Released in March by the British production house Lionsgate, the spy thriller The Courier is a fascinating throwback to the early 1960s. Whether you lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis or not, this one will have you on the edge of your seat. Better still, you may even learn a thing or two.
Based on the true story of a British businessman recruited by MI6 and a traitorous high-level Russian, The Courier is remarkable in its historical accuracy – a rarity in filmmaking these days. The movie is a real-life depiction of Greville Wynne and Oleg Penkovsky and how their interactions affected Soviet-American nuclear tensions that came to a head in October 1962.
At the height of the Cold War, disillusioned Russian Penkovsky reaches out to the CIA with business cards and then a packet of undisclosed Soviet documents. Intrigued, the Americans form an alliance with MI6 to gather intelligence about Soviet nuclear capabilities. British agent Dickie Franks and the CIA’s Emily Donovan find a run-of-the-mill businessman to do their bidding. Almost paralyzed with fear and at significant personal cost, Wynne holds up his end of the bargain and plays the courier’s role for nearly two years.
While there is political intrigue aplenty, the personal relationship between Wynne and Penkovsky is accented through character development in a well-written script. The audience gets caught up in not just two spies but two men who have messy personal lives but manage to keep on when the going gets tough. Through it all, one senses a growing trust and affinity between the two, even when the KGB gets wind of their activities.
CIA agent Donovan, played by Rachel Brosnahan (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), is the only character who did not exist in real life. In an interview about her role in the movie, Brosnahan said, “Emily is a combination of several true-life figures …” She was likely added so there would be a supporting female character in the movie. The rest of the drama reveals the two men had a hand in preventing the Cuban Missile Crisis by giving the United States a leg up about the placement of missiles on the island 90 miles south of the Florida Keys.
Interspersed – but not overused – are clips of President John F. Kennedy before and during that tense October of 1962. Included is a scene of JFK presumably in front of the United Nations, complete with soaring rhetoric – likely from the pen of Ted Sorensen – as well as his famed Oval Office warning to the Soviets to stand down.
Subtle things often transform an average movie into a great film, and this is true about The Courier. The soundtrack by Abel Korzeniowski brilliantly builds tension without going over the top. The script by Tom O’Connor has the ring of authenticity. The casting in The Courier is remarkable. Not only does the cast physically resemble the real-life characters, each believably captures the character’s essence. Benedict Cumberbatch as Wynne and Merab Ninidze as Penkovsky put forth command performances. Best of all, there is little if any of the usual Hollywood leftist propaganda in the picture. If you like history and spy thrillers, queue up the popcorn and put The Courier on your wish list as one to watch.
Read more from Leesa K. Donner.