Directors making war movies often pass up the Cold War, because it didn’t actually involve any major battles; it was more of a psychological game where both sides – the capitalist countries and the communist states – would try to one-up each other in terms of pride and achievements while spreading lies and propaganda about their enemies, gathering intel through acts of espionage, and funding small wars that didn’t directly involve themselves, known as surrogate or “proxy wars.”
However, the conflict – which lasted from the end of the Second World War in 1945 to the fall of the USSR in 1991 – has produced some amazing stories, and a few select visionaries have allowed them to be told on the big screen, often in a stunning, beautiful way; here are some of the best, ranked according to their IMDb user ratings.
Updated by Kristy Ambrose on December 4th, 2020: The decades keep marching on, opening the gap between the Cold War and the present day, and we keep making movies about it. The IMDb database keeps growing with new media, and several new entries have been rated since this list was first created. Some are based on real incidents while others are pure fiction, but they all use that period of cool hostility between the U.S.S.R and the U.S.A. for their story. Sometimes the movie happens with the Cold War as the central focus, while in other movies it lurks in the background as part of the setting.
15 The Living Daylights (1987) – 6.7
People were disappointed with The Living Daylights at the time because it changed the nature of Bond movies but this is an underrated Bond movie that got lost in a sea of late 1980s action movies but is re-emerging as a unique look at the Cold War.
Not only is the topic of smuggling people out of Russia one of the plot points that drives the movie, but the third act takes place in Afganistan during the Soviet occupation, and the love interest is an actual character with some agency of her own.
14 The Death of Stalin (2017) – 7.2
This black comedy film depicts the death of the USSR’s head of government Josef Stalin in 1953, and the politicians, leaders, and apparatchiks who fought for the position of power that was now ripe for the picking afterward.
Throughout its run, various issues relating to the film’s content threatened to plague its reception; it was banned in several countries for being allegedly anti-Soviet, and a controversy developed relating to its historical accuracy (or, in this case, inaccuracy) – but it still received largely positive reviews from critics and audiences for its humor, acting, directing, and tone.
13 Spacewalk (2017) – 7.3
Many forget that before they were fighting to place a man on the moon, both the United States and the Soviet Union wanted to be the first to perform a successful spacewalk, with Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov eventually succeeding in 1965.
The 2017 film Spacewalk details the events leading up to him going on the mission, as well as the various difficulties he encountered once in space; it received critical and audience praise (especially in Russia) for its acting and special effects, being compared positively to the 1995 docudrama Apollo 13.
12 Thirteen Days (2000) – 7.3
United States President John F. Kennedy was one of the integral figures in the Cold War, responsible for such events as the Bay of Pigs invasion. In 1962, his administration discovered that the Soviet Union was planting missiles in Cuba, leading to thirteen days of intense conflict and negotiation, during which societal unrest hit a high due to fears of a thermonuclear war incoming.
The 2000 film Thirteen Days depicts these events from inside the White House, depicting how the United States avoided a much larger-scale crisis than what actually occurred. It received positive reviews from critics for its acting, characters, and style, despite the fact that it contained some depictions of the history involved that were either inaccurate or speculative.
11 The Shape of Water – 7.3
Conspiracy theories abound as to what was hidden or lurking in those secret labs that both the Americas and the Soviets built during the Cold War. How many X-Files episodes based their storyline on one of them, and in more than 10 seasons, they never ran out.
The Shape of Water is one of those stories, and it’s an interesting mix of science, history, and the fantastic. The romance of the main characters is juxtaposed with radio announcements about the Cuban Missile crisis and speeches by John F. Kennedy, so you never forget the era in which the film takes place.
10 First Man (2018) – 7.3
Another film detailing the background and history of key characters in the space race, 2018’s First Man, a Neil Armstrong biopic, follows his life from 1961 up until the moon landing in 1969, showcasing the events and experiences that led to his decision to take on the daunting task.
While it became the center of a major political controversy due to its decision not to include a scene depicting the planting of the American flag on the moon, it was still a critical hit – praised for its characters, drama, and emotion – that appeared on many year-end top-10 lists.
9 The Silent Revolution (2018) – 7.4
The not very well-known 2018 German film The Silent Revolution follows a group of schoolchildren growing up in East Germany during the Cold War, as they decide to request two minutes of silence during classes for those killed during the Hungarian Uprising after learning of its true, horrific, nature.
Especially of interest, it also began as a student protest, albeit a loudly-championed one as opposed to one rooted in silence. The film was praised by critics for its drama, emotion, characters, and directing, and won several awards at various international film festivals.
8 Miracle (2004) – 7.5
The 2004 film Miracle depicts the formation, training, and preparation of the 1980 United States Olympic Hockey Team, as they, against all odds, defeated the much stronger Soviet team during a period of extreme Cold War tensions. The game was later dubbed the “Miracle on Ice” – as ABC’s Al Michaels remarked “Do you believe in miracles? YES!” while the last seconds ticked down during the third and final period, a line that was reused in its entirety for the film.
Critics and audiences widely regard Miracle as one of the best sports dramas of all time – it was nominated for AFI’s Top 10 Sports Films list, and has received praise for its characters, choreography, emotion, and performances.
7 Cold War (2018) – 7.6
The 2018 Polish period drama Cold War is a pragmatic yet touching love story between a young, passionate female singer and the male director of a musical ensemble, who wishes her to leave Poland with him, building a new life in the much less communist country of France.
The film received for the most part ardently favorable reviews from critics, who praised its acting, directing, style, emotion, cinematography, and sets; it also received several awards, most notably three Academy Oscar nominations (for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography, and Best Director).
6 The Hunt for Red October (1990) – 7.6
Marko Ramius is a Soviet submarine captain who wants to defect. For those who are not familiar with the language of the Cold War, that means that a high ranking officer in the Russian army wants to leave his country without permission. This was a big deal anyway (see The Living Daylights) but this time the escapee has his own transportation, a nuclear submarine. Is he defecting or attacking?
This movie was the first of many Tom Clancy novels featuring the character of Jack Ryan to be adapted for the screen, and although they all took place during the Cold War era not all of them were focused on it.
5 Bridge of Spies (2015) – 7.6
The 2015 historical drama Bridge of Spies follows James B. Donovan, a lawyer/Navy officer tasked with freeing Francis Powers, a captured American pilot, from Soviet captivity by means of negotiation. The agreement reached is that in exchange for Powers, the United States will return Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy who was caught and sent to prison five years earlier (with Donovan, the only lawyer who volunteered to defend him, saving him from a much harsher sentence).
With Steven Spielberg directing, the Coen Brothers writing, and Tom Hanks playing the lead role, the Cold-War-era drama was filled with talent – and more or less, that’s how critics and audiences viewed it.
4 The Tunnel (2001) – 7.7
The 2001 German film The Tunnel follows a professional swimmer who has escaped to West Berlin and, after making plans to dig a tunnel under the Berlin Wall to bring his family there as well, realizes many others are on board with the idea and also want their loved ones out of the East. A plan is made to evacuate thirty people through the elaborate tunnel – although the state security service (also known as the Stasi) is watching every move.
Possibly the least well-known of the films on this list, it nevertheless received critical and audience praise for its characters, story, and tone, being named by Time Magazine as one of the top 10 Berlin Wall films.
3 The Right Stuff (1983) – 7.8
The oldest film on our list and the only one to be made while the Cold War was still an ongoing geopolitical conflict, 1983’s The Right Stuff is another film focused on the space program. Unlike other, similar films, however, it chose to focus on the early developments as opposed to the later achievements – following six years of innovation in aeronautics, and the lives of the seven pilots who chose to become part of the United States’ first manned spaceflight in the midst of burgeoning political drama.
Despite becoming a major box office failure, the film received eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture; it won four. It also received critical praise for its characters, drama, emotion, and pacing.
2 A Beautiful Mind (2001) – 8.2
Here’s a story that’s in a class of its own when it comes to fact or fiction. This most definitely took place in the early years of the Cold War, but to what extent John Nash was involved with the CIA is a compelling mystery within the movie.
Protagonist John Nash suffered from schizophrenia and his view of reality often proves untrustworthy. That doesn’t affect the ubiquitous presence of the Cold War in this movie, which is fictionalized but based on the real-life of a famous American mathematician.
1 Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) – 8.4
There were a lot of movies that were heavily into the drama of the possibility of a nuclear holocaust, what with both superpowers pretty much armed to the teeth, so it wasn’t long before some clever parodies started joining the ranks.
Dr. Strangelove made it okay to laugh at the Cold War, thanks to some wacky performances by actors known for their gravitas as opposed to their comedy, the most prominent being the incomparable and notorious Peter Sellers. It isn’t laughing all the way through, as there are some moments of grim realization and impending doom in the plot, but it’s in the running for the best comedy about the Cold War.
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