Throughout the medium’s history, filmmakers have used cinema to comment on the world around them. One of the main targets over the years for directors has been politics. Using their movies to document and analyze the political system of their time, a genre was created in the 20th century that combined dynamic tension with social bite known as the ‘political thriller.
Whether based on fact or fiction, these films have continued to be made and are often regarded as some of the best movies of their respective years. Often bearing similarities to other genres, such as spy, or espionage thrillers, political thriller movies have become one of the 21st century’s most successful genres.
Updated on May 22, 2023, by David Caballero:
Political thrillers are among the most celebrated genres in American cinema. Famous for their tense settings and intricate plots, political thrillers can be a great way to shine a much-needed light on little-known historical facts; however, fictional stories can also make for incredible political thrillers. Luckily for fans, Hollywood has produced many of the best political thriller movies in the 21st century, including some released this very year.
15 ‘The Ghost Writer’ (2010)
Lauded by critics, The Ghost Writer is a masterful work of the thriller genre. The film stars Ewan McGregor as a writer hired to ghostwrite the memoirs of a former Prime Minister, played by Pierce Brosnan. Kim Cattrall and Tom Wilkinson also star.
Like Jack Nicholson and Harrison Ford before him, McGregor is effortless as the leading man in a thriller trying to uncover the truth. Brosnan more than holds up his end of the bargain as the suave, Tony Blair-ish former leader. Written by Robert Harris, based on his novel, The Ghost Writer is an expertly executed and joyous watch for fans of the genre.
14 ‘The Courier’ (2020)
While it also falls into the spy film genre, The Courier is set right in the heart of a major political conflict. Based on a true story, the film is about a British businessman recruited by the Secret Service to covertly communicate with a Soviet officer on the brink of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Headlined by Benedict Cumberbatch as the Englishman Greville Wynne and Georgian actor Merab Ninidze as Russian source Oleg Penkovsky, The Courier is continually gripping and well-made, painting vivid pictures of both 1960s London and Russia. The film is lifted past its, at times, dry subject because it puts ample care into the relationship between its characters, making it one of the newest but finest additions to the political thriller film canon.
13 ‘The Report’ (2019)
Reminiscent of the 1970s films it draws inspiration from, The Report is a striking look at one of the darkest times in recent American history. Directed and written by frequent Steven Soderbergh collaborator Scott Z Burns, The Report covers political staffer Daniel Jones and his team as they probe the CIA’s use of torture following September 11.
Covering over a decade’s worth of research, the film effectively flips back and forth between Jones’s attempt to extract the truth after the fact and the CTC during the attacks. Adam Driver is well-equipped for the role of Jones, showcasing his talent as a leading man. The Report is a strong example of how a political thriller can be both interesting and eye-opening.
12 ‘Tetris’ (2023)
Taron Egerton stars in Jon S. Baird‘s 2023 political thriller Tetris. The film dramatizes Henk Rogers’ efforts to secure the rights for the groundbreaking Tetris game from behind the Iron Curtain in the last days of the Cold War.
Although the premise might not sound worthy enough to make for a compelling political thriller, Tetris excels at shining a light on a little-known bit of history. Anxious and excellently paced, the film makes the most of its bizarre settling, turning an unlikely story into a great biopic. Elevated by Egerton’s stellar performance, Tetris is a race against the clock that will keep audiences on edge.
11 ‘Eye in the Sky’ (2015)
With 2019’s Official Secrets and 2015’s Eye in the Sky, Gavin Hood has quietly become one of the most quality directors of political thrillers that Hollywood has to offer. Covering multiple characters and locations in almost real-time in the film, Eye in the Sky stars Helen Mirren as a British colonel who is caught in a dilemma when a young girl enters the kill zone of a planned government assassination.
Morally conflicting and dramatically stirring, Eye in the Sky is impressively shot and staged. In addition, the film always feels genuine thanks to the strong acting of its cast. Captivating and suspenseful, the movie may not be Hood’s most financially successful film to date, but it’s certainly his most riveting.
10 ‘Page Eight’ (2011)
Written and directed by famed English playwright David Hare, the first film in his Worricker Trilogy is a scorcher. Starring Bill Nighy in the lead role, Page Eight follows Johnny Worricker, a seasoned MI5 officer who sets off to find the truth behind a mysterious file once his boss dies. Alongside an elite cast of actors, including Rachel Weisz and Judy Davis, Nighy gives a career-best turn as the debonair but disheartened agent.
Hare’s script is beyond literate and includes some of the best dialogue of any film of the decade. Cool and sophisticated with legitimately astute observations, the film is only a taste of the full, delicious plate that is the Worricker Trilogy. Both stylish and punchy, Page Eight is just the start of one of the all-time best political thriller trilogies.
9 ‘Miss Sloane’ (2016)
Although it underperformed at the box office, Miss Sloane validates Jessica Chastain as one of the defining leading actors of her generation and a star of the political thriller genre. The John Madden-directed movie centers on Elizabeth Sloane, a fierce lobbyist who attempts to pass gun control legislation, causing severe strain on her personal life.
While similar in theme to other political thrillers, Chastain’s performance in a role that likens her superstar command to that of Jane Fonda almost single-handedly elevates Miss Sloane. Unfortunately, Miss Sloane hasn’t got the due it deserves as the adroit, well-crafted political thriller it is.
8 ‘The Constant Gardener’ (2005)
Nominated for four Oscars and winning Rachel Weisz the Best Supporting Actress trophy, The Constant Gardener was one of 2005’s best-reviewed films. Based on the novel by best-selling novelist John Le Carre, the film stars Ralph Fiennes as a British diplomat who travels through Kenya to find out the truth about his wife, an Amnesty activist, played by Weisz.
Fernando Meirelles directs this political thriller, employing his typical delicious color palette and capturing Kenya’s breathtaking beauty. Richly perceived, the movie excels as a romance – capturing the film’s often scenic setting – and as a conspiracy thriller with social commentary. Through uncovering the film’s truth, viewers are left with a deft and pointed political thriller that is one of the genre’s finest outputs.
7 ‘V for Vendetta’ (2006)
Based on Alan Moore‘s politically-charged eponymous comic book, V for Vendetta stars Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving. Set in a dystopian future where a fascist totalitarian regime rules the UK, the film revolves around Evey Hammond, a young English woman who becomes involved with V, a masked anarchist looking to overthrow the government.
Fueled by one of Portman’s most badass performances and further elevated by Weaving’s delicious take on the masked anarchist, V for Vendetta is a brilliant political thriller for mainstream audiences. The film goes all in on its dystopian premise, blending the best elements of the superhero genre and the political thriller to craft a spectacular picture that ranks among the 21st century’s best comic book adaptations.
6 ‘Bridge of Spies’ (2015)
Tom Hanks stars in Steven Spielberg‘s 2015 political thriller Bridge of Spies. Set at the height of the Cold War, the film dramatizes James B. Donovan’s efforts to negotiate the release of convicted US pilot Francis Gary Powers, held by the USSR, in exchange for Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy held prisoner by the US.
Bridge of Spies is among Spielberg’s most sleek directorial efforts. Tense, disquieting, and thrilling, the film is a stellar showcase for Mark Rylance, whose performance earned him the 2016 Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Like many of the director’s cat-and-mouse films, Bridge of Spies turns a straightforward story into an intricate and nuanced exploration of human nature.
5 ‘The Contender’ (2000)
The second movie by former film critic Rod Lurie, The Contender, is indicative of the type of filmmaker he would become. Featuring a loaded cast that includes Jeff Bridges, Gary Oldman, and Joan Allen, The Contender is one of the best political drama movies that follows Laine Hanson, a newly appointed Vice President who must stave off a vicious political adversary as well as endure a series of hearings once a secret from her past comes to light.
Perfectly paced with a flawless lead performance by Allen as the new VP, The Contender is in line with Lurie’s recent outputs such as Nothing but the Truth and The Outpost. Although not shy about its political leanings and suffers from a contrived ending, The Contender remains an often thoughtful look at the bias of politics.
4 ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ (2011)
Gary Oldman received his first Oscar nomination for his compelling work in Tomas Alfredson‘s political spy thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Based on John le Carré’s 1974 eponymous novel, the film chronicles the hunt for a Soviet agent at the top of the British Secret Service.
Powered by Oldman’s nuanced, thoughtful portrayal, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a Cold War thriller that deftly balances political and spy elements. The film juggles an impressive ensemble and a gripping, complex storyline, crafting an anxiety-inducing tale that perfectly captures the fear and paranoia of the time.
3 ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ (2012)
Zero Dark Thirty is one of 2012’s most acclaimed and controversial films. The follow-up to her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow‘s political thriller, follows a group of CIA operatives and their journeys to capture Osama bin Laden.
The film propelled Jessica Chastain into stardom, proving her to be one of the best movie stars of her generation. Among the memorable political movies today, it was major hit at the box office, but the film was denigrated by some who commented that it encouraged questionable practices by authorities. Despite these criticisms, Zero Dark Thirty is often seen as one of the most enthralling political thrillers and overall films of the 2010s.
2 ‘Argo’ (2012)
Cementing Ben Affleck as a top-notch director, Argo is a brilliant blend of a comedic caper film with a real-life historical thriller. Winning Best Picture at the Oscars, Argo concerns an exfiltration specialist who poses as a movie producer to rescue a group of American diplomats held hostage in Tehran.
A Hollywood veteran who majored in Middle Eastern affairs in college, Affleck was perfectly suited to head this insightful project. Praised for its writing, editing and direction, Argo is considered one of the finest films of the decade. Both a Hollywood satire and earnest spy drama, Argo is a great political thriller with a little bit for everyone to enjoy.
1 ‘The Post’ (2017)
Three giants united to deliver what is arguably the finest political thriller of the 21st century. Steven Spielberg directs The Post, starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. The film follows Katherine Graham, the first female publisher of a major newspaper in the US, who joins her editor, Ben Bradlee, to expose a massive cover-up spanning four US presidents.
The Post is among Spielberg’s best movies. Tense and riveting, the film rises on the back of Streep’s best performance since The Devil Wears Prada. And while the screenplay often becomes too unsubtle and preachy, Spielberg’s command behind the camera and an outstanding cast more than compensate for any of the film’s flaws.