This is another “based on true events” film. The story begins in 1960 as Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev is threatening to bury the West. The CIA and MI6 are scrambling for ways to get some inside info on the Soviet nuclear program, and to that end they make the unlikely decision to recruit a British salesman, Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch). He’s done business for some time in Eastern Europe so heading to Moscow wouldn’t be a red flag to Soviet intelligence. And he’s not expected to do anything except be a courier for leaked intel. Former Soviet military intelligence colonel, now trade minister Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) has already made contact. He has unfettered access to all the crucial intelligence, and he’s got a conscience. He may be a believer in the Soviet Socialist system, but he’s willing to work against it to stop the march towards what he sees as inevitable nuclear war. And together Oleg and Grenville save the world. Really.
Greville is chosen because he’s an old friend of the MI6 agent Franks (Angus Wright) who is working with CIA agent Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan, I’m Your Woman, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”). They’re looking for someone who wouldn’t turn heads and he’s perfect. At first they send him to Moscow just to make contact and set up his business bona fides. He meets Oleg and a bunch of Soviet government buyers for his wares. And Oleg takes him to the ballet. Then Oleg brings a group of Russians to London on a trade mission and Greville shows them all a good time. And that’s enough bonding for Franks and Donovan to decide that Greville’s the right guy to ferry state secrets from Moscow to the West. And it’s pretty easy, too. Oleg has a tiny spy camera. He takes photos and gives the microfilm to Greville and he drops it with his handlers. But of course there’s a hitch.
The two men grow close, which puts Greville in danger later, when Oleg gets caught. There are scenes in the film that are nail biters and some pretty sad moments. And the tale of a couple of unsung heroes is worth telling, but it suffers from a tepid script. Cumberbatch is wonderful in his role, as is Ninidze. It’s just that the fear of being caught is never near enough the surface. The film reminded me of Bridge of Spies, the Spielberg movie from 2015, another Cold War Everyman story. In both, the stakes are high, but the energy is pretty low. Maybe that’s just how espionage is supposed to work, no matter what 007 tells us. Nevertheless, The Courier is an entertaining film, definitely worth watching.
In theaters March 19th.
[Mainstream Chick’s take: I’m in complete agreement with Arty Chick on this one. The characters, score and atmosphere are reminiscent of Bridge of Spies, among many other spy thrillers that are light on action. But the performances are solid and the story intriguing. And I always appreciate learning about a true story – especially everyday heroes – that I was not aware of. The Courier offers a new kind of window into the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis – and reminds us that one or two people doing the right thing for all the right reasons – at great risk to their own lives – can truly make a difference in the world. -hb]