A film review by Craig J. Koban June 30, 2021


2021, PG-13, 111 mins.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Greville Wynne  /  Merab Ninidze as Oleg Penkovsky  /  Rachel Brosnahan as Emily Donovan  /  Jessie Buckley as Sheila Wynne  /  Angus Wright as Dickie Franks  /  Kirill Pirogov as Gribanov

Written by Dominic Cooke  /  Written by Tom O'Connor

All while watching THE COURIER it dawned on me that there have been so very few spy thrillers - historical or not - that have focused on common, ordinary people being called upon to do extraordinary things.  

One of the simple pleasures of Dominic Cooke's film is that it places less emphasis on action and more on suspense and character dynamics, and more importantly it abandons any political sermonizing and instead hones in on themes of loyalty and how personal action can have a ripple effect on millions of others.  THE COURIER tells the fact based tale of British businessmen Grenville Wynne, who during the height of the 60s Cold War era was recruited by the Secret Intelligence Service to deliver top secret messages to defector Russian secret agent Oleg Penkovsky.  Even though this espionage drama is rendered with awfully familiar genre strokes at times, it's nevertheless finely acted, handsomely produced, and favors a more low key and understated approach than most akin to it. 

And not only was the intelligence that Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) delivered to his Russian partner important, it was actually crucial in allowing for the west to learn of Russian missile silos in Cuba, which would culminate in a well known event that nearly plunged the world into nuclear war.  Of course, the zenith of Russian/American Cold War strife was the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962, which concluded in a victory for the JFK administration that was built upon the very intel the Wynne hand delivered to Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze).  The Russian spy had access to ample damaging/sensitive information about his home country that he believed could be used by the west and its allies to help avoid future conflict.  Having such information leak easily and safely to the powers that be was not an easy task, which led to Penkovsky reaching out to operatives in MI6 and the CIA, Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) respectively, to find a manner of ensuring his cover while getting the intel to both countries securely. 

Their mutually agreed solution was audacious, yet simple: They would use an everyday businessman with no past experience in the field as a spy to hide in plain sight, so to speak, and allow him to be a conduit between Penkovsky and the US and UK.  And Wynne was, in many respects, an ideal choice, seeing as he was greatly respected in his field and freely traveled the world over to get deals done.  I mean...who would ever suspect him of being a spy?  Of course, Wynne seems highly concerned about his worth as a valuable secret agent, not to mention that the whole idea seemed preposterous.  That, and he has a wife (Jessie Buckley) and a young son (Keir Hills) that would probably not take too kindly to the potentially dangerous clandestine work to come for him.  Surprisingly, though, Wynne took to his new assignment like a proverbial duck to water and became rather adept in maintaining a vital intel flow chain between Penkovsky and American and British powers, but when the USSR began to smell something rotten they locked in their crosshairs on both Wynne and Penkovsky, leading to both men being caught.  Penkovsky bravely admitted guilt to the KGB, but insisted that his partner in Wynne knew nothing of the information smuggled, but the KGB had a hard time swallowing the latter.   



THE COURIER becomes uncommonly engrossing as it progresses as both an expose on divergent cultures coming together during the Cold War and as a fascinating examination of two men from diametrically opposite ends of the earth (as citizens of Russia and America) that found themselves working together for the common good.  Both men share many commonalities in the sense that they're honor bound family men that legitimately want to see their clans exist in a safe world free of armed conflict that could ignite WWIII.  Both men also try as they only can to stave off suspicions coming from unwanted targets in their work, and the threat of KGB capture and later torture looms heavily over both of them throughout their mission, perhaps more so for the greenhorn spy in Wynne.  An interesting arc in THE COURIER is how these men manage to build some semblance of a normal friendship amidst their risky undercover assignments, and both Cumberbatch and Ninidze are really solid together here in cementing the emotional authenticity of their newfound bond.  It's a nice change of pace to see Cumberbatch move away from his recent super hero ways in the MCU and return to playing ordinary men in way over their heads trapped in dire circumstances .  He's reliably stalwart here, but the real standout is Soviet born Ninidze, who has to show this man's intense crisis of conscience in his push-pull battle to help his country while essentially betraying it.   

The longer THE COURIER progresses and deep dives into the lives of these men the more we gain a startling impression of the mental toil that their work began having on them, and the pressures of what they were called to do must have been unendingly grueling.  Plus, if they failed it just might have meant global destruction (so, yeah, that's the heaviest of heavy crosses to bare).   The film also wisely shows how adept Wynne actually became as a "courier", who used his natural charm and salesman skills that segued into his smuggling work rather well.  Any doubts about him were usually tossed aside because he was so damn good and schmoozing with clients and making them feel comfortable; in many minds, he was just a money seeking capitates at heart...and nothing more.  Of course, this poor man's whole world came crumbling down when he and Penkovsky were captured and kept by the KGB for years, a dreary and horrifically dark period that the film doesn't shy away from.  It's during these prison and interrogation scenes that THE COURIER becomes a nightmarish viewfinder into shared misery and hopelessness between these two incarcerated men, with Wynne in particular having to experience his worst held fears about the consequences of his spy work.  History has shown that both were arrested and convicted of espionage by the KGB in October of 1962, with Penkovsky being executed a year later after his confession, whereas Wynne escaped death, but was sentenced to eight years at Lubyanka Prison.  Two years into his hellish stay and after facing horrendous health issues, Wynne was eventually spared after the Brits arranged for a spy exchange to secure his release.  

To be fair, these late sections of THE COURIER - even though they hit hard - aren't as compelling as what came before, and much of these parts of the film seems to be made up of the spare and discarded parts of other prison genre efforts.  On top of that, the inescapable deju vu that this film generates is hard to shake, especially when compared to the alarmingly similar in tone and approach to Steven Spielberg's Cold War period thriller BRIDGE OF SPIES.  Cooke's direction here doesn't quite have the same flair or flavor of Spielberg (it's much more plain and journeyman in comparison),  but he does manage to generate tension in the right dosages and wisely understands that the key to his reality based drama lies more in the intersection of players from the east and west during a time when these two super powers could not be any further apart.  THE COURIER may lack the aesthetic panache of many other better and more memorable examples of the genre, but it makes up for it in the intimate approach it takes with the characters and the monumental dilemmas that they face.    

When all is said and done, Wynne's contributions were huge and far reaching in being an integral part in what ended up helping prevent the Cuban Missile Crisis from becoming something far worse, and his undercover work with Penkovsky cannot be understated for its historical significance.  We've seen documentaries and dramas about the big players involved with this event, but rarely have we had any that chronicled the smaller personas that did the real hazardous grunt work to assist those in power.  THE COURIER probably doesn't have the lingering staying potency of other spy thriller and oftentimes it feels more like a glossy TV movie of the week versus something that definitely requires large screen consumption.  This would have normally been a tough sell for me to completely recommend for a theatrical ticket price, but for a slightly cheaper VOD rental (which is how most were able to seek it out during the pandemic) it's satisfyingly well oiled and engaging, in an old school kind of way.  And THE COURIER highlights how crucial two individuals were in shaping history that would have otherwise been delegated to footnotes in textbooks in the large scheme of things.   

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