True-life Cold War thrills, as two spies battle to prevent the Cuban Missile crisis
Director: Dominic Cooke
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch (Greville Wynne), Merab Ninidze (Oleg Penkovsky), Rachel Brosnahan (Helen Talbot), Jessie Buckley (Shelia Wynne), Angus Wright (Dickie Franks), Željko Ivanek (John McClone), Kirill Pirogov (Oleg Gribanov), Anton Lesser (Bertrand), Maria Mironova (Vera)
In October 1962 the world nearly ended, as the USA and the USSR clashed over Soviet missiles in Cuba. The history of this grim month is well known, as the fate of the world hung in the balance. What’s less known is the role Soviet double agent Oleg Penkovsky played in passing information on Soviet capabilities and strategy to the West – and how crucial this was to bringing the crisis to a (world-surviving) end.
The Courier covers – in a pleasingly old-fashioned, Le Carré-ish way – Penkovsky’s (Merab Ninidze) dangerous espionage career, and the relationship he built with British businessman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch). Wynne – totally unconnected to the Secret Services – was chosen by MI6 to make initial contact with Penkovsky. He then served as Penkovsky’s courier, carrying secret documents and microfilm back to the West under cover of business trips to the Soviet Union – and the two men became close friends. When the Cuban Missile Crisis increases the risks to Penkovsky, it’s Wynne who pushes for a risky mission to extract him before he is uncovered and killed.
Directed with confident, low-key aplomb by Dominic Cooke, The Courier mixes shady, spy-thriller tropes (secret meetings, scratched signals, one-time pads, secret cameras) with a genuine friendship between two very different people. All taking place in a grim, Soviet environment where the risk of discovery lurks around every corner. Ordinary receptionists and chauffeurs could all be active or potential informants of the KGB, and there is not a single room that cannot be bugged.
It’s a very unusual world fish-out-of-water Wynne finds himself in. Expertly played by Cumberbatch as a stiff-necked people-pleasing fixer (introduced deliberately losing a game of golf to close a business deal with the triumphant winners), Wynne uncovers depths he didn’t suspect in himself. He at first has no interest in spying – or the Soviet Union – and simply wants a quiet life rebuilding trust with his wife (Jessie Buckley making a great deal of a rather thankless part of a woman kept in the dark about her husband’s activities) after a past affair.
He needs brow-beating from MI6 to even carry out his first mission – which he executes with a nervy unease – and reacts with horror at the idea of repeating it. What draws him in is the same quality that will see him take huge risks: his sense of humanity and fair play and the bond of mutual friendship and understanding between him and Penkovsky. Wynne willingly accepts dangers and sacrifices others would blanche at, out of loyalty and a sharply defined sense of right and wrong.
Wonderfully played by Ninidze, The Courier makes clear the huge risks Penkovsky is taking even considering talking to the West. This is a country where a Western spy is executed in the middle of a special staff meeting at his ministry. Whose leader is hell-bent on asserting Russian dominance and devil-take the consequences (sound familiar?). A country taking part in an arms race that could destroy the world, and disregarding the risks that could lead to those weapons being used. A quiet, loving family man, Penkovsky is appalled at the aggressive posturing of his country and how it is endangering his family and millions like them around the world.
It’s the bond between these two men, their sense of duty and their desire to protect, their quiet wit and small acts of thoughtfulness – as well as their capacity for betrayal (Penkovsky of his country, Wynne of his wife) – that draws them together. For Wynne, the selfless risks of Penkovksy create a deep well of respect and admiration, as well as pushing this businessman to develop into a justified-risk-taking moralist with a greater emotional connection to the beauty of life (represented by two contrasting scenes showing the two of them attending a Russian ballet – the second performance moves them both to tears, as if reminding them why they fight).
Around them, shot in a beautifully drained out style that really adds to the sense of terror and danger, plays out a sharp, well-paced spy thriller. Rachel Brosnahan plays Penkovsky’s CIA handler – an invented female agent, allowing the film to take a few shots at the stuffed-shirt unimaginativeness of her superiors – while Angus Wright (all stiff realpolitik) is his MI6 one. The official agencies play a more pragmatic bat, pushing Penkovsky to greater-and-greater calculated risks to improve their access. They also coldly accept any double agent has only a limited shelf-life before discovery, and getting the maximum out of them while they can is essential.
The film’s final act explores the impact of this, as Penkovsky is exposed and Wynne goes to dangerous lengths to try and help him escape. Shifting at this point into something more claustrophobic and hand-held, the film’s final act layers on the grim suffering spies face when uncovered – and includes several moments of genuinely moving suffering.
The Courier is a low-key, efficient, well-made and well-paced true-life espionage story, that feels like the professional, smartly assembled, film-making that often gets squeezed out of cinemas today. Very well acted by a strong cast, every frame has a perfect mixture of 50s/60s style and Cold War paranoia and its final sequence carries a decent emotional punch. A fine retelling of an overlooked story.