The Courier is a 2020 historical drama and a spy thriller film. It’s directed by Dominic Cooke and written by Tom O’ Connor. The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch who plays a British businessman during the 1960s. It also stars Rachel Brosnahan as Emily Donovan, Jessie Buckley as Sheila Wynne, and Angus Wright as Dickie Franks. The plot follows Wynn, a British businessman recruited by the Secret Intelligence Service. He is recruited to covertly deliver messages to the secret agent Oleg Penkovsky in the 1960s. The film then follows Wynn acting as a courier for the top-secret information regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis. Wynn makes several visits to Moscow, receives and then shares then intel with MI6 and SIS.
The Courier was first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 24, 2020. It eventually hit theatres in the United States and the United Kingdom on March 19, 2021. The film was originally titled Ironbark which was later changed to The Courier upon its US release. The critical reception to the film has been generally positive. Benedict’s central performance has been at the center of most of the positive reviews. It is also an old-school spy thriller movie which is quite a rarity these days. One of the positives of the movie is the good central performances by the main actors. It also has competent cinematography that lends credibility to the film’s 1960s setting.
The Courier — Plot Details and Synopsis
The film tells the true story of Greville Wynn who, along with Oleg Penkovsky, played an integral role(s) in ending the Cuban Missile Crisis. Wynn was a working-class businessman who frequently made trips through Eastern Europe. He was eventually recruited by MI6 to make several sales trips to Moscow. He got in contact with Oleg Penkovsky there, and the two started sharing important Soviet intel. Oleg had previously offered to spy for the west. During the 60s, Wynn made a lot of frequent trips to Russia and transmitted intel gathered from Oleg.
Wynn became a crucial courier of top-secret Soviet intel. Penkovsky, a high-ranking GRU officer, helped Wynn gather top-secrets and relay them to the western intelligence agencies. They both were eventually discovered for their intel-smuggling by the KGB. In 1962, they were arrested for their espionage activities, with Wynn getting an 8-years sentence. Oleg was sentenced to death and was executed the next year. Their espionage activities resulted in America getting the crucial information on the Cuban Missile situation and then avert it.
Greville Wynn is a salesman who makes frequent business trips through Eastern Europe. He’s a business-minded man, focused on making sales and money. And he has the capabilities to make those sales, through his charm and tactics. He has a knack for drinking and the ability to bond with people over booze. At one point, Wynn refers to holding his liquor as the “one true gift” he has. And we see this ability of his later on when he bonds with Oleg in Moscow. To the Soviets, he will look nothing more than a businessman who’s there purely for money-making. It’s a perfect front for carrying out espionage activities without having the scent of suspicion. And this is what makes him the perfect choice for MI6 and CIA’s intel-gathering efforts. When the MI6 agent Dickie Franks and CIA agent Emily Donovan approach him regarding the recruitment, he’s shocked.
The prospect of espionage and the whole spy business for him is far removed from his domain of expertise. He’s not convinced at all, of how this will even pan out. The agents try to convince him of the plan and how even minute intel will help avert the missile crisis. They also assure him of his unsuspicious persona that will ensure his safety. But Wynn can’t go with this. The whole idea of spying is alien to a man like him. It just won’t work out. He has no formal training, plus he’s a family man with a lovely wife and a son. For a man like him, the logistics of such a daring task do not make sense. But he eventually relents and begins his espionage into the Russian top-secrets with the help of a Russian high-ranking officer Oleg Penkovsky.
Another major cog to the story is Oleg Penkovsky. He’s a high-ranking GRU officer who also has a loving and caring family as Wynn does. He’s also a celebrated formal soldier and has great access to the official secret and intels. The real-life Oleg Penkovsky was the highest-ranking official to have smuggled secrets to the west up until that time. Along with Wynn, Oleg shared some of the most important information to the MI6 and the CIA. His valuable top-secret intel eventually helped a lot in ending the Cuban Missile Crisis. His actions led him to be considered as one of many individuals who altered the course of the Cold War. When his and Wynn’s espionage activities were discovered, he was sentenced to death for treason. He was finally executed a year later, in 1963.
We see his wife and his daughters, as well as his time with Wynn. His story feels much more of a high-stake situation, even if Wynn is the one from another country. He is a high-ranking official, with a family and a reputation. His reason to help assist the western intelligence agencies is to avert the nuclear confrontation. The 1960s were the most fragile time that could’ve pivoted to a nuclear war anytime. Penkovsky is sure that Nikita Khrushchev is going to lead the cold war tensions to a nuclear confrontation. Oleg had previously tried to offer assistance to western intelligence agencies. His interactions with Wynn are great moments in the film. We see how a reluctant-at-first Oleg eventually warms up to Wynn and the two later become really good friends.
Strong Performances Make the Film
Oleg’s actor Merab Ninidze plays a believable and interesting role as Oleg Penkovsky. He is covert yet very cautious. His warning up to Wynn, his betrayal of him to save his family, and his intel-sharing — all are portrayed sufficiently. Benedict is brilliant as always as the salesman turned spy. Cumberbatch brings fun and a self-aware tone that provides the film’s first half its lightweight. And then he’s equally brilliant when the story takes a more bleak and darker turn. He’s charming and believable as a money-centric businessman who has no business doing espionage. The film has good cinematography and score but what makes it is Cumberbatch, Shelia, and Ninidze.
The Courier is a great Old-School Spy Drama Backed Up By Strong Performances
The Courier is a throwback to the old-school spy thrillers that rarely get made nowadays. Although it doesn’t exclusively focus on espionage, the film does have sufficient spy thrill. It bears similarities with the Bridge of Spies. It contains the many tropes and clichés that spy thrillers have but it’s done in more of a refreshing way. The film is based on real historic events that played out just as dramatically as the movie. Actually, the real events were much more inconceivable than the film’s depictions. The first half is much more exciting and better than the second half. Up until Oleg and Wynn aren’t arrested, the film is much more interesting. Once they get arrested, the film loses that pacing and excitement for me.
The Courier tells the tale of two men who helped avert one of the biggest crises. And that’s what the message it’s going for is. Two men with their own lives and people to care for, risk it all for the greater good. Wynn, a salesman with a child and a wife, and Oleg with his wife and daughters sacrifice their freedom and life to avert the Cuban Missile Crisis. Their actions eventually led to turning the Doomsday Clock back on one of the biggest nuclear crises post-WW II. Wynn faced a lot of torture at the hands of Russian officials after he was arrested. Whereas Oleg was finally sentenced to death for the crime of treason. But their espionage marked the biggest shift in the Cold War course.
An old-school spy drama, with strong central performances to boot, The Courier is a great time. My rating for The Courier is 4 out of 5.
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