While not quite as stiff as its title might suggest, Dominic Cooke’s “Ironbark” is unambiguously dad cinema down to its core. A confident, entertaining, and well-upholstered historical spy thriller about a regular guy who stumbles his way toward saving the world, it’s the perfect movie for anyone who watched “Bridge of Spies” and thought: “If only that had been 30 minutes shorter, a bit less artful, and a lot more British.” Never fear, the director of “On Chesil Beach” is here, and he’s naturally brought along Benedict Cumberbatch for good measure.
Holding a magnifying glass to a remarkable (but rather unheralded) footnote of Cold War history, “Ironbark” tells the story of how two men from opposite sides of the Iron Curtain forged a bond that would help avert nuclear armageddon. Cooke’s lean version of events begins in the heart of the Soviet Union circa the autumn of 1960, when a war hero and military intelligence colonel by the name of Oleg Penkovsky (an excellent Merab Ninidze, who you might recognize from his role in “Bridge of Spies”) has become so desperate to de-escalate tensions between Khrushchev and the White House that he walks the streets of Moscow in search of a random Yankee he might trust to deliver some classified intel to the American embassy. This is, of course, a reckless thing for him to do, least of all for someone in Khrushchev’s inner circle — a point that Tom O’Connor’s swift and defiantly unsubtle script makes sure to underscore with a bullet — but the world is on the brink of annihilation, and “an impulsive, chaotic man” has his finger on the button (a description that earned a rueful laugh of recognition from the crowd at the film’s Sundance premiere).
When word of such a willing and valuable Soviet collaborator reaches MI6 and the CIA (respectively personified by Angus Wright and Rachel Brosnahan), the agencies conclude that the only way to reach a senior trade official like Penkovsky without drawing suspicion from the GRU is to find an unwitting British salesman who could visit Moscow under the pretense of expanding his operations into Russia. Enter Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch, obviously), a jocular businessman of one kind or another who knows how to close a deal, and once sold his wife (played by the great Jessie Buckley, who brings real angst to a sleepy archetype) on staying together after he cheated on her some time ago.
Wynne is perfect for the mission because of how well he typifies the movie around him: He’s fleet but not flashy, charming but not memorable, and dependable but unremarkable in every way. And though O’Connor’s script would rather tell us that Wynne is an amateur spy than slow down enough to show him bumbling his way through the basics of tradecraft, it’s plain to see that he’s no James Bond. And that’s okay. To paraphrase how one of his handlers puts it before sending Wynne into the field: He’s too useless and inexperienced to be tasked with a dangerous mission. But that, it turns out, may have been its own kind of sales pitch.
From there, “Ironbark” (which is Penkovsky’s codename) unfolds at a brisk pace, as one short and pointed scene flows into another on the currents of Abel Korzeniowski’s Philip Glass-inspired score. Cumberbatch — always more enjoyable as an everyman than an egoist — renders Wynne with a fun, anxious, “what the hell am I doing here?” energy that carries the action until his cover story begins to crumble. Ninidze makes a warm and stubbornly winsome foil as a good man in a bad situation, and the easy friendship between the film’s central figures is allowed to blossom with the unforced ease of a business contact. No suspension of belief is required to believe that Wynne and Penkovsky care for each other, or to accept the movie’s explicitly stated thesis that even the most historic changes happen two people at a time.
And that’s good, because “Ironbark” doesn’t have much suspense to offer. For a movie set against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis — a movie that’s enameled with the classic tropes of espionage, and builds to a daring international heist at the end of the second act — the whole thing can be rather even-keeled. To a certain extent, that’s appropriate for a movie about an ordinary bloke who’s dropped into the deep end of the Cold War as it heats up around him like he’s a frog in boiling water. And yet, “Ironbark” strives to achieve a moral velocity that its limited emotional range doesn’t have the bandwidth to support. The film’s only tense moments are those between Wynne and his distrusting wife, who begins to suspect that her husband’s repeated trips to the Soviet Union are a flimsy smokescreen for another affair. When Wynne is detained at one point, it’s genuinely stressful to think that Sheila may never learn the truth; the thought of disappointing Jessie Buckley is dreadful enough to make you wish Wynne would just say “screw it,” go home, and let the C.I.A. figure out that the Soviet Union had deployed missiles to Cuba for themselves.
For a movie so concerned with the way intimate relationships have shaped world events, it’s strange how the final stretch of “Ironbark” emphasizes the isolation of its characters over the selflessness they showed to one another. Striking and effective as Cumberbatch’s severe weight loss can be towards the end, Cooke’s film spends more time articulating Wynne’s desolation than it does on knotting the ties that bind Wynne to his family, and to his Russian friend who refused to leave him out in the cold. But if “Ironbark” doesn’t manage to hold the gravitas its story demands, perhaps that’s an inevitable concession in a film about how history isn’t always writ large — about how the world as we know it might sometimes hang in the balance of a single handshake.
“Ironbark” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.