Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Sundance with Abe: Ironbark

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the seventh time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can, as well as video reviews uploaded to YouTube.

Directed by Dominic Cooke

Some people just aren’t cut out to be spies, and, at least as the world of cinema would have you believe, that precise lack of qualification is often what makes the best recruits. The ability to go undetected when operating on behalf of a government agency or other organization is invaluable, and being beyond suspicion is crucial for the successful completion of a job. Having the perfect cover is exponentially more effective if it’s not a cover at all but an actual business or identity, one that is supplemented and enhanced by a side mission that, if executed properly, will never be known.

Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a businessman in England in the early 1960s. He is approached by agents from MI-6 (Angus Wright) and the CIA (Rachel Brosnahan) and asked to travel to Moscow under the guise of doing business. When he arrives, he meets Oleg (Merab Ninidze), a Soviet colonel who wants to pass military intelligence to the Americans in the hopes of averting nuclear war. Acting solely as a courier with no knowledge of what Oleg is giving him to bring home, Greville forms a genuine friendship with his contact as his wife (Jessie Buckley) grows suspicious of his frequent travel, believing that he may be having an affair. Told that he cannot tell anyone what he’s doing, Greville keeps his secret and does what he can to keep the lines of communication open so that Oleg and his family will eventually be permitted to defect.

This film bears a lot of similarities to “The Catcher Was a Spy,” mirroring the humor it uses to convey its protagonist’s excitement for this work and his clear lack of preexisting knowledge that necessitates a good deal of training. The stakes don’t seem all that high when it’s only Wynne’s marriage on the line, but reminders of the totalitarian regime in the Soviet Union serve to reinforce the grave danger in which Oleg and by extension Wynne are in should their meetings, which are always closely monitored by informants and lip-readers, be found out for what they are. This film becomes more compelling and engaging as it goes on, setting up with lighthearted exposition before truly reaching its serious and powerful content.

Cumberbatch is a good fit for this role, even if it doesn’t demand much of him the way something like “The Imitation Game” did. The same goes for Brosnahan, who doesn’t steal too much of the spotlight the way her “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” character would. The true standout of the film is Ninidze, who conveys the stress Oleg feels as he repeatedly calculates the consequences he and his family would face if exposed. This film begins as a standard political thriller and evolves into something more resounding in its account of this intense true story.


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