SUNDANCE 2020 FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW! At the height of Khrushchev’s power in the 1960s, he made his infamous speech declaring that he would “bury” his enemies, specifically the United States, and do it behind his arsenal of nuclear weapons. Terrified at the prospect of nuclear war, Khrushchev’s former Colonel Oleg Penkovski (Merab Ninidze), now Russia’s trade minister, decides that he needs to warn the West of Russia’s real power and plans, including placing nuclear missiles in Cuba. This is the story of Dominic Cooke’s Cold War thriller, Ironbark.
What Penkovski is willing to do is send British MI6 agent Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and CIA operative Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) documents detailing Khrushchev’s true nuclear capabilities and plans. The trick is transmitting those documents without getting caught. Enter Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch). Greville is just this guy. He’s a mildly successful salesman with a below-average build. He has no skills as a spy and couldn’t even keep an affair secret from his wife, Sheila (Jessie Buckley). He’s the perfect sap!
“He has no skills as a spy and couldn’t even keep an affair secret from his wife…He’s the perfect sap!”
Reluctantly Wynne agrees to be Penkovski’s courier by establishing a business relationship with Russia’s trade ministry and Great Britain. The two would meet one another in either England or Moscow, and Wynne would pass small packages (microfilm) from Penkovski to Franks and Donovan.
The plan works, and for the most part, you’ve seen this type of story before in other Cold War thrillers. Really nothing new, except the wife. Sheila’s role in many of these stories are often thrown away, but in Ironbark, Sheila has a considerable part played beautifully by Jessie Buckley (see Wild Rose). Clearly, for her safety and the success of the operation, Greville can not tell her anything, not even during the most dangerous moments of the operation. At first, it appears fun as she plays host to Penkovski in England and is Greville’s companion/eye candy at business parties. She’s continuously in the dark and wonders if Greville is having another affair in Russia. In the third act, you realize it would be unfair to tag her as merely “the devoted wife,” as so often happens in film.