I always enjoy a movie when I learn about a historical situation I knew nothing about. Even better when it’s done with an incredible cast. Yet halfway through this I said to my wife, “I’ve seen all this stuff before in other films.”
She replied, “So what. It’s a good movie, and…what haven’t you seen in a movie before?”
Maybe it’s the fact that this Cold War stuff seems so fresh coming off of the Tom Hanks/Spielberg movie Bridge of Spies so recently.
It’s 1960, and Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), codename: Ironbark (the original title of the movie), contacts the West, saying he’s willing to be a spy to help the Ruskies avoid nuclear war under Khrushchev’s reign.
MI6 officer (Angus Wright) and a CIA officer (Rachel Brosnahan) recruit British salesman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch). There’s a bit of levity as he realizes the enormity of what he’s being asked to do. They all agree — the less you know, the better.
So a business relationship is established with Penkovsky and Wynne, which my wife and I both wondered — in that era, how in the world would Russian authorities not be suspicious? Yet I found it rather intriguing how they made it appear that Wynne was actually passing information to Penkovsky as a precaution.
So as the Cuban Missile Crisis nears, these two drink vodka, eat caviar, and get to know each other. While I like that there were more human elements and this wasn’t a big, boring history lesson…it needed a touch more emotional depth to those human elements.
There’s great supporting work from Jessie Buckley, who continues to impress me since first discovering her in Wild Rose three years ago (she was also solid in the slightly disappointing I’m Thinking of Ending Things last year). She’s actually able to add a bit more to the usual frustrated housewife character, and it’s interesting to learn about their relationship.
I felt Brosnahan overacted a bit (imagine Mrs. Maisel as a CIA operative), but the blame for that goes to the director (Dominic Cooke). I had that same complaint when Scorsese made certain characters too pushy in The Departed. It makes you feel like they’re not real people, and you wonder why the folks working for them wouldn’t just walk away from it all.
One thing I found odd was that I didn’t like the Wynne character as much as you should. Cumberbatch is great, as he always is, but his eyes made him look too much like…a spy. Since this is just a regular guy thrust into this tense situation, perhaps a different actor that could have facial expressions that showed more confusion and concern, would have worked better for this role. That’s why Hanks worked so well in Bridge of Spies (aside from the annoying fake cough he kept doing in it).
This also made me think of the interesting documentary The Spy Behind Home Plate, about a Jewish major league baseball player that became a spy during WWII (avoid the Paul Rudd movie based on that, The Catcher Was a Spy).
My wife liked this more than me, adding, “I’ve always liked espionage stories more than you.”
So…if you like espionage stories, seek this out. Even if you don’t mind the fact that you’re seeing microfiche being hidden in lighters or underneath desks, and things you’ve gotten in other spy thrillers. And try to avoid learning about what happens to these guys in real life. It will make the ending a lot less interesting.
2 ½ stars out of 5., and something I’ve been waiting a LONG TIME to say in a review — you can catch this at the following theatres starting this weekend: Cinepolis La Costa, Vista, and Del Mar, all AMC theatres, as well as the Reading Grossmont, Reading Town Square…and my favorite theatre in town — Angelika Film Center. Theatre capacity will be 25% or 100 patrons (whatever is fewer).