Synopsis: Cold War spy Greville Wynne and his Russian source try to put an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley, Angus Wright, Kirill Pirogov, Iva Šindelková, Željko Ivanek
Director: Dominic Cooke
Running Length: 111 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: At first glance, you may be wondering why an espionage drama with an accent on the drama was opening in theatrical release during a pandemic the same weekend a major superhero movie was debuting on a streaming service at home. Wouldn’t most audiences be otherwise engaged devouring the much-anticipated arrival of the four-hour epic that is Zack Snyder’s Justice League, especially after the reviews were deservedly glowing? Ah…but let’s not forget the art of counterprogramming because I think Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, the studio and distributor behind The Courier, was going for everyone else who weren’t comic book inclined and up for something a little less gargantuan. It’s a smart move to match a surprisingly smart film, one that is far better than its staid title and dusty looking premise would otherwise imply.
I’ll be upfront and say that these murky spy thrillers are becoming slightly old hat to me, especially after seeing them done so well in stalwarts like any of the early James Bond films, 1973’s The MacKintosh Man, or even in homegrown films such as Three Days of the Condor or The Parallax View. Heck, even Benedict Cumberbatch, the star of The Courier, has had his run at the spy game before in 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or in his 2014 Oscar Nominated role as Alan Turing in the WWII tale The Imitation Game. Last year’s A Call to Spy was dismally dull and I half expected The Courier to turn out in much the same way: dry and demanding of your rapt attention with not a lot to show for it all when the lights come up.
So it was refreshing to find almost from the start there is a palpable current of energy running through the film. It’s subtle, and the movie couldn’t ever be classified as suspense-driven or even ramped up enough to get your pulse racing (unless you get all a flutter seeing Cumberbatch’s bare backside), but it’s there and it separates The Courier from the rest of the pack. That’s what also elevates the story of English businessman Greville Wynne’s involvement with MI6 during the early days of the Cuban Missile Crisis from coming off as a forgotten footnote during an important historical incident. Screenwriter Tom O’Connor and Dominic Cooke aim to inform but don’t forget the entertainment part of moviemaking at the same time.
When USSR military intelligence agent Colonel Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) reaches out to the American embassy via a covert coded message with news that current leader Nikita Khrushchev is fast-tracking nuclear plans that would lead to war, MI6 and the CIA step in. Their goal: find a way to pass information back and forth with Penkovsky to obtain precise information that will prevent Europe and the US from entering a high stakes battle with the Soviet Union. Recognizing they need someone the Russians wouldn’t suspect but who could also handle the assignment, Wynne’s name is floated due to his business dealings throughout Europe. At first, the upstanding Brit needs some convincing, but when reminded of the whole Queen and country pledge, he agrees and begins traveling back and forth to meet with Penkovsky. Keeping both of their wives unaware of their dealings, the men strike up a friendship over time, and this personal relationship begins to threaten their overall mission, alliances, and allegiance when Khrushchev’s secret police get a whiff that a mole has burrowed its way in.
After a not-so-great showing in The Mauritanian back in February, Cumberbatch is back in the groove, nicely tuning into Wynne’s businessman persona at the outset of the film and letting the weight of the deception start to chip away at him over time. The lies he tells his wife (an underused but still powerful Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) threaten to destroy the peaceful life he had previously held at home. While he serves his country gladly, the aftereffects and extraordinary price Wynne will pay may be too great to come back from. On the other side of the border, Ninidze is a strong counterpart to Cumberbatch as a father and husband with his own set of secrets to hide. Struggling with similar fears that spring from seeing traitors executed in front of his eyes, he knows what’s in store for him if he’s caught. The film largely belongs to the two men, but aside from Buckley there’s a very Mrs. Maisel-y performance from Rachel Brosnahan (I’m Your Woman) as a CIA handler and an always welcome appearance from Željko Ivanek (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) as Brosnahan’s superior.
What a pleasant surprise to find this nifty little package being delivered with some confident finesse during an extended awards season that’s seen all types of overly earnest films sputter out. Originally seen at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival under the title Ironbark (a much better title taken from a code name that’s used by one of the operatives), it was filmed in 2018 and finally seeing a release now. Though it’s not eligible for anything and definitely isn’t going to be on the radar for next year’s haul, it’s a strong showing for everyone involved and a worthy way to spend two hours. I can’t quite recommend running out to theaters to catch The Courier but when it arrives for home viewing I would encourage you to give this one a spin. Wynne’s involvement in the civilian spy business is fascinating to learn about and is carried off well by a cast and production team that funnels their energy and resources in the right direction – and it makes all the difference for an audience to understand the subtleties between a story that is told once and one that bears retelling in the future.