In today’s revolutionary climate, now’s a good time to have a look at “The Courier” and remember (or learn about for the first time) the 1960’s Cuban missile crisis. Where the insane, Hitler-like USSR Chairman Nikita Khrushchev—he, who used to bang his shoe on podiums during political speeches—escalated the Cold War by putting nuclear warheads on Cuba and pointing them at the United States.
Based on a true story, “The Courier” stars Benedict Cumberbatch as run-of-the-mill British businessman Greville Wynne, who was recruited in the early 1960s by Britain’s MI6, and CIA agent Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan).
The plan was for Wynne to secretly team up with Soviet official Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) to provide the United States with enough actionable intelligence to enable President Kennedy to prevent a nuclear showdown with the USSR.
Col. Penkovsky ran the Soviet state committee for scientific research. He became highly apprehensive regarding the overly fast pace of Khrushchev’s nuclear arms proliferation, to the point where he contemplated treason: He’d be more than happy to relay Russian nuclear secrets to MI6 and the Americans, because the impulsive, chaotic Khrushchev frightened him.
A Different Sort of ‘Useful Idiot’
Greville Wynne was the perfect man for the job. MI6 was interested in him because he already had an established track record of legitimate business transactions in the Eastern Bloc, and his expertise in trading in scientific machinery would allow him to hide in plain sight, all bolstered by a breezy, jokey, glad-handing British can-do positivity. And so MI6 approached him to act as the titular courier for Oleg Penkovsky.
The proposal for this mission kicks off when Wynne has lunch with the quietly enthusiastic Donovan, and her more methodical MI6 counterpart (Angus Wright). When it dawns on Wynne, due to their dropping hints, that he’s in the rarified company of high-level government spies, he’s flabbergasted, star-struck, and rather overwhelmed at being in the presence of such “royalty.”
Wynne of course has reservations about getting caught, but he’s easily seduced—who, after all, doesn’t want to play at being James Bond? He’s also informed he’ll only have to deliver the package Penkovsky gives him. The spymasters use a smattering of shaming tactics along the lines of “Why would we give you something actually dangerous to do? You’re middle-aged, out of shape, and you drink too much.” Which results in Wynne, throughout the movie, diligently doing pushups. All men need a mission to live for, and a code to live by; it produces great results.
A Deep and Abiding Friendship
What the spy community didn’t see coming was that during his frequent trips from London to Moscow, the lowly Greville Wynne would actually develop a powerful, lasting bond with the high-ranking Russian Penkovsky, who expands Wynne’s cultural horizons; blowing Wynne’s mind by taking him to the storied Bolshoi ballet—Wynne had never been to the ballet. He cried. The two men had dinner with each other’s families and came to develop a deep, caring trust for each other, planning to continue having adventures together after Penkovsky’s imminent (hopefully) defection to the West.
It’s the warmth of this friendship that makes this movie work. Otherwise all around is muted, cold, greys, blues, browns, miserable communism-inspired monolithic architecture. (It shrieks, “the state is way bigger than you’ll ever be!”) There are Russian snow, fear, and spies everywhere to the point that each frame is reminiscent of the children’s book “Eloise In Moscow,” which had a Russian spy hidden in every illustration.
It’s a Movie Version, of Course
It’s a romantic view: Wynne’s fictitious female CIA handler stands in for the actual, all-male CIA team, which lends the movie some flair, livening up that dull, grey world which men, left to their own devices, tend to inhabit.
Understandably, Wynne’s home life begins to circle the drain. His wife (Jessie Buckley) suspects him of having an affair. Which of course he is—being James Bond, doing lots of pushups, and saving the world from nuclear extinction is far more exciting than being a mere businessman. When she asks him why he doesn’t slow down, he jokes (my words): “I suppose I could just retire. Andrew? [his son, played by Keir Hills], you don’t need to go to university do you? Good! I shall retire.”
During the film’s second half, when the United States figures out Russia has placed missiles on Cuba, and Russia figures out that the United States has figured this out, the hunt for the red mole begins, and the CIA and MI6 rush to get Penkovsky out of Russia. Wynne, who’d been side-lined, doesn’t believe the CIA’s argument that Penkovsky would rat him out to save his own hide—he knows his good friend too well, better than all the spies do, and so he volunteers to help by making one last trip to Russia. It didn’t have the intended result. Let’s just say he lived to tell the tale.
What happened to Wynne was devastating, but he was no tragic hero, living on until 1990. Wynne was a great (if heretofore unsung) hero who assisted his fellow hero Penkovsky in the most fruitful partnership in the history of Cold War espionage. Together they halted nuclear war and are directly responsible for the fact that there’s now a hotline from the White House to the Kremlin to insure that no such fevered nuclear brinkmanship between these two superpowers ever occurs again.
The tension-filled script keeps the audience emotionally invested in the outcome, but by focusing exclusively on the people-to-people dealings, the movie never quite conveys the enormity of the situation and the sheer terror the Cuban missile crisis plunged the world into. To get a sense of the global perspective on this matter, watch 2000’s “Thirteen Days.”
Director: Dominic Cooke
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Angus Wright, Jessie Buckley, Keir Hills
Running Time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Release Date: now available in Redbox kiosks and on Vudu, Fandango, and Prime Video
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years’ experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.