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 GribanovWritten 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.
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.
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.