The real story of Greville Wynne and the Cold War
The historical drama of the cold war The mail is based on the true story of Greville Wynne, a British businessman who became an unlikely MI6 agent in the early 1960s. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020 and began to be broadcast aired on Amazon Prime Video in 2021 after a short theatrical release. Inspired by the extraordinary efforts of an ordinary man, Tom O’Connor wrote the screenplay. Directed by Dominic Cooke, The mail stars Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr strange) as Greville Wynne and Merab Ninidze as Soviet intelligence officer Oleg Penkovsky.
The film begins in the early 1960s, when Penkovsky, a senior member of the Soviet agency GRU, uses American students to convey a message to the United States about nuclear operations in the Soviet Union. In the letter, he also shares his desire to leave the Soviet Union and has agreed to pass on top secret government information. Starting with his recruitment to join MI6, The mail follows Greville Wynne as he forms an unlikely friendship with Penkovsky and becomes an unexpected spy for British and American intelligence agencies.
By passing on the information stolen by Penkovsky, the two men played a role in deterring all-out nuclear war. How Penkovsky and Wynne did it, how they were captured and what happened to them next is central to The mail. Taking a look at this moment in Cold War era history, the film does a good job of staying historically accurate with a few minor tweaks for dramatic effect. But by condensing the content into a two-hour feature film, a lot of the true story details are also left out. Here’s a look at the information missing from the film about how this historic enterprise unfolded, and how a Soviet intelligence officer and average British citizen managed to help stop a nuclear war.
History of the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis
Called the Cuban Missile Crisis in the United States, this actual confrontation between the United States and the Soviets is considered the closest the two countries could have potentially unleashed World War III during the Cold War era. Although it was one of the most significant events of the time, the entire incident unfolded over less than five years. While the decades-long period of geopolitical tension between the two countries and their respective allies lasted much longer, from the end of World War II until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991.
The real recruiting Greville Wynne & MI6
In the film, Greville Wynne is recruited by MI6 agent Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and CIA’s Emily Donovan (played by The wonderful Mrs. Maisel star, Rachel Brosnahan). Dickie Franks is based on a real person and he really recruited Wynne as a spy. According to Smithsonian magazine, in November 1960, Franks recruited Wynne at what he thought was a business dinner – much like the scene depicted in The mail. Wynne was at the time an industrial sales consultant and Mi-6 recruited him due to his previous trips to countries controlled by the Soviet Union, which allowed him to cover his mission in Moscow perfectly. The film closely follows the true story from there, with Wynne befriending Penkovsky, who photographs Soviet military documents, which Wynne passes on to his master, Franks.
While The mail’s Dickie Franks was based on a real person, according to United States today, CIA agent Emily Donovan was created as a composite character inspired by several real people involved in the intelligence operation. Including Janet Chisholm, who was the wife of a British officer stationed in Moscow who allegedly served as one of Penkovsky’s managers there. Unlike the film, MI6 did not immediately forward the information received from Penkovsky to the CIA, but when they did, the evidence turned out to be vital.
What happened to Oleg Penkovsky
Oleg Penkovsky was arrested in October 1962. After Penkovsky and Wynne were captured by the KGB, which happened very similar to how their capture is depicted in the film, the GRU lieutenant colonel been convicted of treason and sentenced to death by firing squad. This is the scenario described in The mail, and that generally accepted by historians. However, how Penkovsky died remains a matter of debate for some. In Wynne’s memoir written after his release, he claims that Penkovsky committed suicide. In another much darker version of the story told in the 1994 non-fiction book “Spies: The Secret Agents Who Changed the Course of History”, he was reportedly burned alive by cremation – a method the KGB allegedly reserved. to those considered to be the “worst traitors of the Soviet Union”.
At the time, the United Kingdom and the United States believed that the Soviet Union’s stockpile of missiles was much larger than the actual number in their nuclear arsenal. This was one of the biggest secrets revealed by information provided by Penkovsky which is not specified in the film. Debunking this rumor proved that the Soviets were not ready for war. This information, along with intelligence provided by Penkovsky on the location of Cuban missile sites, gave President Kennedy what he needed to take control of the Cuban missile problem.
What happened to Greville Wynne
After spending a year and a half in a Soviet prison, the British government negotiated Wynne’s release and he returned to England in poor health as the film describes. What isn’t covered in the film is what happened next: While Wynne was truly the unsung hero portrayed in the film, he was also known to have been a pathological liar who embellished – and sometimes fabricated – information about his working time with MI6. This is well documented in the two memoirs Wynne wrote after his release. In one example, he claims to have visited the White House where he was reportedly met by President John F. Kennedy, who personally thanked Wynne for his services. Historians point to several reasons why this could not have happened, namely that there were no jets that could fly to Washington DC and return within the time frame where Wynne claims the trip has taken place. However, given what Wynne went through – and what he sacrificed in the hopes of saving lives – it makes sense that the film chose not to dwell on these aspects of Wynne’s life.
The mail ends on an uplifting note, with a statement about how Wynne returned to her business career and thrived in the years following her arrest. This is somewhat true, but his time in prison affected him both physically and psychologically, having a long-term impact on Wynne’s health. In 1990, he died of throat cancer at the age of 70.
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