Ironbark is a Cold War thriller done right. This true-story espionage tale was executed on an independent film’s budget, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the screen. Thrills, human drama, and moments of humor abound as the true story of two individuals—one a British civilian and one a decorated Soviet Colonel—helped keep the world from the brink of nuclear war. Director Dominic Cooke understands exactly what makes a page-turning thriller like this tick, but doesn’t sacrifice the human stories at its core. The result is a wildly entertaining and inspiring—if a tad familiar—entry to the genre.
The film opens in 1960, with the Cold War heating up as the USSR and the United States tout nuclear weapons stockpiles. MI6 receives a message from a Soviet GRU officer named Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), noting that he’s willing to cooperate and share inside information. MI6 can’t exactly send one of their own agents into the Soviet Union, so together with a CIA agent named Emily (Rachel Brosnahan) they recruit a British businessman who would have reason to travel to Russia.
That businessman is Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), and while he is at first excited by the prospect of becoming something of a spy, he soon learns the real dangers that come with traveling in and out of Russia so frequently. Greville strikes up a genuine friendship with Oleg, and brings home documents to share with MI6 and CIA officials. Oleg agrees to cooperate on the condition that his information be used as a tool for peace, not as a weapon against the Soviet Union—making his potential sacrifice all the more impactful.The situation grows more intense as the KGB begins looking into Greville’s travel, and the film culminates with the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The film itself is a taut, propulsive thriller that is compelling through and through. There’s a terrific pacing to the story at the start of the film and a surprising number of laughs as Tom O’Connor’s tight script never fails to entertain. The heart of the movie is the relationship between Greville and Oleg, and Cumberbatch and Ninidze do a tremendous job of building a rapport. Cumberbatch has the more dynamic arc as Greville is at first is excited by the idea of playing spy, but then grows concerned when the actual dangers become all too real. Will he continue helping the government, or will he tap out and go back to his family? It’s a fascinating internal conflict, and Cumberbatch fulfills that arc onscreen well.
Ninidze, too, is great, filling the role of a brave defector still working inside the Soviet government. Oleg has a family of his own, but is literally running the risk of being executed each time he gives Greyville a message to send back home. Oleg is calm, cool, and collected the majority of the time, but Ninidze subtly allows shades of his fear to briefly shine through the façade. And Wild Rose and Chernobyl breakout Jessie Buckley does what she can with a role that’s just slightly above that of “concerned wife.”
The film sags a bit in the middle, and while the third act is a necessary part of the story, it runs on slightly too long. But these minor quibbles are forgivable given that the rest of the film is so enjoyable. Indeed, Ironbark joins the ranks of Bridge of Spies and Ford v Ferrari to become a terrifically entertaining “dad movie” destined to catch your attention on TNT for years to come.
This is a handsomely crafted, fairly straightforward thriller, but what sets it apart (aside from Cumberbatch’s swell performance) is how it brings home the idea that two men can and did change the world. They had a support system, sure, but nuclear crisis was literally averted because these two individuals had the fortitude to put their lives on the line to potentially, maybe, possibly bring peace to a world on the brink of annihilation. At a time when full bodies of government can’t seem to function correctly, Ironbark is a swell reminder that sometimes it doesn’t necessarily take a village to enact significant change.
For more of our Sundance 2020 reviews, click the links below: