I’m a sucker for historical films that are “based on a true story”. Add excellent actors Rachel Brosnahan and Benedict Cumberbatch and I was definitely interested in the Cold War spy thriller The Courier. It’s based on the true story of English businessman Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch) who was recruited by the British spy agency MI6 during the early 1960’s. He acted as a go-between, a courier, continually meeting up with Russian source Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) to relay the latest documents Oleg had smuggled out of the Soviet Politburo.
The key event during the film is the Cuban Missile Crisis. In response to the United States locating long-range nuclear missiles in Turkey “aimed at Moscow”, in 1962 the USSR stealthily placed its own nuclear weapons in Cuba, just off the Florida coast. The United States was not pleased and President John F. Kennedy responded with a naval blockade of the small island nation. This was Mutually Assured Destruction, a key military strategy of the era. Somehow, MAD made sense to military and political leaders but now seems incredibly dangerous, superpowers with enough firepower to literally destroy the Earth many times over vying to ensure they had first strike capability.
Truth be told, Wynne is a bit of a chump, a British businessman who travels between Russia, Eastern Europe, and England, earning a living selling expensive factory equipment. Clueless about his precarious political position – a Brit selling equipment to the Russians during the Cold War – he meets with various Russian power brokers trying to close sales. On one of his visits, it’s industrialist Oleg Penkovsky (Ninidze) with whom he strikes up a friendship.
Except Penkovsky isn’t an industrialist, he’s a Soviet Military Intelligence (GRU) colonel and he’s terrified of Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev’s desire to dominate the world. Khruschev is ready to go to almost any lengths to help Russia defeat the hated Americans, and, as part of the GRU, Penkovsky is privy to the most secret meetings. In return for escape to the West for him, his wife, and young daughter, Penkovsky is eager to share secret government files with MI6.
But how to get them out of the USSR? MI6 can’t possibly send an agent to meet Penkovsky and blow his cover. The CIA shows up too, in the person of tough, brash, and manipulative Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan). It’s her idea to recruit the hapless Wynne as the perfect courier. After all, he already travels back and forth between England and Russia. Problem is, he’s definitely not spy material and learning tradecraft might be beyond his ability entirely. Nonetheless, MI6 and the CIA don’t really care, their interest is in the fantastic documents Penkovsky keeps sending along. If Wynne gets chewed up in the process, well, sorry mate, all for Queen and Country and all that.
The first half of The Courier is relatively slow, though it’s interesting to see Wynne get excited about the chance to play a spy, even as he’s terrified of the responsibility and dire consequences if the Russians figure out what he’s doing. He can’t possibly tell his high-strung wife, Shiela Wynne (a terrific Jessie Buckley), who instead becomes suspicious that he’s having an affair in Russia, the only reason she can figure out why he keeps traveling to Moscow.
As the Cuban Missile Crisis develops, Penkovsky shares critical documents with MI6 and the CIA, information that helped President Kennedy craft an appropriate response to the overt threat of missiles just offshore. Until Penkovsky is caught, as we knew he would inevitably be at some point. Wynne learns that the game is up while sitting on a British Airways plane, prepared to fly back to London. He prays he’ll escape before suspicion falls on him, but instead he’s dragged off the plane by Russian military. So begins the second half of The Courier.
There’s a huge sense of inevitability about everything that happens once Wynne is arrested, from the prison confinement to the endless interrogation. Cumberbatch is such an extraordinary actor that we feel his world shatter when he enters what is likely Lubyanka Prison. As time passes, he withers away on-screen, from a well-fed businessman to a gaunt, haunted prisoner just steps away from the gulag.
Meanwhile, Donovan (Brosnahan) lobbies MI6 director Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) to pull whatever strings are necessary to get Wynne home. Franks does almost nothing, however, citing the horrible logic of the era: If they offer to trade Wynne for an unimportant Russian prisoner, the USSR will undoubtedly reject it. If they offer up a significant Russian prisoner, however, the Russians will then assume Wynne is indeed a valuable spy and interrogate him even more brutally. A lose:lose and so characteristic of the horrible, twisted logic of the entire Cold War era.
Wynne does finally return to England after an alarmingly long time in the Russian prison, and, surprisingly, he’s gaunt, but not entirely wrecked, ready to get back to work selling factory equipment. The film closes with footage of the real Greville Wynne being interviewed after his return to England; this all really happened back in the 1960’s.
There’s a lot to like about The Courier, from its spot-on recreation of 1960’s Moscow and London to its all-around excellent performances (Cumberbatch really is a superb actor, as is Brosnahan). The film offers precious little context, however, and my 17yo daughter was clueless about the Cold War, Cuban Missile Crisis, and other historical events that are the important backdrop of the story. The film’s pacing is also rather uneven, with the first half rather slow, the middle act being quite intense, and the last third depressing with its dark inevitability. When the film ended, we all just sat without saying a word, numb.
Nonetheless, if you’re a fan of wartime drama and a student of the Cold War, there’s a lot to appreciate in The Courier. Just go into the theater (or start playing it on your home theater) knowing you’ll see a fascinating story, engaging performances, and a powerful movie that will leave you mostly thankful that the era of mutually assured paranoia is over. Hopefully.
Dad At The Movies Note: My adult children enjoyed the film, but clearly lacked a historical context. If you want to share this film with your teens, I suggest you spend a few minutes explaining the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis in advance. Younger viewers are probably going to be too bored by the first half to watch the entire movie.