killer robots sound like the stuff of science fiction, but as an increasingly integral part of today’s technology-driven warfare, remotely controlled military devices are helping to save some human lives … and destroy others. As used by the CIA in Pakistan, they amount to bombing in an undeclared war without Congressional approval.

Fair Game

Docudrama 2010 PG-13 108 minutes. After her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn), writes op-ed columns accusing the Bush administration of misleading the public to justify invading Iraq, Valerie Plame Wilson’s (Naomi Watts) status as a covert CIA agent is leaked by administration officials. Based on events described in Plame Wilson’s memoir, this drama explores the political scandal that led to the conviction of Lewis “Scooter” Libby.

The Good Shepherd
(The Confessor)

Docudrama 2006 R 168 minutes. Matt Damon and Robert De Niro (who also directs) star in this partially fact-based drama that examines the early history of the CIA as seen through the eyes of a dedicated agent: upstanding, sharp-minded Yale student Edward Wilson (Damon). Wilson is recruited to work for the fledgling CIA during World War II, but the job soon begins to erode his ideals, filling him with distrust and destroying his personal life. This narrates the tumultuous early history of the Central Intelligence Agency as viewed through the prism of one man’s life. While the lead character is a composite of several real people, the most important is the long-term chief of the CIA Counterintelligence Staff, James Jesus Angleton. Angleton is also the basis of William F. Buckley Jr.’s novel Spytime: The Undoing of James Jesus Angleton. The same story is told in the 2007 TNT miniseries The Company.


Docudrama 2012 R. In 1979, when Iranian militants seize the American embassy, six Americans slip into the Canadian embassy for protection, prompting the CIA to concoct an elaborate plot to rescue them by pretending that they are filmmakers rather than diplomats. So when the CIA needed a cover story to extract six Americans from Iran during the 1979-80 hostage crisis, Tony Mendez devised a scheme that involved a crew scouting for a movie called “Argo.” The guise extended to advertisements for the fake production.

Charlie Wilson’s War

Docudrama 2007 R 102 minutes. Texas congressman Charlie Wilson sets a series of earth-shaking events in motion when he conspires with a CIA operative (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in an Oscar-nominated role) to aid Afghan mujahideen rebels in their fight against the Soviet Red Army.

Link to see photos of the real people this story is based on.

The True Story of Charlie Wilson’s War

Documentary 2007 NR 94 minutes. Charlie Wilson was a Texas congressman who became part of an unbelievable stunt in which he helped funnel more than $300 million into a covert effort to fund Afghanistan’s war against the Soviet Union. Going beyond the Hollywood dramatization Charlie Wilson’s War, this eye-opening film details the whole shocking story of Wilson’s involvement in the scheme, along with CIA agent Gust Avrakotos and socialite Joanne Herring.

This is basically the same story told by the Tom Hanks movie, but in documentary form with lots of talking heads. The documentary mentions that it and the Tom Hanks movie are both inspired by George Crile’s book, also titled “Charlie Wilson’s War”. Interestingly, the movie never mentions the book’s conclusion that many of the Afghan rebels supported by Charlie Wilson and CIA later went on to work for Osama bin Laden. Osama is never mentioned by name in the movie and he only gets a few seconds in the documentary. If you really want to learn the true story of Charlie Wilson’s war, read the book and skip the documentary.

The Man Nobody Knew
In Search of My Father CIA Spymaster William Colby

Documentary 2011 NR 1hr 44m. Carl Colby, the son of enigmatic Cold War-era CIA op William Colby, gets to know his father in discussions with contemporaries and historians. Their insights illuminate the elder Colby’s life as well as America’s intelligence system then and now. An excellent and honest documentary about an enigmatic and controversial figure with a fascinating history. Colby could have made this a overly sentimental, dryly factual or biased film but, instead, he chose to make a film that is very restrained and yet so powerful and emotional. About moral ambiguity. We all like to get on our high horses, and find villains in the people that do the work of our government. We want to think of our government as good, but we see the damage we have done, often what has been deliberately done in the name of our freedom. William Colby was a patriotic, righteous and principled man who would not lie under oath to Congress. He fell upon the sword for his own well-meaning, albeit naive, duplicitous and forbidden acts carried out or sponsored by the War In Southeast Asia branch of the Agency.

South of the Border

Documentary 2009 NR 78 minutes. Eager to investigate how the U.S. media has depicted Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, director Oliver Stone journeys south to interview the man himself and speaks with several other South American presidents in the process. This movie, although accused of being propaganda, is propaganda from a point of view that is rarely seen by Americans, and it will make you think about your own country — not just its role in the hemisphere, but in its domestic politics. The definition of Propaganda is information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc. This film isn’t that. It’s the opinion of the leaders interviewed, and their view of the United States as they see it. There are well documented facts about the corruption of the U.S. toward South America, the C.I.A. death squads murdering leaders of countries in South America (read “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man” for a first hand account), and the control the IMF has/had over South American countries. I found “South of the Border” refreshing in its attempts to let us hear what the leaders of these countries think, which is something we never hear from main stream U.S. media. So they don’t think like the American Government. So what? Why is that propaganda? What I learned from this film is that leaders in South America are standing up to the American Government and American Corporations, and doing things their own way, and for the most part, it’s working.

The Shock Doctrine

Documentary 2009 NR 82 minutes. Taking shock therapy as a metaphor, this investigative documentary explores “disaster capitalism,” in which unstable nations are first jolted by catastrophic events, then subjected to free-market remedies imposed by first-world heavyweights.


Documentary 2008 NR 81 minutes. With homeland security and the war on terror becoming increasingly important issues, the U.S. government has grown more and more secretive, allegedly to protect the country and save lives. But is this culture of secrets at odds with democracy? This documentary examines both the pros and cons of government concealment by focusing on classified secrets and the arguments the government makes in the name of national security. See Full Review

The Spy Factory

Documentary Nova 2009 NR 53 minutes. This eye-opening “Nova” special sheds light on the clandestine practices of the U.S. government’s top secret National Security Agency, the world’s largest intelligence outfit, which is responsible for spying within and beyond America’s borders. Based on James Bamford’s best-selling book The Shadow Factory, the program also examines how the threat of terrorism is affecting the agency’s day-to-day operations. The title is a bit misleading. This is a documentary about the failure of intelligence agencies to share information leading up to 9/11. Interesting view on what the NSA intercepted before 9/11 on the hijackers and how that information wasn’t used. Also noted is how the 9/11 Commission focused on other agencies, such as CIA and FBI, while glossing over NSA weaknesses.

The Dark Side

Documentary Frontline 2006 NR 90 minutes. This gripping “Frontline” report dissects Vice President Dick Cheney’s actions as chief architect of the war on terror, and his battles with CIA director George Tenet over control of America’s intelligence community. Interviews with more than 40 key participants shed light on the political infighting, from the moments after Sept. 11 to the administration’s feverish run-up to the Iraq War and the indictment of Cheney adviser Lewis “Scooter” Libby.

The Secret Heartbeat of America

Documentary 2003 NR 104 minutes. On a sultry night in 1987, two high schoolers were mysteriously murdered, their bodies strewn across train tracks to be dismembered by a speeding locomotive. This installment of the “Conspiracy” series explores the killings — later known as “the train deaths” — which led to an exposé of a massive CIA smuggling operation and raised questions about the U.S. government’s involvement in drug and weapons trafficking worldwide.

In Search of the American Drug Lords

Documentary 2003 NR 50 minutes. Presenting the results of a three-year investigation, an undercover team of journalists explores the life and times of Barry Seal, one of the most famous CIA agents and successful drug smugglers in American history. In the process, the film also posits the theory that the assassinations and scandals of the 1960s and ’70s were perpetrated by the same people responsible for the cocaine epidemic that blighted the nation in the 1980s.

American Drug War
The Last White Hope

Documentary 2007 NR 118 minutes. With commentary from soldiers on both sides of the conflict, filmmaker Kevin Booth’s incisive documentary wades into the murky waters of the American war on drugs, the longest and costliest war in U.S. history. Taking viewers from prisons and inner-city streets to the halls of Congress and his own kitchen, Booth attempts to sort out the intricacies of the national drug policy — and the reasons for its unmitigated failure, including CIA involvement in drug trafficking.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

Docudrama? 2002 R 113 minutes. Trash-TV maven Chuck Barris has it all — the hit series “The Gong Show” and the love of a good woman. But he also has a big, dark secret: He claims to be a CIA assassin who kills while purportedly escorting his game show winners on their vacation prizes. It’s a really fascinating story – if it’s not true – that someone as successful as Chuck Barris felt the need to write that story.

Looking for Answers

Documentary Frontline 2001. The attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was not only the most devastating terrorist attack in history, it was also the biggest failure of U.S. intelligence since Pearl Harbor. Frontline correspondent Lowell Bergman and The New York Times investigate why the CIA and FBI failed to uncover the hijackers dramatic plot to strike at the heart of the U.S. government and its economy. The film also examines the U.S. failure to understand fully the hatred for America among Muslim fundamentalists, and its roots in the U.S. government’s support for Israel and for authoritarian regimes in the oil-rich Middle East. A Frontline co-production with The New York Times, this special episode is anchored by Bill Moyers.

In Lies We Trust
The CIA, Hollywood & Bioterrorism

Documentary. In Lies We Trust examines the CIA’s direction of Hollywood, and modern medicine, and will have you rethinking their impacts on the way you think about current events, increasing threats of outbreaks, cancer, and AIDS. Where do you suppose skyrocketing rates of these and other modern plagues came from? This award-winning doctor advances compelling analyses of documents explaining our modern maladies as “socio-political impositions” not made in heaven. In Lies We Trust examines the military-medical-petrochemical-pharmaceutical profiteers behind medical madness; their political prostitutes, and shoddy scientists. Stunning evidence, including secreted interviews, explains why millions of innocent and gullible people worldwide have been killed, and billions more are now being frightened into drug addictions, side-effects, profitable illnesses, and premature death.

The Gates Nomination

Documentary Frontline 1991. At the start of US Senate confirmation hearings, Frontline probes the background of Robert M. Gates, President Bush’s nominee to head the CIA. The program, anchored by Hodding Carter III, focuses on Gates’s role in the Iran-contra affair and in a secret US policy to help Saddam Hussein build and maintain his war machine.

The Spy Hunter

Documentary Frontline 1991. Correspondent Tom Mangold profiles the mysterious, tortured life of James Angleton, ex-chief of counter-intelligence for the CIA who was obsessed by the belief that the agency was harboring a mole. His pursuit ruined lives and careers and seriously skewed US intelligence.

Guns, Drugs, and the CIA

Documentary Frontline 1988. A Frontline investigation examines the CIA’s long history of involvement with drug smugglers in trouble spots around the world and how the agency has defended its alliances with drug dealers under the cloak of ‘national security.’


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Must-See Movies—For What You Need to Know