Directed by: Dominic Cooke
Premise: Based on true events. Set around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, businessman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) is recruited by British and American intelligence agencies to make contact with a Russian official who wishes to share information about the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons program.
What Works: The Courier is a historical spy thriller but the story it tells is unusual. As dramatized in this film, Greville Wynne was not a professional spy but an average and unassuming British businessman who specialized in making deals in countries on the communist side of the Iron Curtain. He was recruited to be the middle man between western espionage agencies and a high-level Soviet informant. The film works on its primary level as a spy thriller and it offers the cloak and dagger thrills essential to this genre but The Courier is less James Bond and much more Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It’s gripping because the film vividly captures the paranoia of life in the Soviet Union. But The Courier also works so well because of its human qualities. Greville Wynne was not a superspy. He was an average businessman put into an extraordinary situation. The heart of The Courier is its human relationships. Greville Wynne connects with Soviet official Oleg Penkovsky at first in an official capacity and they gradually become genuine friends. The way these men defy the hostility of their governments and strike up a bond is humanizing and hopeful and distinguishes The Courier from the antisocial tones that characterize many spy thrillers. Benedict Cumberbatch is cast as Wynne and Cumberbatch is quite good; he allows himself to be frightened and meek and that vulnerability makes him heroic. Merab Ninidze plays Penkovsky and there is a quiet dignity and goodheartedness to his performance that makes Penkovsky a likeable character. Aside from the burgeoning friendship, the other important human relationship of The Courier is the marriage between Greville Wynne and his wife played Jessie Buckley. The relationship is rocky, especially as the husband is forced to lie to her to protect the mission, driving a wedge in the marriage. The Courier creates palatable stakes that are both political and personal and the story leverages those priorities against one another in ways that escalate the tension.
What Doesn’t: The crux of The Courier is the way that Greville Wynne and Oleg Penkovsky alerted the world to the Soviet Union’s nuclear capabilities and shaped the outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But that context is mostly pushed to the background. The Cuban Missile Crisis passes with little mention. It may be that this was too far departed from the immediate story of Wynne and Penkovsky and would have required a much broader scope than The Courier entertains. But without that context the film misses some of the significance of the whole affair.
DVD extras: Featurette.
Bottom Line: The Courier is a fine historical drama. It provides the tension and excitement viewers look for in a spy thriller but the movie goes beyond that. This is a thoughtful and ultimately hopeful piece about the possibilities of friendship triumphing over national and political differences.
Episode: #867 (September 5, 2021)