There are some things that audiences can expect from a story about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Tension, secrets, and possibly betrayal are bound to be a part of the tale. There may be some humor and compassion, but for the most part there, those moments take a backseat to the main plot. But when a spy flick does not have the typical elements needed for an espionage laden movie, what is the film supposed to do? Ironbark tries to answer the question with a down to earth approach that is hit and miss.
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Greville Wynne, the movie is the true story of a British businessman who played an important role in discovering Soviet secrets during the Cold War. The film takes place during the 1960s when international tensions were at an all time high. Out of loyalty to his country, Wynne decides to infiltrate Russia. But after becoming acquaintances with a Russian Colonel code named Ironbark, Wynne’s loyalties are tested.
Along with Cumberbatch, Ironbark stars Rachel Brosnahan of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The two of them have proven they are great comedic talents. The question becomes, how would the pair do in a taut Cold War thriller? The movie answers this in two ways: it allows the story to play to the strengths of its cast and it focuses more on the people involved.
Cumberbatch does a wonderful job as Wynne. As loyal as he is to his country, Wynne is just a common citizen. For the majority of Ironbark, Cumberbatch never acts like anything other than the businessman he. He plays the character as just another person on the street. When he finally accepts the assignment, it cannot end soon enough. His charming and funny (important traits for any good salesman), but he is not overtly heroic. Cumberbatch gives a perfect performance that is the right mix of subdued and melodramatic.
Brosnahan does her best as CIA agent Emily Donovan. There is nothing wrong with the performance. She brings a compassion to the character the rivals Wynne’s. Her motivations may be change over the course of the film, but there is definitely heart to Emily. That may also be the biggest issue with her. She starts off as callous and strictly by the book. By the end of the movie, she is almost overly emotional. The writing never gives her a chance to just be a person.
This is a case of the script failing the cast. On the contrary, it is very good. While Ironbark is never a bad movie, the final act falls short of the quality seen in the earlier parts of the film. To its credit, the film is still able to focus on its themes of loyalty and relationships, it just decides to throw the nuanced storytelling it had started with out the window. Wynne becomes a more typical hero, Emily forgets about duty (and seemingly which country she works for), and the villains are over the top bad guys. It is a jolting change of pace that is supposed to be emotionally affecting and is instead jarring.
The one constant is the performance of Merab Nindze. As the titular character, Nindze shows a wide range of emotions. He is frightened, hopeful, and cautious. Each relationship, Ironbark partakes in is a genuine one. He is a compassionate man who is loyal to his country and cares even more about his future. Even in the chaotic third act, Nindze continues to play the character witha quiet dignity.
Ironbark takes risks that are not normally seen in a spy thriller. The idea of a quiet double agent is not new, but making the agent so normal they border on boring is an interesting idea. Benedict Cumberbatch is charming while Merab Nindze is excellent in a stirring performance. If only the story was able to keep up with its cast.