Synopsis – Cold War spy Greville Wynne and his Russian source try to put an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
My Take – For an average moviegoer, the world of spies is indeed fascinating mainly due to its adrenaline pumping intensity and its frequent globe-trotting settings. As an audience we are curious to understand the calling and the intrigue of the work, which usually involves compromising one’s loyalty towards a said country and establishment, especially when the greater good is at stake.
Such is also the case of the sophomore effort from director Dominic Cooke (On Chesil Beach), whose compelling largely unheard story is set during the Cold war and is based on actual events.
Although the narrative is not as tightly told as some of the best in genre, and shares a commonality with filmmaker Steven Spielberg‘s Bridge of Spies (2015), which saw Tom Hank‘s reluctant lawyer forced to submerge in the dangerous craft, director Cooke‘s film is smartly produced in every aspect, is comfortably entrenched in John Le Carré territory and feels more conventional as the true aspect adds a significant weight to its proceedings, resulting in a film that is solidly riveting, well-acted and enjoyable.
Most importantly, it is an unlikely story of espionage, bravery and friendship which may have played a huge hand in saving the world as we know it.
Beginning in 1960, the story follows Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), a British engineer and businessman who’s busy providing for his wife, Sheila (Jessie Buckley) and their young son, Andrew (Keir Hills). Gaining a reputation for going out of his way to engage with his clientele, Greville’s life changes when he is contacted by MI6 agent Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and CIA officer Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan), to develop a working relationship with Soviet agent Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) since he has recently contacted the American Embassy with key information pertaining to first secretary Nikita Khrushchev’s plans for the nuclear arms race.
Considered as an unassuming choice to fall under suspicion of the Soviets, all Greville has to do is keep about his business and act as a courier, keep traveling to Moscow under the guise of work, while obtaining military documentation linked to the growing threat in Cuba. However, what he doesn’t count on is to form a friendship with Oleg, though both realize the gravity of their work together and the danger it presents for themselves and the rest of the world.
This is a high stakes game into which writer Tom O’Connor and director Dominic Cooke tap into immediately. Oleg aka Alex demonstrates the dangers of his actions in the very first scene and while the story rides a rhythmic wave of tension, the underlying current of life and death is never out of sight. Hence, resulting in a film that deals with dramatic tension and stressors, more so than typical spy thrills.
This is also a very unique film that really dives deep into the topic it’s discussing, the threat of nuclear attacks on Cuba. It is based on an actual historical event, known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. As director Cooke expertly takes us back in time to this era in both England and Russia. We are submerged in the murkiness of underhanded politics as well as the cost analysis. With so many moving parts in this puzzle, it would be easy to get lost, but with succinct writing and editing, the story is a heartfelt and captivating one, clearly relaying this complicated tale.
While the film is an historical recreation, it also has tremendous heart thanks again to not only the direction and writing, but due to Greville Wynne and Oleg Penkovsky’s characterization.
The film isn’t compelling due to any typical conventions associated with Cold War tales, but rather due to the fascinating central two characters, who could not have been any more different especially considering their background and their position in life, but they find a commonality as men, husbands, fathers, the hope for peace and the greater good. And watching them get to know each other and then work together is quite interesting, and made even better by the two actors.
Sure, the script is too lightweight thematically and the low-key nature of the film almost works against its ability to be provide the necessary emotionally impactful. But I found myself gently pulled into this story, almost imperceptibly, until I was fully invested in the lives of these characters.
Where the story ends up becomes equally heartbreaking and harrowing as the film reveals what Greville and Oleg had to endure. Emily’s attempts at helping Greville fails and the poor guy undergoes a brutal and disturbing experience with the Russians, elevating the drama and equal concern for characters on both sides of the nuclear missile threat. The “based on true events’ weight of the story really kicks into full gear in its third act, with director Cooke delving into psychological trauma and exhaustion, both men face in KGB prison. The brutal environment and mistreatment is well conveyed, and it’s the point where we realize what the risk-taking of espionage can lead to.
Performance wise, Benedict Cumberbatch continues to remind why he has been riding up the chain so quickly, as he once again offers exemplary work, while serving as a reminder that he shouldn’t be taken for granted. Merab Ninidze also delivers a nuanced performance for such a conflicted character. It’s a substantial and crucial role embodied by a formidable actor. Jessie Buckley, continues to excel in everything she appears in. It also helps that the screenplay offers her something more to work with than the concerned wife.
While Rachel Brosnahan doesn’t get much off a character to play with, she does well with whatever is in her hand. In other roles, Angus Wright and Kirill Pirogov manage to leave a mark. On the whole, ‘The Courier’ is an engrossing Cold War spy thriller that is solidly riveting, well-acted and enjoyable.
Directed – Dominic Cooke
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 112 minutes