Not many appreciate just how close we came to nuclear war in the early 1960s. Astonishingly, some experts estimate the probability of us being here now was tentatively less than 50% at the height of the Cold War. Thankfully, due to the actions of key players and a fair bit of luck, we avoided catastrophe. The Courier is based on the true story of two lesser-known key players and the sacrifices they made to help save the world.
Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) is just a run-of-the-mill English salesman; he’s the last person one would expect of being a spy. This is precisely why he was approached by representatives of MI6 and the CIA. Initially, he was tasked with a simple mission: Travel to Moscow on business and touch base with a potential contact. This contact turns out to be Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a high-level Soviet official who fears the path his nation is taking and agrees to smuggle invaluable secrets to the West. Penkovsky takes a liking to Wynne and convinces him to reluctantly serve as courier of these secrets while continuing to pose as a businessman. Wynne risks both his family and his life as he works to covertly deliver secrets that ultimately provide invaluable intel to the United States and Great Britain as the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis unfold.
Benedict Cumberbatch shines brightest when playing roles such as this and expectedly delivers a tremendous performance. He’s surrounded by a strong supporting cast, perhaps most notable being Merab Ninidze as Oleg Penkovsky. The two play off each other well but ultimately, it’s Cumberbatch who carries the film. Director Dominic Cooke does the espionage genre justice without breaking new ground. The film is dark and suspenseful as well as being relatively well paced to keep the audience engaged. Everything is very by the book resulting in a solid film.
However, this conventionality also keeps The Courier from standing out. A tiring staple of most biopics is a dramatized rendition of a struggling marriage and the caricature of a neglected and misunderstanding housewife. To her credit, Jessie Buckley, who plays Greville’s wife Sheila, does deliver a strong and even relatable performance. The film succeeds in portraying her character as sympathetic rather than selfish as many of these biopics do. However, it fails to make her interesting or the fictionalized side drama less conventional.
The film could have benefited from less dramatization in general, and let the real-world gravity of the time period be more of a presence and driving force. There are a few snippets throughout of John F. Kennedy’s speeches that play well and a more intriguing approach may have been to lean harder in that direction. The film doesn’t lack tension or suspense, but it fails to fully communicate the appropriate level of existential dread that should accompany the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Ultimately, this is still a very solid film. The Courier tells a riveting true story with the level of expertise and drama one should expect from a spy thriller. It’s a historical drama first, so don’t expect any James Bond style shenanigans, however anyone interested in the covert world of Cold War espionage won’t leave disappointed. Its greatest failing is simply confining itself to being good rather than trying to be great. Sometimes that’s the better choice for these historical biopics. There is something to be said for just telling a story straight rather than trying to do something creative or exceptional with it. However, the consequence is a movie that’s memorable only because of the story it tells but doesn’t stand out cinematically among the plethora of other equally solid historical biopics. As a connoisseur of history, it’s well worth the time. As a connoisseur of film, it gets a passing grade.
About The Courier
Synopsis: Based on the true story of an exceptionally ordinary businessman who finds himself recruited into the extraordinary world of top-secret espionage at the height of the Cold War.
Director: Dominic Cooke
Writers: Tom O’Connor
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley, Angus Wright
Run time: 1 Hour, 51 Minutes