10 Movies Based on Leaked Classified Intelligence

Spying and leaks of classified intelligence seem to go hand in hand. Not all the movies on this list were well-received by reviewers. However, each of them shows what’s at stake when classified information is revealed and, often, what motivates someone to reveal such material in the first place.

Related: Top 10 Blockbuster Movie Scenes Reviewed By Real-Life Spies

10 Cambridge Five Films

Lured by the Soviet Union’s utopian promises, the Cambridge Five combined their fields of expertise to uncover and leak a variety of classified intelligence that aided the Soviet Union.

The Five were UK Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) operative Kim Philby; Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess of the British Foreign Office (Burgess later worked for the British Embassy in Washington, D.C.); Anthony Blunt, a liaison between the Security Service (MI5) [the UK’s domestic intelligence agency] and MI6; and John Cairncross, who worked at the code-breaking facility, Bletchley Park, during World War II, and later at roles in various government departments.

When Igor Gouzenko, a Soviet cipher clerk residing in Canada, defected on September 5, 1945, intelligence agencies took a close, hard look at their operations, and, one by one, the Cambridge Five were exposed.

The Five’s exploits have inspired twenty-four movies, the earliest, Traitor, appearing in 1971. The last (so far), A Spy among Friends, in 2022.[1]

9 Fair Game (2010)

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer Valerie Plame’s identity was leaked to the Chicago-Sun Times columnist Robert Novak, who made mention of her as “an agency operative” in his July 14, 2003, column for the Washington Post and elsewhere. Plame wrote her own account of the incident in Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House.

In his review of the 2010 movie Fair Game, film critic Roger Ebert points out that, seeking an excuse to justify a war against Iraq, “the Bush administration… seized on reports that… Niger had sold uranium to Iraq.” However, former ambassador to Niger Joseph Wilson, who was dispatched to find the truth, instead discovered no such evidence. Wilson found that “such sales would have been physically impossible.” Nevertheless, the U.S. went to war. When Wilson reported the results of his investigation in a New York Times article, his wife Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA officer was leaked to Novak to discredit her husband.

According to Ebert, despite the continuing political spin concerning the alleged cause of the U.S.-Iraqi war, Fair Game, “using real names and a good many facts, argues: (1) Saddam Hussein had no WMD; (2) the CIA knew it; (3) the White House knew it; (4) the agenda of Cheney and his White House neocons required an invasion of Iraq no matter what, and (5) therefore, the evidence was ignored and we went to war because of phony claims.”[2]

8 The Fifth Estate (2013)

The Fifth Estate, based on former WikiLeaks spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s 2011 exposé Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World’s Most Dangerous Website, reveals some of the leaked intelligence that WikiLeaks brought to light: “Corruption inside a Swiss bank! Police death squads in Kenya! The identities of members of the neo-Nazi British National Party! A video of two Reuters journalists whose [murders were] committed and covered up by U.S. troops in Iraq! … Posted war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan, along with 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables.”

Entertainment Weekly’s review of the movie, which does not regard Assange as a heroic figure, also raises an interesting question: “When does the unrestricted flow of information begin to destroy everything it’s out to save?”[3]

7 Snowden (2016)

Based on Luke Harding’s The Snowden Files (2014), Anatoly Kucherena’s Time of the Octopus (2015), and several visits in Russia between director Oliver Stone and Edward Snowden, the 2016 film Snowden focuses on Snowden’s role as a whistleblower.

A former CIA computer intelligence consultant, Snowden exposed thousands of U.S., British, and Australian secrets about U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance, hacking, and other clandestine operations and their resulting intelligence, which was conducted, at times, by tapping into Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and other Internet companies’ servers.

Other surveillance operations intercepted German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s telephone calls; surveilled French, Italian, Greek, Japanese, South Korean, and Indian embassies and missions; and operated a “continent-wide surveillance programme” across Latin America. Clandestine operations also “collected and stored almost 200 million text messages per day across the globe.”[4]

6 American Made (2017)

Adler Berriman “Barry” Seal was an American commercial airline pilot who became a major drug smuggler for the Medellín Cartel. When Seal was convicted of smuggling charges, he became an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration and testified in several major drug trials.

Questioned by the House Judiciary Committee about the origin of information concerning Seal’s 1984 trip to Nicaragua to meet with the cartel, Drug Enforcement Administration agent Ernst Jacobson attributed the leak to the White House. Jacobson implied Oliver North—a deputy director serving the National Security Council—was the source. North denied the charge, as did Washington Times reporter Edmond Jacoby, who’d earlier reported on the drug smuggling. Instead, Jacoby named one of U.S. Representative Dan Daniel’s staffers, who’d since died, as the source’s leak.

“Any notion that American Made is a realistic depiction of [Barry] Seal’s life is entirely preposterous,” declares Liam Gaughan, saying that some parts of the film, based on the life of the American pilot, are sensationalized, while others are fabricated.

Although Tom Cruise’s portrayal of Seal as a colorful figure is accurate, the depiction of Seal as having been on friendly terms with Central American drug lords is largely fictional. Although Seal did marry, “most elements of [the couple’s] relationship,” Gaughan declares, “were dramatized for the sake of the film.” Despite these departures from strict accuracy, the film contains enough true material based on leaked intelligence to make its inside look at the connections between the CIA and Seal’s criminal pursuits intriguing.[5]

5 The Post (2017)

The Post dramatizes the struggle of the Washington Post’s publisher Katherine Graham and executive editor Ben Bradlee to decide whether to publish information from the Pentagon Papers, the actual title of which, The History of U.S. Decision-Making in Vietnam, 1948-1968, succinctly summarizes the contents of the book. The top-secret Pentagon review was leaked by military analyst and whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, whose 1973 trial for espionage resulted in a dismissal of the charges.

The New York Times’s front-page announcement of the papers had already drawn wide attention, as had indications that the U.S. had gone to war despite the fact that victory was deemed unlikely and that the administrations of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson had “misled the public” concerning the extent of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

After the New York Times published three articles based on the classified material, the U.S. Department of Justice obtained a restraining order forbidding its further publication of the content. However, other newspapers, including the Washington Post, continued to print articles. In June 1971, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the documents could be published.

The Post has been criticized for depicting the role of Graham’s newspaper in bringing to light the Pentagon Paper’s damning assessments of American leadership and the conduct of the war since the New York Times did much more than the Washington Post to expose the government’s duplicity and leadership failures. Still, Ebert believes that the movie’s potentially melodramatic sequences are saved by the directorial prowess of Steven Spielberg and the acting skills of Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.[6]

4 Red Joan (2018)

Melita Norwood seems an unlikely spy, but, as Becky Little’s History article states, the secretary stole nuclear secrets for the Soviet Union throughout World War II and the Cold War. Although Professor Christopher Andrew, a Cambridge historian, uncovered her secret life, Norwood expressed no remorse, saying that “in the same circumstances, I would do the same thing again.” Her desire to spread communism across Eastern Europe and her fear that the nuclear capabilities of the U.S. and Western Europe would go unchecked motivated her leaks.

The sexism of her day helped her evade detection: In the 1930s, “Mona Maund, one of the first female MI5 agents, identified Norwood as a possible spy. But a male superior dismissed her tip because he didn’t think women could be good spies.” Norwood, who died in 2005 at age 93, escaped prosecution on the grounds that the attorney general considered such an action inappropriate.

The 2018 film Red Joan, based on Norwood’s spying, was not well received by reviewers. The Critics Consensus, according to Rotten Tomatoes, was that the movie is “a fascinating real-life story dramatized in perplexingly dull fashion [that] wastes its tale’s incredible intrigue—as well as the formidable talents of [its star] Judi Dench.”[7]

3 Official Secrets (2019)

Official Secrets, based on whistleblower Katharine Gun, reveals truly incredible intelligence leaks. A translator for Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Gun received an email asking her help in compiling “incriminating personal details” concerning UN representatives from six small countries so that they “could be blackmailed into voting for the war in Iraq.” The memorandum, as revealed in a Guardian article, identifies these countries as Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria, Guinea, and Pakistan, the last of which was to be subjected to extra focus.

Incensed by the request, Gun printed a copy of the memorandum, which subsequently appeared in The Observer. For blowing the whistle on the GCHQ, Gun was charged under the Official Secrets Act of 1989, but the charges were dropped without explanation.[8]

2 The Courier (2021)

MI6 is the subject of The Courier. Smithsonian Magazine’s Alex Palmer summarizes the opening of the film: Recruited by MI6 agent Dickie Franks, businessman Greville Wynne meets with Lieutenant Colonel Oleg Penkovsky of the Soviet Union’s foreign intelligence agency GRU on the pretext of setting up a meeting to discuss “developing opportunities with foreigners in science and technology.” Subsequent meetings between them, Palmer writes, produced “mountains of [leaked] material [that played] a role in the Cuban Missile Crisis and [landed] both men in prison.”

Unfortunately, as screenwriter Tom O’Connor researched Wynne’s tale, he uncovered one lie after another. Using additional sources, O’Connor pieced together as accurate an account of the clandestine operation as he could but warned that The Courier was not a documentary, and the truth about Wynne and his intelligence work might never be known.[9]

1 Reality (2023)

Reality (2023) is a film about American intelligence specialist Reality Leigh Winner, who was arrested for releasing damning classified information regarding Russian interference in the 2016 American presidential election. According to a TIME Magazine report, it is based on the 2019 play Is This a Room? by Tina Satter and features dialogue pulled directly from Winner’s interrogation by U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation agents.

The former U.S. Air Force translator, employed in 2017 by the NSA, printed a classified document and mailed it to The Intercept, a news outlet. The report described Russian military intelligence cyberattacks on local election officials and American voting software ahead of the 2016 election, in which Donald Trump ran for president against Hilary Clinton.

Winner said that she was conflicted about her actions. She understood that the document was classified as secret, but she also believed that “the American people… were being led astray.” She was sentenced in 2018 to five years and three months in prison; she was fully “released from custody in November 2021, after spending time in a halfway house [and under] home confinement.” As the TIME report states, “Public opinion on her actions remains divided.”[10]

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