When X-Men: First Class came out and used the Cuban Missile Crisis as one of the defining plot points of its often infuriatingly convoluted plot I thought it seemed exploitative and crass. Little did I know that 9 years later The Coldest Game would be released. Also set in the days before the Cuban Missile Crisis’ culmination, this Bill Pullman starring spy thriller plays fast and loose with history as it clumsily rewrites it with a script that feels stiff and lifeless. If you would ask me which out of the two films was more likely to have actually have happened, I’d go with the mutants.
The Coldest Game follows the story of alcoholic professor Joshua Mansky (Pullman), a genius of strategy and chess among many other things. When he is pushed into helping the CIA in their attempts to stop World War 3 by going to Warsaw and taking part in a chess championship as a ruse for acquiring information key to averting the Cuban Missile Crisis. Reluctantly he agrees but pushing down his demons and working with others is something he hasn’t done in years, it comes harder than he remembered.
Directed by Lukasz Kosmicki, this Polish thriller has a solid premise, one established somewhat clumsily in an opening ten minutes full of poorly written exposition and strangely futuristic sets for a film set in the 1960s. It sets a tone of paranoia and fear but never really establishes who Mansky is or why we should care about him. While a mid film re-write of nuclear history seeks to remedy this, for the entire film, Pullman is lumbered with a character that for all intents and purposes is just a pitiful drunk, a forgettable figure. The problem with that is Mansky is surrounded by plot spouting CIA goons, people with no life to them, let alone justification or even an ounce of patriotism. For a film about saving America, none of them seem to care all that much.
Kosmicki however slides a sub plot into his film about a Poland still recovering from war and Russian intervention that is poignant in how it approaches the nature of identity of a country defined for almost 30 years by occupation. When Mansky is exploring a country under control, much like he is by the American compatriots he has put his trust in the film finds solid ground. This story amounts for very little in terms of screentime but it shows a clear divide between a director trying to service an audience and his own preferences at the same time. Despite acting as a serviceable spy thriller, the heart of Kosmicki’s film is the country it is set in and the fact that he doesn’t play more towards this notion of individuality under the thumb of someone else in the rest of his story is a crying shame.
Although managing to keep you constantly questioning the outcome outside of the obvious history surrounding his film, Kosmicki manages to unfortunately make his film as dry as the chess matches in it. Full of moving pieces, present but never saying anything of note, until they are unceremoniously sacrificed for the sake of plot or titilation, of which little arrives. The only honest moments arise when Mansky looks outside of his own jeopardy, this mission that, thanks to its history bending identity, feels utterly forced. When real history comes into it, the kind speaking of a Poland often forgotten about in favour of louder moments, The Coldest Game finds its voice.
While its hard to fault Pullman who does a decent job making Mansky understandable in a film that waits too long to define him, it is the new stories, not the old ones that keep it flowing. Much like chess, the old plans of attack have been seen before, they are expected. When something new finally arrives, stick with it, it might lead somewhere better.