This is a confused and tonally inconsistent cold war spy thriller – hence the name – which markedly improves in its final act but which is pretty damn messy before it gets there.
We know we’re off to a good start when we cut away from distressed Bill Pullman to “7 days earlier” before the credits even start. I guess some filmmakers are just not aware of how much this “start with the ending” cliche has become a cliche. It can still work in a good movie, it doesn’t work in many films.
But it’s worse in this film: they keep telling us where we are in the chronology, as if we cannot figure out that time is passing. I get that Bill Pullman’s character doesn’t always know – he’s an alcoholic – but we, the audience, have no issues there. So crossing off the days to the penultimate match feels condescending.
There are other problems with how the story is told, as Pullman isn’t in on everything his handlers are up to, but the audience is left pretty much at sea too. We have to trust the film, which is fine in a well-made movie, but is less fine in a film where they are worried you have already forgotten that the movie is building towards a particular moment you’ve already seen. There is confusion even though they can’t help but include tons of archival footage from the era to remind you of the supposed stakes.
In addition to the generally confused nature of the mission, the tone also takes a couple of jumps, none more jarring than the montage using the soul song, which feels like it has come from an entirely different movie. (The song, not the montage.) It’s hard to know what the hell they were thinking.
Once we get to the climax, things are handled a little more deftly. But it’s hard to forgive the clunkiness that came before. I was pretty damn annoyed when the film suddenly improved noticeably. So I was only less annoyed at the end.
It’s also hard to feel like the filmmakers do that this film is somehow important given what the US and Russia were up to before our pandemic because, of course, this story is entirely made up. If you want to tell a moral about nuclear proliferation, there are plenty of real stories to tell. You don’t need to make up one about how a drunken former chess champion helped avert the Cuban Missile Crisis.