Is it just me or is it weird doing normal-ish things? I add the “ish” due to wearing a mask when I’m inside a building or with a group (I have received both doses of Pfizer’s vaccine but I’m still wearing a mask), but I did something I hadn’t done since last September: I went to a movie at a theater. We are still in the time of the novel coronavirus as the theater I was in had a ground total of four people in it and the lobby was virtually deserted when I entered aside from a few workers and a couple of patrons. It felt both odd and good to be back in a theater again and I’m thankful I didn’t risk my health for a bad film.
It’s 1960, the Cold War is heating up and Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a British businessman always looking for the possibility of new contacts leading to new business. He connects parts suppliers with factories and is pretty good at his job, even working in Eastern Bloc countries in the recent past. He enjoys glad-handing and drinking with this fellow businessmen at various bars and clubs. His wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) is a stay-at-home mother, taking care of their young son Andrew (Keir Hills), but she doesn’t give Greville too long a leash as he has strayed in the past. In Moscow, after hearing a speech from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, promising the nuclear destruction of the West, Colonel Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), the head of the Soviet Committee for Scientific Research, gets an American student to deliver a message to the US embassy. That message gets to CIA officer Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) who sets up a meeting with her MI6 counterpart Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) looking for a way to tap into Penkovsky’s access to Soviet nuclear secrets. Sending an agent is deemed too risky, but a civilian with business ties to Eastern Bloc countries wouldn’t raise as much suspicion amongst the Soviet secret police, the KGB. Franks and Donovan set up a lunch meeting with Wynne and broach the subject without being too obvious they’re asking him to work undercover behind the Iron Curtain. Despite their subtlety, Wynne quickly figures out they’re asking him to spy. Initially hesitant and fearing for his safety as well as that of his family, Wynne agrees. Franks and Donovan assure Wynne the danger is minimal as he will be acting not as a spy, but as a courier for whatever secrets Penkovsky gives him.
“The Courier” is a tour de force acting performance from Benedict Cumberbatch. His work alone makes the film worth your time and money. Cumberbatch is both subtle and electric as the reluctant spy. The scene where he is asked to become an operative without directly being asked plays out entirely on his face. You can practically hear the gears in his brain grinding as he figures out he’s being approached to risk his life for his country and the world and how incredulous he considers the idea. Cumberbatch is always good but this performance should be considered for awards season next year. Likely it will be forgotten among all the films to come as the virus becomes less of a concern (get vaccinated everyone and don’t take medical advice from Joe Rogan) but I hope the studio makes a push to get him in consideration when the time comes.
The movie overall is pretty good but is mired in Cold War espionage conventions. The secret passing of small packages containing government secrets is done again and again. There’s not much discussion about the history of tensions between East and West, just that there are tensions. While someone my age is familiar with the Cold War, younger viewers will likely be befuddled about what’s going on.
All the supporting characters aren’t given much to do other than deliver exposition. Jessie Buckley is severely under utilized as Wynne’s wife. Her character is only properly used in a scene late in the film. Brosnahan and Wright don’t get much better treatment as they are used merely to drop in the “spy speak” along with their cohorts. Only Merab Ninidze as the provider of Soviet state secrets is given a meaty role as one might expect. Ninidze’s Penkovsky is a dreamer, hoping for a better life for his family when they eventually defect to America. Penkovsky is taking the bigger risk of two as he has seen first hand how traitors to the Soviet Union are dealt with.
That makes his and Wynne’s ultimate fates all the more crushing as the pair develop a friendship that goes beyond their mutual need of each other. The two men on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain find they are far more alike than their governments would like you to believe. Both are married with a small child (Penkovsky and his wife have a young girl), both hope for a world for their children better than the one in which they currently live, both men smoke and drink too much and enjoy the benefits of their work. They are practically the same person but for the governments under which they live.
“The Courier” is rated PG-13 for violence, partial nudity, brief strong language, and smoking throughout. The violence is limited to a scene of a person being shot in the head in front of a crowd (there’s no blood or gore) and scenes inside a Russian gulag. It’s the early 1960’s so smoking is as common as vodka. The nudity is of a male character who is stripped after being arrested. There is no frontal nudity. Foul language is scattered and mild.
“The Courier” is based on the true story of Greville Wynne and his work for MI6 and the CIA in providing early warning for Soviet missiles being installed in Cuba. Wynne spent 18 months in a Soviet prison before being released in exchange for a Russian spy held in the west. Documentary footage at the end of the film shows the real Wynne after he returned home. In this film he seemed chipper and happy, almost unfazed by his ordeal at the hands of the KGB. Perhaps it was the adrenaline of being reunited with his family that lifted his spirits. As shown in “The Courier,” Wynne had little hope of seeing freedom ever again. I hope we all get free from this virus and the damper it has put on our lives since early 2020. I think seeing someone who made a true sacrifice in an effort to save his family, his country and the world should put having to wear a mask and get a couple of vaccine injections into perspective.
“The Courier” get four stars out of five.
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