I’m a sucker for a good Cold War thriller. A middling one? Yeah, I’ll sit through one of those, too.
“The Coldest Game” falls in the latter category, a fictional Cuban Missile Crisis/”Bobby Fischer vs. The World” mash-up that hurls many a spy movie cliche and every paranoid terror the American chess champ Fischer had about the Russians — from poison and hypnosis to neck-snapping murder — into the middle of real history’s closest call with World War III.
Bill Pullman plays an alcoholic mathematics professor, sometimes card-counter at poker and former chess champ kidnapped from boozy Brooklyn just as the Cuban Missile Crisis begins in 1962.
Joshua Mansky is a bit of a wreck, but an American champ has died, suddenly, and they need somebody to play the Soviet champ (Evgeniy Sidikhin) in a goodwill match in Warsaw. Because the world could use a little good will.
American agents (Lotte Verbeek, James Bloor, Corey Johnson) pour the guy into the basement of the American embassy in Warsaw and size him up.
“THIS is the guy you want to win the Cold War for us?”
But a medico on duty finds that just giving the alcoholic a drink makes him functional. He’s a damned genius, after all. He needs something to tune out distractions.
The whole ploy here is setting up a handover of information from a Russian/Soviet double agent, microfilm that will reveal their state of preparations in Cuba and their intentions.
So, no losing the match quickly. No wiping the floor with the Bolshevik bastard, either.
Mansky blacks out, is manipulated by hypnotist tricks from Russian plants in the audience and is overwhelmed — at least at first.
“What happened with the game?”
“You WON professor!”
But there’s a Polish Palace of Culture manager (Robert Wieckiewicz) who recognizes a fellow dipsomaniac in Mansky, and hides bottles all over the hotel, in addition to sneaking him out for a boozy night on the town.
Meanwhile, the murderous Soviets cheat and kill to win at any costs, meeting in Russian (Not subtitled, you will have to turn on closed captioning.), and taking their marching orders from General Krutov (Aleksey Serebryakov).
Again, turn on closed captioning if you’re not able to understand the Russian. Because in this Polish co-production, the Russian has the best lines. Krutov is a true believer, and his explanation of the difference between capitalism and communism could convert a lot of folks to Bernie Sanders voters.
“We believe in the value of a man, while they only care about his price.”
Serebryakov’s Gen. Krutov makes the best threats, too. “From this moment you can be afraid for the rest of your short life.”
The whole affair — again, fictional — is a jumble of U-2 flights and intrigues, “quiet” rooms (bugs are everywhere) and booze. Pullman keeps up with it all, but it lost me here and there, and long before its “Here is the message of our movie” epilogue, about new dangers brought to the world by Trump and Putin and the collapse of treaties.
But the Mid-Century Soviet fashion, furniture and design is properly gloomy and crumbling. The performances are solid even when the story is at its most convoluted.
And there are third act twists that atone for some of what’s lacking in the first two.
But let’s give the Russian the last word on this “draw” of a drama — “Defeat is not defeat if you share it with your enemy.”
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, bloody violence, alcohol abuse
Cast: Bill Pullman, Lotte Verbeek, Aleksey Serebryakov, James Bloor, Corey Johnson and Nicholas Farrell
Running time: 1:43