In 1960, the nuclear arms race between the USSR and the United States was coming to a head. Threats of annihilation were made, bomb shelters were created, and people on both sides were terrified.
But perhaps none more so than Colonel Oleg Penkovsky of the Soviet Union.
Penkovsky knew that, realistically, Russia wasn’t capable of wiping out the United States. Nikita Khrushchev (then president of the USSR) liked to brag about Russia’s scientific and militaristic advancements. But with a wife and young daughter at home, Penkovsky worried that the bragging would soon lead to nuclear war—and the subsequent death of himself, his family and his countrymen.
So, he secretly contacted the CIA through an American tourist, requesting help. He would provide them with the information necessary to prevent war, and in exchange, the United States government would help Penkovsky and his family defect when the time was right.
But in order to transport this top-secret information, Penkovsky still needed a source more reliable than the occasional tourist.
Sending an American would be a certain death sentence, since the last man the CIA worked with was caught and executed. And the British intelligence agency MI6, though equally invested in preventing war, was unwilling to risk escalating its own tensions with Russia if one of the group’s spies got caught.
However, the suits at MI6 could send a civilian, so long as they didn’t provide him with too many details.
Greville Wynne was a British businessman who had a liking for the drink and the ability to travel between countries without question. Truth be told, he wasn’t even aware he was talking to spies when the CIA and MI6 approached him. And he certainly didn’t want to become one himself.
But what he did want was to protect his wife and son. So, with little more knowledge than to simply be himself and await further instruction, he became Penkovsky’s new courier.
Penkovsky and Wynne’s motivation to steal top-secret intel from the USSR is driven by their desire to protect their loved ones from a nuclear holocaust.
However, while working together, something unexpected happens: The two men become friends. This is quite shocking, since their countries are nearly at war. They’re supposed to hate each other—or at least only grudgingly tolerate each another. But they come to realize that the bad blood between their homelands isn’t so much about hatred towards foreigners as it is about politicians screaming about which country is better.
Both fathers teach their children that two people from very different backgrounds and lifestyles working together towards a common goal can make a difference in the world. And to this end, each man protects the other from KGB agents, refusing to sign confessions that would condemn the other person even at risk to his own life.
[Spoiler Warning] Their efforts are well rewarded, since the information they transported helped stop the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
Wynne initially dislikes the CIA and MI6, because they use fear tactics to manipulate him. However, when Penkovsky is in danger, both agencies help him attempt to extract his friend despite impossible odds.
Wynne’s wife, Sheila, grow suspicious of his constant visits to Russia and voices her concerns about his travels. She becomes increasingly suspicious of her husband’s poorly told lies about his activities. When Sheila later learns the truth, she apologizes to Wynne and asks for his forgiveness, which he gladly gives, relieved that she finally knows everything.
Several couples kiss. A married couple lays in bed while kissing passionately; it’s implied they have sex, as we later see them covered only by sheets. Several men drive past a strip club. A woman says her husband is “energetic” in bed. We see some ballet dancers in leotards and tights.
Sheila assumes that the reason her husband keeps traveling to Russia is because he is having an affair. And we later learn that he had an affair once before (thus her suspicion) but that she forgave him afterward.
While in prison, Wynne is forced to strip before a cavity search; we see him naked, covering his genitals with his hands (we also see his exposed backside).
A man with multiple bruises and lacerations on his face and body gets shot in the head (we see some blood splatter). We see another man in similarly bad shape later on and learn he was also executed. Several people, including a young girl, are roughly handled by KGB officers.
Wynne is removed from a plane by KGB officers before getting punched in the stomach and thrown in the back of a van. They take him to a Russian prison where he forced to strip and undergo a body cavity search. While there, he is further tortured: They deprive him of sleep and basic hygienic needs; shave his head; limit his food rations; force him to stay in a room with a broken window in the middle of winter without blankets; make him use a bucket on the floor as a toilet; and, when all else fails, physically beat him with batons, and we watch him become weak and emaciated as time goes on.
People talk about war, and world leaders make threats to bomb other countries. Someone tells Wynne that if Russia attacks the UK, his entire family will be destroyed before he has a chance to say goodbye.
We hear one use each of the f-word and s-word. We also hear four uses of “h—,” two of the British expletive “bloody” and one of “a–hole.” God’s name is also misused five times.
People drink and smoke throughout the film. Wynne states that drinking is his one true gift, and we see him and others drunk on several occasions. We also see people drinking heavily to handle stressful situations. Someone uses cigarettes to poison a man.
Despite working together, the CIA and MI6 don’t get along, frequently mocking each other and sometimes purposely making tasks more difficult for the other agency.
We also witness acts of espionage, which include lying and stealing. And while these acts of subterfuge are often used to extract information that could save millions of lives, they’re also used as weapons by the enemy. And although Wynne is told that he has to lie to his wife to protect her from the KGB, he expresses his discomfort since he lied to her in the past and hurt her with the deception.
A man yells at his son and calls him “dense” in frustration. Then he admits it had nothing to do with his son and apologizes, but his child is still hurt by his father’s harsh words.
A family is not allowed to say goodbye before the husband is carted off to prison for the remainder of his days. MI6 is reluctant to rescue someone working undercover because it would require giving up one of the agency’s own prisoners in exchange.
It may not seem as if two people would be enough to change the outcome of a global standoff. But over the course of their two-year friendship, Oleg Penkovsky and Greville Wynne clandestinely smuggled 5000 top-secret documents from Russia to England and the United States. And their actions were directly responsible for the hotline that now exists between the White House and the Kremlin to prevent nuclear war between Russia and the U.S.
And while this inspiring true story teaches us a lot about bravery and what it means to lay down your life for others, it also teaches us about the value of friendship.
On paper, Oleg and Greville shouldn’t have worked as friends. They were from different economic backgrounds, political mindsets and career fields. But when they put politics aside, they realized they weren’t actually all that different. Both men were patriots (albeit from warring countries) who simply didn’t want to see their families and friends, and millions of their countrymen perish because of a few angry political leaders.
This dramatic cold-war era spy thriller isn’t always the easiest film to watch. The sequence depicting one main character in a Russian prison is brutal. He’s beaten and starved half to death. And we also witness him in a particularly vulnerable situation when he is forced to remove his clothes and have his bodily cavities examined. There’s also some foul language, a reference to a man’s extramarital affair and lots of belligerent alcohol consumption.
Because Penkovsky and Wynne were willing to set aside the labels that separated them from each other and to look at the person beneath, their actions save millions of people from nuclear fallout. That said, many families won’t want to ignore some of the content labels we’ve listed here before watching.
Emily studied film and writing when she was in college. And when she isn’t being way too competitive while playing board games, she enjoys food, sleep, and indulging in her “nerdom,” which is the collective fan cultures of everything she loves, such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.