Wednesday 18 August 2021

Movie Review: The Coldest Game (2019)

A Cold War drama, The Coldest Game is a fictional imagining of spies convening at a chess showdown during the Cuban missiles crisis. Despite evoking an era of espionage, the jagged script wobbles.

It's 1962, and the conflict over Soviet warheads in Cuba is threatening to erupt into a global nuclear war. American professor Joshua Mansky (Bill Pullman), now an alcoholic but formerly a chess prodigy, is involuntarily recruited by Federal agents Stone (Lotte Verbeek), White (James Bloor) and Novak (Corey Johnson) to be the United States contender in a chess championship match against Soviet grandmaster Gavrylov.

The event is held in Poland at the hotel wing of Warsaw's Palace of Culture and Science. The facility's director Alfred (Robert Więckiewicz), a World War Two Polish underground resistance hero, befriends Mansky. Menacing Soviet General Krutov (Aleksey Serebryakov) is also in Warsaw, exerting his influence. Mansky learns he was recruited as the point of contact with a Soviet mole, who is carrying vital information about the missiles headed to Cuba.

A Polish production, The Coldest Game is set deep within the world of spies, where moles, murders, and quiet mayhem prevent worse fates. Director and co-writer Łukasz Kośmicki recreates Warsaw behind the iron curtain, a city still hurting from a ruinous war and overrun by agents as it hosts an east versus west showdown. The character of Alfred, now a hotel director wondering if his war sacrifices meant anything as his country chafes under the Soviet boot, provides the narrative heartbeat. The personal city tour he provides to Mansky is the visual and emotional highlight. 

But beyond the cloak-and-dagger aesthetics, The Coldest Game falters. Kośmicki tries to juggle a cold war thriller, a chess drama, a character study, and an international impasse, and unsurprisingly only manages to short-change all topics. Appending a fictional side-story on a history-shaping real-world crisis is always a risky gambit, and the chess-tournament-in-the-shadow-of-imminent-war narrative never justifies itself.

The passing-of-secrets raison d'etre for all the spies gathering in Warsaw is shoved so far back into the shadows that it barely registers, and eventually the film can be accused of focusing on the wrong protagonist: the Soviet mole risking everything to deliver crucial information seems to have a much more interesting story compared to the bamboozled and perpetually drunk professor. As for the chess, the tactics are not even esoterically explained. 

Bill Pullman sinks into the Mansky role with weighty resignation, salvaging a few moments by conveying the sheer fatigue of a man reluctantly forced to function. Despite his frumpled contributions, The Coldest Game thaws into the tepid claminess of muddled intentions.

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