The Best American Political Thrillers: ‘Blow Out,’ ‘Argo,’ ‘Reality,’ and More

[Editor’s note: this list was originally published in July 2023 and has since been updated].

America. The land of the free, and the home of buck wild political thrillers. That’s not to take anything away from the ample international political thrillers in existence. But there is something about the United States that seems to make it an ideal setting for suspense built around corruption and conspiracy. Maybe it’s the country’s (misguided) sense of triumph and greatness: when a country is founded on ideals of democracy and liberty, a great yarn about the darkness behind its government is harder to resist. Whatever the case, the country has a great history of political thrillers, some of which stand as all time greats.

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As a genre, political thrillers unquestionably hit their peak in the mid-‘70s, thanks to a combination of the JFK assassination, renewed cynicism against the federal government against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, and an honest-to-god conspiracy theory in the form of Watergate. Since that peak — which birthed classics of the genre like “All the President’s Men” and “The Conversation” — the political thriller has fallen a bit by the wayside. That’s in part due to renewed skepticism and criticism of real-life conspiratorial thinking; it’s harder to enjoy a tale trafficking in conspiracy theories when conspiracy theories are what lead to an insurrection of the government. Still, conspiracy theories on screen have an undeniable (and lurid) appeal — and, as shown by recent films like “Reality,” you can tell a compelling, tension filled story of American politics simply by portraying events exactly as they happened.

To celebrate our dear country, IndieWire curated a list of some of the best American political thrillers; you know, if you need some counter-programming after spending the day thinking about how great the United States are/is/were/ugh. In order to qualify for this list, films need to fit into the general thriller genre, and focus on American politics or at the very least involve American political actors; see a film like “Argo,” which is set mostly in Iran, but qualifies because it is an American movie revolving around American CIA agents, and the plot is kickstarted by U.S.-Iran political relations. Films selected for the list range from all-time classics like “Blow Out” and “The Manchurian Candidate,” to more recent titles like “Zero Dark Thirty.” We even made room for a science fiction movie in the form of “Minority Report,” which is set all the way in the year 2054 but is still, unquestionably, American to its core.

Here are the best American political thrillers to watch. Entries are unranked, and listed in chronological order of U.S. release date. Also, check out our lists  of The Best Fourth of July Horror Movies and The Best Election Movies.

With editorial contributions by Christian Blauvelt and Chris O’Falt.

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