Modern-day spy movies often have more in common with action thrillers than studious dramas. Audiences have become accustomed to seeing spy characters engage in all sorts of fights and dangerous stunts instead of being quiet and clandestine.
What makes the story told in The Courier stand out is that it’s a real-life tale that earns its thrills because of how ordinary its central figure was. Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) was an English businessman who often traveled to Eastern Europe. Living as he was during the Cold War in the early 1960s, Wynne found his travels were an ideal cover for contacts with the CIA (Rachel Brosnahan) and MI6 (Angus Wright) to use him to smuggle secrets out of the USSR.
Wynne’s task was relatively simple: Travel to Moscow, take business meetings as normal, and a prized Russian asset, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) would hand off materials to him, the contents of which Wynne would have no knowledge. The arrangement couldn’t have been more opportune, as tensions between the U.S. and USSR were nearing an all-time high, and the information Penkovsky was delivering was capable of stopping a nuclear war.
Directed by Dominic Cooke and written by Tom O’Connor, the film immerses the audience in the tumult and paranoia of the day. Major Cold War moments like the walling off of East Berlin and the Cuban Missile Crisis loom in the background of the main story. Those and other smaller moments give even greater import to the actions of Wynne, and underscore the risk he’s taking every time he travels to the USSR.
To up the emotional ante, the filmmakers bring in scenes with the families of both Wynne and Penkovsky, and while the sequences only affect the plot to a small degree overall, they’re crucial at establishing the states of mind of both men. Both naturally and because of their missions, neither betrays their emotions very often, and making these connections with the wives and children gives a personal touch to what’s at stake.
This is exactly the type of role at which Cumberbatch excels, someone with steely demeanor but also capable of showing softness when needed. Ninidze is mostly an unknown quantity for American audiences, but he plays his part effectively. While Brosnahan does well in her role, the film doesn’t establish her character as well as others. At least she has more to do than Jessie Buckley, who never escapes the house as Wynne’s wife.
The Courier does a great job at illuminating a piece of history that most people likely know little about. Stories about this era can sometimes be stuffy and underwhelming, but the filmmakers keep things lively by knowing what buttons to push and how to let their stars shine.
The Courier is currently running in theaters.