There are a lot of stark, weighty moments in “The Courier,” a tense political thriller about a largely forgotten spy intrigue around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis that centers on two unlikely figures.
Greville Wynne, a largely anonymous British businessman, was recruited to be the go-between man for Oleg Penkovsky, a highly placed Soviet official who leaked information critical to the West getting Nikita Khrushchev to back down and remove nuclear armaments from Cuba.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Wynne as a feckless middle-class salesman, sort of a lovable huckster, who gets drawn into the scheme reluctantly and winds up emotionally invested. He and Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) become friends of a sort, doing a lot of drinking and carousing in the name of putting on a show for all the Soviet surveillance following them around on Wynne’s trips to Moscow -- but also because they build a genuine kinship.
In my opinion the film spends too much time on various side characters, and instead should’ve focused intently on the relationship between the two men. Penkovsky, a war hero, considers himself a patriot and loyal Communist. But he can’t stand the reckless, impulsive ways of Khruschev, despite being a pet favorite. Wynne’s an apolitical type who comes to fear the global threat on his doorstep.
Still, we get lots of the usual enjoyable “spy movie stuff,” or at least the more realistic mold in the vein of “Bridge of Spies” than James Bond. There are dead drops, clandestine meetings, code names (“Ironbark” for Penkovsky), complicated escape plots, and all the rest. And Cumberbatch and Ninidze do build a solid onscreen rapport, especially in same later scenes when things take a grim turn for their characters.
Rachel Brosnahan plays Emily Donovan, an American CIA agent who first steers Penkovsky toward her English MI6 counterparts, with Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) acting as her main partner. In typical fashion, the British spy lords are stuffy and conservative, while the fiery Yank is always pushing for bigger, bolder -- and riskier -- actions.
(Of course, Brosnahan gets several everyone’s-staring-at-her scenes where people are shocked by the presence of a woman in these circles, which are tiring.)
Wynne, who had already represented Western manufacturers in Soviet bloc countries, is convinced by the pair to do the initial outreach to Penkovsky, the idea being that all their operatives have already been marked by Russian snoops. Plus, Wynne is the perfect cover because he doesn’t resemble a spy -- though I did chortle at their description of Wynne, played by the whippet-lean Cumberbatch, as flabby and out-of-shape.
Wynne initially refuses, pointing out that his wife, Sheila, is too smart not to figure things out. She’s played by dynamic Jessie Buckley, rather wasted in a standard “fretting housewife” role. Olga Koch plays Penkovsky’s wife, while Kirill Pirogov is nicely icy as the KGB man who begins sniffing after him, though very politely.
Director Dominic Cooke and screenwriter Tom O'Connor keep things moving at a quick pace, not getting too bogged down in the geopolitical implications of the missile crisis, which mostly takes place in the background on television screens or radio broadcasts.
Can two men really change the world? Greville Wynne and Oleg Penkovsky altered the trajectory of the Cold War, possibly even helping avert the nuclear attack that represents the closest the world ever came to total manmade devastation. They get their deserved moment in the hero’s limelight with “The Courier.”