Benedict Cumberbatch has starred in a lot of true stories. Most are the stories of well known historical figures like Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, Thomas Edison in The Current War or the recent story of Brexit. Ironbark is a true story that’s not so well known and it should be.
Ironbark is a Cold War spy story about an ordinary Brit who helped avert the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s also one of the best performances Benedict Cumberbatch ever gave and one of his best movies, in a career full of memorable ones.
Benedict Cumberbatch is Greville Wynne
Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a salesman in 1960. The British intelligence agency recruits him to help them obtain Russian files from Russian operative Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), code name Ironbark. His cover is perfect. He’s just a traveling businessman so no one would suspect him.
Wynne’s first mission is a fun romp. It’s almost a joke sending this guy out on spywork and no one is more self-deprecating than Wynne himself. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the comedy as well as the drama when it gets serious. He gets bigger missions that take a greater toll on him and ultimately requires personal sacrifices.
They should teach this history
Some of the details of Wynne’s missions get a little hazy but it’s easy to follow the broad strokes. He has to photograph top-secret documents and hide them in drop-off containers. That kind of works to keep the audience in Wynne’s point of view.
Benedict Cumberbatch captures how Wynne doesn’t really understand the high-level government work either. He’s just a regular guy trying to help, and his efforts can be more vital than he even understands.
The files these men smuggled out of Russia helped America defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis and maintain diplomatic relations with Russia. They didn’t teach that in high school history classes and it’s not in most of the JFK biopics. The world should know Wynne and Penkovsky’s names. Hopefully having Benedict Cumberbatch play Wynne will help, and Ninidze is a real discovery.
Benedict Cumberbatch shows Greville Wynne’s sacrifice
Early on Benedict Cumberbatch shows Wynne lashing out at his family under the pressure of a job about which he can’t even tell his wife. His relationship with Penkovsky goes from a buddy comedy romp to a harrowing ordeal. They bond, first having fun drinking undercover, but then they become each other’s only allies in a dangerous world of espionage that threatens both of their families.
Ironbark cranks up the intensity with close calls. The longer Wynne and Penkovsky do this, the more eyebrows they raise. As their missions escalate, the film show the real sacrifices Wynne and Penkovsky made for the country. Wynne’s country was England and both men ended up helping the U.S. Benedict Cumberbatch makes an extraordinary transformation by the end of the film, yet I’m sure he’d agree it’s minor compared to the real Wynne.
Ironbark is a fun and exciting slice of real James Bond work. Benedict Cumberbatch has never been better, from his charming bumbling introduction to his desperation deep into the mission. Look for Ironbark after the Sundance Film Festival.