The Angelina Jolie thriller Salt opens today, promising a throwback cocktail of espionage, pyrotechnics, and scowling Russian villains, all from the director of the middle two Jack Ryan films, the Aussie Phillip Noyce. Of course, this month also saw a substantial real-life spy swap between Russia and the United States—reportedly the largest such deal in two decades—providing tabloids with weeks' worth of sensational headlines and Columbia Pictures with a rare marketing coup. The suburbanite spies rounded up in late June didn't turn out to be threatening enough to instantly turn Salt into a too-soon affair, thus dissolving its commercial prospects. Lucky for the studio—not to mention for us.
Those looking for further depictions of the mounting U.S.-Soviet tensions of yesteryear will find no shortage of worthwhile home viewing. Reliable arms-race-panic favorites include the nuclear noir Kiss Me Deadly (1955), the black comedy Dr. Strangelove (1964), and any number of James Bond films, not to mention the countless classics that comment more obliquely or fleetingly on relations between the once rival nations. But below are three somewhat more under-the-radar espionage movies for those seeking to keep this vintage blast of Cold War going in the middle of this exceedingly hot summer.
One of the lesser-remembered Clint Eastwood films in the Film Society of Lincoln Center's currently running retrospective, Firefox (1982), finds the producer-director-star as a delayed-stress-syndrome-racked Vietnam vet plucked from retirement to go undercover in the Soviet Union. His mission is to steal a prototype stealth aircraft equipped with thought-controlled weaponry. The stoic faces various extreme difficulties, from navigating train stations crawling with passport-demanding KGB to the actual operation of the top-secret plane's advanced laser technology ("You must think in Russian," advises a scientist. "You cannot think in English and transpose. You must think in Russian").
Firefox plods a bit, and it features all manner of distractingly bizarre variations on the Russian accent (almost all of the dialogue here is in English, aside from a handful of Eastwood's cockpit commands). But its taut final third is something to behold, with its low-flying Mach 5 joy rides, which culminate in an analog-effects dogfight that's tremendously exciting—though there's never any doubt as to which pilot will triumph.
Hopscotch (1980), directed by Ronald Neame (The Poseidon Adventure), also features a protagonist who flies the unfriendly skies. Walter Matthau plays a world-wearily suave field agent who gets demoted to a desk job after he declines to arrest a top KGB operative during a raucous Oktoberfest celebration. Rather than suffer the indignity of the reassignment, the veteran CIA man decamps to Salzburg, where he's inspired to write his sensitive-material-packed memoirs by the very same KGB agent.
The manuscript, itself titled Hopscotch, serves as a taunt to his former colleagues and the catalyst for some increasingly out-of-hand globe-trotting, though the film's tone remains breezy throughout. Hopscotch, which also stars Glenda Jackson, Sam Waterston, and Ned Beatty, pits hapless CIA bureaucrats against its genial daredevil protagonist to consistently amusing effect.
For a more recent take on intra-departmental conflict, there's Breach (2007), the second engrossing liar's-comeuppance story from filmmaker Billy Ray, whose Shattered Glass chronicled the rise and fall of New Republic fabulist Stephen Glass. Breach centers on Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), an FBI higher-up, conservative Catholic family man, and longtime spy for the Russians. The film takes place in this century, but it is primarily Hanssen's Cold War sins—including his naming of numerous U.S. spies in the KGB—that Ryan Phillippe's undercover agent works tirelessly to call him to account for.
Breach is most notable for Cooper's performance, one of his very best, and its accretion of truly weird details, presumably lifted in true-crime fashion from the real-life Hanssen case. Among evidence more germane to national security, a sweep of "sexual deviant" Hanssen's car turns up a DVD of Entrapment and a glossy 8-by-10 of Catherine Zeta-Jones; later we see him watching that appallingly bad heist film on his laptop, drooling over its lead actress. Given Ray's interest in professional liars and his ability to transmute the odd banal cultural reference into something hilariously discomfiting, he might just be the perfect writer-director to bring the story of the latter-day Russian spies to the screen.