The time is 1960, when the Cold War between America and Russia was at its height. Both countries have nuclear bombs and the Russian leader Nikita Krushchev is threatening to “bury” America – and start a world war which would “bury” his own people too, but he doesn’t mention that one. Military intelligence officer Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), who is high up in the Soviet hierarchy, does however recognise the danger. Despite the risk to himself, he contacts the American embassy, offering to spy for them.
Enter the CIA in the form of Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan), whose organisation has decided that the best way to manage this new asset would be through Britain’s MI5. And they suggest that, rather than using a professional as their go-between what they need is an ordinary guy, whom the Russians won’t suspect.
Enter Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), an unassuming salesman, who initially thinks that spymaster Dickie Franks (Angus Wright), works for the Board of Trade. Franks sends him on a supposed trade mission to Moscow, where he will make contact with Penkovsky. And off goes Greville, a potential lamb amongst wolves.
Cumberbatch is terrific in the role, sporting a moustache and spectacles, and looking for all the world like a second hand car salesman. In the earlier part of the film he even brings some touches of comedy to the role. Equally good is Ninidze as Penkovsky, who comes over as immensely likeable. Much is made of the fact that both men are married men with children, one of the elements that bind them into a friendship, whose strength forces Greville to risk his own life, when Penkovsky is threatened with discovery. The KGB realise there must be a mole in the politburo, when the information Penkovsky is feeding America via his courier Greville reveals the Russian missile bases in Cuba, thus leading to what history now calls the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Director Cooke has a good feel for the period and the western perception that every Soviet citizen is a pair of eyes for the Kremlin and he combines pace with space for reflection. Jessie Buckley has some effective moments as Greville’s wife. Brosnahan’s character of Greville’s CIA handler is a role which in real life was male but has been feminised to suit today’s audience. She, along with Wright and Anton Lesser as her MI5 counterparts combine cold professionalism with some humanity.
And while we lose touch with Petrovsky for most of the last act of the film, when Greville is suffering in a Russian jail, it is the loyal friendship between the two men at the heart of the film, which makes this more human drama than just an espionage thriller.