English salesman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a good solid chap, looks after his wife and son, deliberately loses at golf just to clinch a business deal. The very antithesis of a James Bond type character.
He travels to many countries in the 1960’s, selling his wares just as the Russian/US cold war heats up. Greville has friends that unbeknownst to him, happen to work for MI6 with contacts at the CIA, as you do.
Both British and American intelligence are increasingly concerned about what the “Russkies” are up to and need information. When approached to act as a benign courier to carry messages to and from a disillusioned senior Russian diplomat Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), Wynne is initially reluctant as anyone would be.
Over time and feeling a sense of duty, he agrees and commences many trips to and from Russia. Using his cover as an innocent business man to transport ultra secret information to his CIA & MI6 contacts, Emily Donavan (Rachel Brosnahan) and the splendidly named Dickie Franks (Angus Wright), arguably a red flag to Wynne.
Penkovsky is portrayed as a patriot attempting to protect his motherland from the increasingly erratic premier Nikita Krushchev, as the Cuban Missile crisis edges the world towards possible Nuclear Armageddon.
What commences as a bit of high jinks or jolly japes for Wynne, playing at the secret spy stuff starts to become serious as he gets to know Penkovsky and his family. Trusted to travel abroad his new contact meets Wynne’s family and an unlikely friendship is formed, strengthening the films theme that more connects us than divides us.
Penkovsky is obviously taking the most risk and the repercussions of his treason are made all too evident at the start of the film. While undoubtedly artistic licence is taken and time variations are evident, the story is based on substantive fact. There is very little “action” in the film which, in the real world, is closer to the mundane truth of spy-craft.
As the stakes move ever higher the risk to Wynne becomes all too real, meanwhile his wife believes understandably he is having an affair. All the while black and white TV pictures show missile silo and bunker preparations, which is where Wynne’s real anxieties lie.
Cumberbatch continues to show his range, moving from more mainstream Dr Strange Marvel fare to gritty and physical drama in later scenes. He has solid support from Jessie Buckley as his completely in the dark wife Sheila. Ninidze more than holds is own against his better known co-star although the film’s focus moves away from his character in later scenes.
As the film hints, “people” from whatever background country usually get along just fine, it’s only when governments and politicians get involved that relationships go awry.
An interesting and well acted slice of 1960’s cold war paranoia, highlighting a recent period of human history, which very nearly stopped at that point.
Luckily the whole world gets on fine now…..