Film review: The Courier delivers a worthy Cold War thriller

Can two men change the world?  Even if — and perhaps especially if — one of those two men is nothing more than “an ordinary businessman”? Two men arguably did in the weeks leading up to the Cuban missile crisis. The Courier tells the remarkable story of British businessman Greville Wynne, his unlikely friendship with Oleg Penkovsky, and an incredible series of events that may have saved the world from nuclear annihilation.

**Some spoilers**

To some degree, this has cinematic parallels to Bridge of Spies, the 2015 Cold War thriller starring Tom Hanks, also based on a true story. The mood and themes are similar, as are the excellent quality and entertainment value of both films. Both films feature protagonists drafted into intelligence work as amateurs in order to resolve national crises. Their commitment shifts, as do the risks assumed by both in fulfilling their duties, from an exercise in patriotism at first to the power of friendship in the end.

The Courier takes a necessarily darker tone due to the circumstances of Wynne’s story. In Bridge of Spies, James Donovan didn’t conduct espionage per se, but acted as a defense attorney for a Russian spy and then as a negotiator to free two Americans from the Soviets, including U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. Wynne actually conducted espionage on behalf of the British and Americans, acting as a courier for Penkovsky’s stream of highly classified material on the Soviet nuclear system.

Friendship and the common man are powerful themes in The Courier as well. “We are only two people,” Penkovsky tells a reluctant Wynne at one point, “but this is how things change.” Wynne evolves from a flabby merchant more interested in his comfy chair than world events to a passionate, energized agent on a mission to help stop the Soviets from touching off World War III, but he becomes most engaged when his friend is clearly in danger. It is a reminder in its way that men fight for their country on one level, but at the bottom of it all, they fight for each other — and it is those connections that can change the world.

The film really rests on the performance of Benedict Cumberbatch as Wynne, who makes the transformation of Wynne into a very believable evolution. Cumberbatch is gripping and intense even as the flabby merchant content with nothing more than his chair, but especially so in the film’s final act when everything goes horribly wrong. Merab Ninidze matches Cumberbatch step for step, playing Penkovsky as a disillusioned Soviet war hero desperately trying to stop a nuclear conflagration the only way he knows how, and knowing he’s a traitor for doing it. The film works best when the two of them are on screen together or alone.

Of the rest of the cast, perhaps Jessie Buckley stands out most as Wynne’s wife Sheila. Buckley makes the most out of what could have been a cardboard frustrated-spouse role and gets most of the emotional lift not already claimed by Cumberbatch and Ninidze. The rest of the cast is talented but not given a lot to do, although Rachel Brosnahan (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) gives a good accounting in what could have been a paint-by-numbers CIA contact role. Kirill Pirogov offers a chilling interpretation of a KGB interrogator, with more nuance than might be expected.

The real focus, however, is on Cumberbatch and Ninidze, both of whom deliver magnificently. It’s not a happy tale in most respects, but it is a gripping, heart-stopping, and eventually an inspirational tale.

Using the Hot Air scale for films already on home theater platforms, The Courier gets a 4:

  • 4 – Buy the film/subscribe to the service
  • 3 – Worth a rental price or pay-per-view
  • 2 – Wait for it to come on a TV channel you already get
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

The Courier is already available for free on Amazon Prime, as it got its US release in March, so readers probably don’t need to worry about subscription costs at this point. I’m a bit surprised that it didn’t get a little more notice at the time, but perhaps that’s due to the strange nature of the film business during the pandemic.

The Courier is rated PG-13, but that’s a pretty hard PG-13. The first couple of acts might be a little intense for younger children (and likely boring to them anyway), but the latter third of the film features some brutal treatment as well as a bit of brief and non-sexual nudity from Cumberbatch, and will be much too intense for any pre-teen.