It's 1988, and the Cold War is coming to an end. With Glasnost now allowing more open cultural exchanges between East and West, British publisher Barley Blair (Sean Connery) - a free-thinker, Russophile, and full-time drunk - takes the opportunity to attend a party thrown by some acquaintances in a country villa on the outskirts of Moscow. While charming the other guests with his radical philosophies and rhetoric, Blair attracts the attention of one of the guests - a mysterious Russian going by the nickname 'Dante' - who carefully observes Blair and later shares an enigmatic political discussion with him in private.
Shortly afterwards, Dante sends his confidant and ex-lover Katya Orlova (Michelle Pfeiffer) to deliver a manuscript to Barley for publishing in the West. However the manuscript ends up falling into the hands of MI6, who quickly realize that it contains a complete breakdown of Soviet nuclear missile capabilities - revealing that the Russians are way behind on the Nuclear Arms Race. With no way to ascertain whether Dante or his manuscript are legit, MI6 operator Ned (James Fox) locates Barley and convinces him to go back to Russia and try to get in touch with Katya for some answers. Barley reluctantly agrees, travels to Moscow to meet with Katya, and quickly falls in love with her.
Of course, things begin to go awry once MI6 passes the manuscript to the CIA. The Americans - seeing a golden opportunity to acquire critical Soviet secrets from Dante - quickly get involved in the affair, forcing Barley to make a choice between his new-found love for Katya and his loyalty to his own country.
There was also a BBC radio adaptation of the book - that version starred Tom Baker as Barley.
The film is notable for being the second (and last) US production to film in the Soviet Union itself.
Contains examples of:
- Adapted Out: Harry Palfrey, the book's narrator. He wouldn't get his screen debut until The Night Manager.
- Adaptation Name Change: Yakov's codename "Goethe" is changed to "Dante" for the film.
- Bait-and-Switch: This priceless exchange during Barley's debriefing:CIA Interrogator: Have you ever met any jazz musicians you would describe, or who would describe themselves, as anarchists?
Barley: Hmmm... ah, there was a trombone player, Wilfred Baker.
(the interrogator starts writing)
Barley: He's the only jazz musician I can think of who is completely devoid of anarchist tendencies.
- Covert Distress Code: When Dante needs to contact Katya, he calls her "Elina" if all is well, or "Maria" if he's in trouble.
- Failed Future Forecast: Although written and set before the end, several characters allude and worry over the future if the cold war comes to an end. As one character puts it:" How the fuck do you peddle an arms race when the only asshole you've got to race against is yourself!?"
- Happily Ever After: For Niki Landau anyway. For smuggling out the files, he gets £100,000 from MI6 and opens up a very successful business with it. He remains happily unaware of all the espionage that follows.
- Hidden Purpose Test: During Blair's spy training.Ned: Did you spot our watchers?
Blair: The tramp reading the dustbin, the woman with the white shoes, and of course the man with the tracksuit.
Ned: You've scored nil. Out of a possible twelve. The lesson is: you'll never know who they are.
- Internal Retcon: When the Shopping List falls into the hands of the KGB, the CIA puts out a rumor that the list was designed to be captured by the KGB, in order to misinform them about what the CIA does and doesn't know about the Soviet weapons program. Although we're not explicitly told whether this is the truth or a cover-up, it's strongly insinuated to be the latter.
- Love Confession: Barley's "Grown-up love" speech. It was even used in the trailer.
- Make the Bear Angry Again: Or rather, carry on as if he is still in the game.
- MayDecember Romance: Imposed on Barley and Katya in the film, as a result of Dawson Casting with Connery.
- Mirroring Factions: The crux of the story is that ordinary people of the USSR and the West are remarkable similar. The KGB are up to the same tricks as MI6 and the CIA.
- Overt Rendezvous: Pretty much every meeting between Barley and his Russian contacts is done in a public place, out in the open, or in a crowd.Ned: Crowds are good, if you keep moving. Open spaces are good. Talking in the street is OK, if you have to. Never never talk in a car or in your hotel room, except for the benefit of their microphones. If you've learned anything about playing the radio or running the tap, forget it.
- Paper Tiger: The manuscripts state the entire Soviet weapons programme is in a state of disarray. Truth in Television by 1990.
- Recycled Soundtrack: Jerry Goldsmith's main theme for the movie was originally written for Wall Street before he left the project due to Creative Differences (he didn't score that movie); he reused it in his score for Alien Nation but the music was thrown out. The third time was the charm.