Movies about the Cold War tend to run, for lack of a better word, a little cool; all those grey trench coats and grim interrogation rooms, secret meetings and whispered subterfuge. Even the heroism feels dampened — the courage that cannot be named, mostly because it’s all already classified.
Accordingly, Ironbark has the feel of many films before it (Bridge of Spies, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy): a decorous, solidly smart thriller whose menace maintains at a sort of low, steady hum. What elevates its otherwise familiar arc is a sharp script (by Tom O’Connor), and the remarkable commitment of its two central performances.
Benedict Cumberbatch is the real-life civilian Greville Wynne, a mild-mannered businessman in circa-1960 London with a wife (Chernobyl’s great Jessie Buckley), a young son, and a few ongoing projects in Eastern Europe.
When a Soviet military officer named Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) slips a note to the American embassy in Moscow, offering information on Kruschev’s increasingly volatile nuclear plans, an enterprising CIA agent (Marvelous Mrs. Maisel star Rachel Brosnahan, playing her lone-girl-in-a-boys-club pluck to the hilt) suggests teaming up with MI6 to send a go-between that Russian intelligence will never suspect.
Wynne is incredulous, and then a little thrilled at the idea of playing even a bit part in all this international intrigue. But as he starts to develop a genuine friendship with the man he calls Alex (“Maybe don’t say Oleg. It sounds bad in English”), the stakes become more real, and so does the risk.
Director Dominic Cooke (On Chesil Beach) keeps the action moving with a sort of steady clockwork competency, hitting all his spy-movie marks: the quick dashes down dark alleys; the bureaucrats making life-or-death decisions over white-tablecloth luncheons; the sidelined wives and children left to puzzle out the strange changes in the men they love.
But in its latter third, the storyline takes a sudden, urgent swerve. It would be a spoiler to say much more than that it involves a dramatic physical transformation on Cumberbatch’s part, and a stripping back of the film’s borderline-jolly intrigue into something much darker and more unsettling.
Ironbark might not be a great film in the end, but it is a satisfying good one — a story that’s at its best when it colors outside the black and white (or Communist red, as it were) lines of war and hones in on the real, fallible men and women who fight it, one quiet inglorious step at a time. B