Set against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, Polish writer-director Łukasz Kośmicki’s first feature The Coldest Game has all the trappings of an edge-of-your-seat period thriller. Spies, microfilms, poison, and even an international chess tournament all feature prominently (along with vodka… copious amounts of vodka). Alas, however, it all combines into something that seems like a throwaway flick that Netflix would debut with precious little fanfare because it doesn’t really deserve more than the bare minimum. Because that’s exactly what it is.
Bill Pullman stars as former chess genius and math professor Joshua Mansky. As the movie opens he’s sitting down to face his Soviet opponent in a championship chess match, drunker than a skunk at a moonshine still, with clothes look like something the Salvation Army would turn down, and with a smear of blood on his hand. Through a seven-days-earlier flashback, we learn (slowly and with more convolution than necessary) that Mansky has been kidnapped by the CIA to replace the murdered American chess champ and (while he’s at it) thaw Cold War relations and also (because, why not) meet up with a Russian spy who has classified intelligence on the Soviet Union’s Missile Crisis strategy.
As the body count increases, the stakes do, too, but since The Coldest Game is clearly a work of fiction set in the midst of a real-life drama, there’s no real sense of urgency. Suspension of disbelief is one thing, but when the actual history eclipses anything a screenwriter could concoct, it’s a losing battle from the outset. The thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis are far more compelling than any fictional, revisionist history could ever be. (See 2000’s Thirteen Days for proof. And while you’re at it, 2015’s Pawn Sacrifice is a compelling look at the 1972 chess championship between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky.)
Pullman, who was a last-minute fill-in after William Hurt injured himself early in production, overdoes Mansky’s drunken stupor to often unintentionally hilarious levels. The supporting cast, however, does its due diligence, including Dutch actress Lotte Verbeek as Mansky’s no-nonsense CIA handler and Robert Więckiewicz as the amiable director of the Polish Ministry hosting the event.
Kośmicki, who co-wrote the script with Marcel Sawicki, injects The Coldest Game with the feel of an early 60s caper flick, to be sure, and it’s accentuated by first-rate cinematography by the great Paweł Edelman, but it’s not enough to keep the movie from limping across the finish line. What might have been, without overt ties to the Cuban Missile Crisis, something in the neighborhood of a Cold War version of Spy Game or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is instead one espionage flick that shouldn’t be allowed to come in from the cold.