/Answers: Our Favorite Espionage Movies

Every week in /Answers, we answer a new pop culture-related question. In this edition, we're celebrating the release of Red Sparrow by asking "What is your favorite movie about espionage and undercover work?" Naturally, more action-oriented spy movies were disqualified.

Chris Evanglista: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Before Tomas Alfredson helmed the truly terrible The Snowman, he directed Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which may just be one of the best spy movies ever made. There are no action beats here; no scenes of super-cool spies in tuxedos wooing international babes. Instead, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a cold, analytical slow-burn thriller. British Intelligence agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is forced into retirement. Rather than enjoying his golden years, Smiley is drawn back into the game when he's recruited to find out if there's a mole hiding somewhere within his former organization. Anyone expecting car chases and fist fights a la a Bond film will be sorely disappointed by the low-key character drama on display here. Working from John le Carré's novel, Alfredson crafted an engrossing spy game that you can find yourself getting lost in. The spy work here is all about data, and information. Who's lying, who's telling the truth, and who can no longer be trusted? The answer ends up being a lot more complicated than you might guess.

Jacob Hall: Army of Shadows

The movies often make being a spy or a secret agent look exciting. You get to travel the world, sleep with beautiful people, kick a bunch of asses, and generally have a vacation punctuated by bursts of thrilling violence. But actually going undercover, actually working in the shadows, and actually spending your days doing this kind of work doesn't sound fun at all. It sounds exhausting. It sounds terrifying. It sounds like the kind of thing that would break most people.

Director Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows is one of the least romantic movies ever made about a subject that is frequently romanticized in cinema. Adapting Joseph Kessel's loosely autobiographical 1943 novel about French Resistance fighters during World War II, the film feels authentic in a way that could only be informed by real-life experience. And it was – Melville was a member of the French Resistance and fought against the Nazis when they occupied his homeland.

But fighting the Nazis in Army of Shadows isn't an Indiana Jones-esque adventure filled with gun battles and acts of derring-do. It's about clandestine meetings in dark rooms. Intense conversations where you have to pick your words very carefully. Going home and not knowing if you're walking into a trap. The agents, the spies, the soldiers at the heart of this film, are heroes and the film treats them as such, but it doesn't pretend that they're superheroes. They're ordinary folks forced to lie and kill and operate in the darkness because it's the right thing to do. And it's hard work. Most of them die. Doing the right thing has never been so chilling, so unsettling, and so stomach-churning to watch. This is not a life many people would choose and Army of Shadows isn't shy about that.

Hoai-Tran Bui: Notorious

Notorious wasn't the first spy film that Alfred Hitchcock made during his storied career, nor would it be his last. But it's certainly his sexiest. And how could it not be, with stars Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman exuding pure sensuality and star power? The pair of them play ill-fated lovers in Notorious — he a government agent sent to recruit her as a spy, she the former daughter of a convicted Nazi who must marry one of his old friends to infiltrate a Nazi ring in post-World War II Brazil. Together, they seek to uncover her husband's (an eerily affable Claude Rains) secret plot involving a classic Hitchcock McGuffin. (Fun fact: Hitchcock's inclusion of uranium ore would get him investigated by the FBI). But it was all a backdrop to the steamy, fraught love affair between Grant's T.R. Devlin and Bergman's Alicia Huberman.

Some of my favorite HItchcock shots make up this movie: the wide tracking shot that hones in on a key hidden in Alicia's hand, the giant teacup scene where Alicia realizes she has been poisoned by her husband and mother-in-law, and of course, the two-and-a-half minute kiss that Hitchcock managed to sneak past censors. It's a movie I secretly love more than some of his more famous films, and one that I wish could get more credit. Because Notorious offers the best of both worlds: a sensual, tense romance and a thrilling spy movie.

Ben Pearson: Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty is divided into a few different sections, each with their own title card. One reads "Tradecraft," which sounds like it could have been a perfect alternate title for this film. Bigelow's movie is all about process. It's about Jessica Chastain's CIA agent, Maya, doing the actual work of being a spy – not seducing foreign agents or dramatically escaping with a parachute, but doing the nose-to-the-grindstone work of tracking Osama bin Laden day after day in the years following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

There may be some problematic aspects to the movie in terms of fudging the truth of real events, but Zero Dark Thirty is a modern espionage classic that cares far more about the big picture than individual action beats. Chastain's tireless performance as Maya embodies the concept of determination, and the film's crushing final shot – Maya sitting in a helicopter after bin Laden has finally (spoiler alert!) been killed, unsure of her future – touches on the all-consuming impact of a live lived in dogged pursuit of a target. Maya's work may have directly prevented future attacks on American soil, the film says, but years of such intense work have turned her into a casualty, too – and it's only after the job is done that she discovers that. What now?

Matt Donato: Argo

Argo is one of those Hollywoodized "true" stories we assume to take certain liberties – confirmed by exaggerated inaccuracies – but that doesn't tarnish Ben Affleck's feature adaptation of 1979's now declassified "Canadian Caper." It's another directorial victory notched on Affleck's belt, as proficient an experience as Gone Baby Gone or The Town. There's no love lost for execution between the film's bolstered cast around Affleck's Tony Mendez, quotables like "Argo f*** yourself," and historical reverence with a glossy mainstream appeal. Certainly no schlub as 2013's Best Picture winner, every bit the embellished history lesson.

Mendez's movie-making-magic ruse is a desperate gambit that could've easily passed as an old Coen Brothers screenplay, yet Chris Terrio's treatment is – with liberal factuality – based on the real Tony Mendez's personal accounts. Six American Embassy escapees stranded in Iran (Tehran, specifically), trapped by revolutionary riots that'd already claimed some sixty other hostages. Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) selflessly risking his own safety by housing the Americans until Mendez's cover as a Canadian filmmaking crew could be established. One cockamamie plan inspired by Battle for the Planet of the Apes with multiple lives on the line. Yes, this is real life.

Affleck's cinematic eye never allows for a dull moment, whether it be rebel siege sequences or fake picture talk about shell companies. Alan Arkin and John Goodman as Affleck's showbiz contacts – no-bullshit and quick-witted – with Bryan Cranston as Affleck's CIA boss. Together, there's just as much emphasis put on perfecting production aspects for their fake "Argo" title as there are espionage dealings to ensure the safety of American lives. "If I'm doing a fake movie, it's gonna be a fake hit," insists Arkin's Lester Siegel at one point. No aspect sacrificed, because one slip up would crash-land hopes of success (and survival).

Boasting ease of deliverance, Argo is top-to-bottom "biographical" showmanship that blows through its two-hour runtime. Ben Affleck simmers '70s Middle East tensions with a depth of ingredients from undercover sleuthing to cigar-chewing comedics, certain death to astounding miracles (translation: too good to be true). "This is the best bad idea we have sir, by far." It's funny how the most outrageous, unbelievable historical events make for perfect cinema in the right hands, eh? Argo is no different – a thrilling breed of American spy tactics that even finds time to satirize Hollywood systems. Because, well, why not?

Vanessa Bogart: The Departed

Martin Scorsese is the king of making bad look cool...all the way up until it isn't. The Departed abandons the "glamorous" gangster tropes of sex, drugs, and lots of money, and goes straight to the free-for-all final act where the gangsters are scary and cops are desperate. The players on both sides, cop and criminal, are so far undercover that it makes the separation of good and evil look more like a chess board. It is one of the most stressful movies I have ever seen.

One of the things that stands out the most about the depiction of undercover work in The Departed is the contrast between a wolf in sheep's clothing and a sheep in wolf's clothing. While Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) seems to flourish as the criminal pretending to be a cop,  Billy (Leonardo DiCaprio), while good as his job, is in almost constant turmoil as his morals and coping skills are tested time and time again pretending to be a criminal. As a spy for the state police, Billy has to witness and participate in unimaginable violence all while never flinching, and fearing that he will never get his identity back. It is the dark underbelly of leading a dual life.

Ethan Anderton: Charlie Wilson's War

With a script by Aaron Sorkin and Mike Nichols behind the camera, you can't really go wrong. At the center of Charlie Wilson's War are U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), Texas socialite Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) and CIA agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who form an unlikely alliance to boost funding for Afghan freedom fighters in their war against invading Soviets. It's not the kind of spy picture you'd expect in this kind of scenario, but that's partially what makes it so great.

Through conveniently placed glad-handing, some smooth talking, and a shady but necessary deal here and there, the United States helped Afghan freedom fighters kick Soviets out of their country. That's all well and great, but what I like most about Charlie Wilson's War is that there are consequences to our espionage actions in our lack of follow through. It's not just as simple as throwing money and weapons at a problem and calling it a day. Because when that's all we do, we end up getting the terrorist network known as Al Qaeda. Sorkin knows this, and his script is as much of a lesson as it is a portrait of a cunning moment in American history.