With the action set in the sixties during the Kennedy era and Benedict Cumberbatch, I was hooked on watching the movie. I love Benedict Cumberbatch from Sherlock and I like spy films. With this being based on a true story, I hoped for a suspenseful and intriguing story. Not only did the film succeed with taut action but also had a rich dynamic between the main stars and a compelling, realistic story.
The Courier billed as a historical drama, directed by Dominic Cooke, is based on real-life events that occur during the sixties. When a Soviet Colonel Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), codenamed Ironbark, reaches out to the United States to provide intelligence on Soviet nuclear arms. In the process of arranging contact, the United States deem it too difficult to make contact and with the cooperation of MI6, recruits British businessman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) to deliver messages to Penkovsky. The main American contact, Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) assists Greville with his training. But both men are in danger and Greville endures problems with his wife, Sheila (Jessie Buckley) over the secrets he is keeping. When he wants to discontinue traveling to Russia, though, he learns that Penkovsky is in danger. Will he be able to help get Penkovsky and his family defect successfully or will it all be too much risk?
Since the events written for the film are based on real-life events that occurred during the United States Cuban Missile Crisis time period, none of the events are secret. While there is some dispute over the worth of the information provided by Penkovsky, Greville Wynne did meet with Oleg Penkovsky and did endure captivity in the Soviet Union over his role as a courier between Penkovsky and the United States. What the story does do is blend together the facts into an intriguing and compelling story that focuses on the friendship between Greville and Oleg while also providing details of how the messages were passed between the two. It also develops the families of the two men, their wives, and children. The story increases the tension in the situation extremely well, ratcheting up the danger bit by bit with the main conflict being the increasing danger in Oleg Penkovsky’s actions in providing intelligence to the British and American governments. However, that danger only works in the audience caring about Oleg and Greville which is enhanced by showing the friendship between the pair and an understanding of each other, both men married with children. In addition, part of the intrigue is in the fact that Greville Wynne is a regular businessman, having frequently traveled in Eastern Europe which is why he is recruited, because his travel to the Soviet Union would be credible but because he isn’t trained, the question arises whether he can pull off carrying messages back and forth. There is also subtle humor written in that helps diffuse the tension at points, but also increases the development of the friendship between the pair. The increased problems with Wynne’s wife Sheila only assist in humanizing him.
While this is not at all an action film, what develops well is the historical setting and the spycraft used by Penkovsky in passing his information to Wynne. The costumes are all perfect for the time period. Equipment used, like the camera that Penkovsky uses, all match the time as well. What is really well executed is the spycraft. The film really develops how much danger both men are in, both watched at almost all times, and the execution of how Penkovsky passes information to Wynne is well performed, well written. Once events proceed and the pace of the film quickens, the action only enhances the intrigue and spy work seen in the film.
What truly sells this film are the acting and performances. Since this is not a high-action film, the entire film rests on the shoulders of the actors. And what a performance everyone provides! Benedict Cumberbatch is at his absolute best. His performance is rich and the dynamic between him and Merab Ninidze is warm and realistic. Their chemistry sells friendship and loyalty between the two men. In addition, Cumberbatch does an excellent job of portraying his character as a real salesman and husband, his marriage and dynamic with Jessie Buckley as Sheila Wynne equally important and well-executed. Merab Ninidze as Oleg Penkovsky is also skilled, illustrating through body language watchfulness and concern as well as a passion to prevent nuclear war for his country. Rachel Brosnahan as Emily Donovan is great at portraying an intelligence officer with the CIA, her performance passionate in gathering information from Penkovsky with the hope that it will create an opportunity for the United States. Jessie Buckly is emotional and loving as Sheila Wynne. Even secondary actors do an excellent job with their performances.
While not fast-paced, this is an extremely compelling, completely intriguing chapter of history that develops a rich back story on the Cuban Missile Crisis as well as providing insight as to what helped prevent nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Not only is it a rich historical drama but it is also a fantastic spy film. If you like authentic spy movies with historical roots, this film would be a great one to catch. It is specially made better by the performances of Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, and Jessie Buckley. I thoroughly enjoyed this snapshot of history as well as loving the rich performances.
Rating: 4.5 documents out of 5.
The Courier opens exclusively in theaters on Friday, March 19, 2021.