Sundance 2020: Espionage True Story 'Ironbark' is a Moving Thriller
by Alex Billington
January 25, 2020
Sometimes a friendship can change the world. Ironbark is a film that doesn't really fit into the Sundance Film Festival, but that doesn't really matter. It's not the typical independent, quirky, contemporary work of cinema that you'd expect to see in Park City in January. But it's still a damn good film. Perhaps even better than many of the other films playing at Sundance that aren't as taut and intriguing and moving as this one. Ironbark is based on a true story, a 60s espionage thriller the same vein as Bridge of Spies about how an unlikely international friendship between two people saved the world. It's a fantastic film, better than I was expecting considering it's just about two spies, and it seriously moved me - I was almost in tears by the end.
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as a humble British businessman named Greville Wynne, who's recruited to work as an "amateur" operative for both MI6 and the CIA. At the beginning of the Cold War, the UK and US were in desperate need of information & covert leaks from the Soviet Union. But it was too dangerous to use anyone from either agency. So they found this guy - a salesman who was traveling into Eastern Europe already. He goes to the USSR to continue his sales work, befriending a Russian "whistleblower" named Oleg Penkovsky (played by talented Georgian actor Merab Ninidze) who sees how frightening and unhinged Khrushchev is, and wants to help save the world by getting the truth out. The two strike up a friendship and smuggle out more documents than any other spies did during this era. And that's not even half of the story.
There's a delicate balance of humor and seriousness that, like so many great films, helps elevate this from fascinating to exceptional. The film is also anchored by two career best performances by Cumberbatch and Ninidze. It is these two and their friendship and camaraderie that moved to me to tears, proving just how valuable integrity can be. They had to keep their spy work secret from everyone, including their families, and while this was a great challenge it made a difference in the end. And they still remained faithful, their love for each other and their families keeping them motivated even when everything was at its worst. Both give phenomenal, heartfelt performances that give the film its emotional core. They're bolstered by strong supporting appearances by Rachel Brosnahan as a CIA handler, and Jessie Buckley as Greville's wife.
One of the strongest aspects of this film is the apt decision to include a large number of Russian language scenes lead by talented Russian actors. This allows viewers to get a full sense of the story and its scope, to understand both sides of it, instead of limiting it to only one half of the experience. Greville spends a lot of time in Russia (though it was filmed mostly in Prague), and we also get a comprehensive look at Oleg's story as he sneaks around government databases snapping photos on a tiny spy camera. His hope, his motivation, is that by revealing the truth and establishing a relationship with this one man he might be able to make an impact and save the world. He wants to stop Khrushchev before any missiles are launched, and betraying his country is the only way to do this. Sometimes a hero must make decisions that betray all those around them.
It's extremely satisfying to watch a film as impressively entertaining and as engaging as this one. I love the score by Abel Korzeniowski, moody but moving. I love the performances from everyone, including Rachel Brosnahan. Director Dominic Cooke really impressed the heck out of me, so many aspects are handled with care and intelligence. It's a good feeling to walk out of a film so moved. It's a reminder that two people can change the world, that two friends can make a difference. And that the way we can break down walls, defeat evil, and make the world a better place is by learning to understand and respect other cultures, other people, other countries, and recognize every last person as human. Politicians may make us all feel like we should hate these people, but in reality they're all just like us. They want to live a peaceful life, too. Ironbark is a film that instills a yearn for compassion and an obligation to fight for peace, not only fight for ourselves.