'Ironbark': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Liam Daniel
A likable but slow-building espionage tale.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays the real Brit who helped avert a war in Dominic Cooke's Cuban Missile Crisis drama.

A solid spy drama about ordinary people caught up in Cold War espionage, Dominic Cooke's Ironbark is as meat-and-potatoes as its real-life hero: Greville Wynne, an English salesman who found himself helping avert calamity during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It's quite a story, if the truth is anything like what's onscreen: According to Tom O'Connor's script, the high-placed Russian with the relevant info assured Western intelligence operatives the only way he could get them that data was through an ordinary man with no government affiliation.

Wynne is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, and his evolution is the heart of the movie; in fact, the film evolves as well — starting in light, "Who, me?!" territory before growing serious, then grim. A late-blooming "We'll change the world, one friendship by one" theme may not be entirely persuasive in a time like this, but hell: Adults who lived through 1962 also felt like the end was nigh; who are we to complain?

The film opens on a fiery speech in which Nikita Krushchev's loud promises to "bury" the USSR's enemies are calmly heard by a row of anonymous officials in black suits. One of them is Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a military intelligence colonel who knows this man is mad. Later, he'll say, "Krushchev frightens me. He is impulsive, chaotic ... a man like that ... " at which point a knowing chuckle will rumble through the Sundance crowd, with viewers apparently thinking of some other world leader.

Penkovsky, a patriot who can't stand the prospect of Krushchev turning a tantrum into a war, sneaks a message to the American embassy in Moscow. Eventually, a CIA agent (Emily Donovan, played by Rachel Brosnahan) turns up at MI6, suggesting to associates there that they need to find some ordinary fellow — someone who can help make contact with the colonel without raising the KGB's suspicion. An agent named Franks (Angus Wright) knows just the guy: Wynne, who sells some sort of industrial equipment and is used to glad-handing strangers. The two approach Wynne, posing initially as Board of Trade types, and suggest he might pursue opportunities in Moscow. They won't admit outright to being spies, but they do solemnly assure him he'd be doing a favor to England — no, make that the world.

Believing he's just doing a bit of cross-cultural matchmaking, Wynne makes an ordinary exploratory sales trip to Russia, is befriended by Penkovsky (code name: Ironbark), and gets his first trip to the ballet. Penkovsky arranges a trade mission to London, where Wynne takes his group out to nightclubs. Then Donovan and Franks suggest he should become a regular courier of secret documents, and Wynne needs a whole new round of convincing.

As O'Connor tells it — the facts seem to be unsettled, and Wynne himself reportedly claimed he was already a spy by this point — agents on both sides needed to constantly reassure Wynne he'd be safe, so long as he remained vigilantly paranoid about the eyes and ears around him during Moscow visits. While he and Penkovsky grow fond of each other during their frequent meetings, the stress makes Wynne testy with his wife, Sheila (Jessie Buckley), and son (Keir Hills); Sheila has caught him in an affair once, and she's pretty sure the recent changes in his behavior prove he's at it again. Along the way — maybe it's Penkovsky's revelations about Russian nukes in Cuba; maybe it's Wynne's growing interest in the ballets they attend together — Wynne becomes more invested in his new friend's safety than the Brits who've promised to help him defect when the time comes.

Enjoyable as it is, the drama never quite gets its claws in until Wynne realizes his friend is in imminent danger. Cumberbatch portrays him as a man who was ambivalent about serving his country, but iron-willed when it comes to personal loyalty. (He's not the same man he was when he betrayed his wife, evidently.) The professional spies show their true colors; Brosnahan's role may not be nearly as rich as Mrs. Maisel fans would wish, but at least she gets to help Wynne be a hero. Though it never transforms into a grade-A spy thriller, the film boasts action that's briefly quite involving.

Those who don't know Wynne's story (let's assume it's just about all of us) should be spared more plot details, but suffice to say that sweaty-palmed plans give way to a truly dire situation — one that the script eventually milks a bit, in order to give a couple of castmembers chances to do what they're trained for.

In the end, the Russians take their missiles out of Cuba and never mess with America again. Impulsive, irrational men never rise to lead mighty nations, and generic, craven yes-men certainly do not help them retain power no matter what they do. Comrade Penkovsky and Mister Wynne, a tranquil world thanks you!

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production companies: 42 Sunnymarch, Filmnation Entertainment
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley, Angus Wright
Director: Dominic Cooke
Screenwriter: Tom O’Connor
Producers: Adam Ackland, Ben Browning, Ben Pugh, Rory Aitken
Director of photography: Sean Bobbitt
Production designer: Suzie Davies
Costume designer: Keith Madden
Editors: Tariq Anwar, Gareth C. Scales
Composer: Abel Korzeniowski
Casting director: Nina Gold
Sales: Rena Ronson, John McGrath, UTA; FilmNation

111 minutes