Film Review: ‘The Courier’ Gets Two Hits

Set in England and Russia during the most dramatic and crucial months of the Cold War, “The Courier” takes place in the two years between 1960 and 1962.  The C.I.A. and the British Intelligence Agency cooperated in espionage and surveillance in order to counter Russia’s bellicose posturing, made evident when Nikita Khrushchev ordered missile launching sites to be placed in Cuba facing the U.S. just 90 miles away.  The events leading up to this dramatic development make for exciting cinema especially when we know that they are based on a true story.

Directing this good old-fashioned spy thriller, Dominic Cooke uses the talents of two superb actors. Benedict Cumberbatch , always reliable in a variety of roles, plays Greville Wynne, a British engineer turned salesman, who makes trips to Eastern Europe selling electronic equipment. Wynne is married with a young son, sports a well-tended mustache, and knows how to please his customers, providing them pleasant lunches and allowing them to win in competitive golf games.

One day he is taken to lunch by an acquaintance who is accompanied by an American “consultant,” Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan). She turns out to be a C.I.A. agent enlisting the help of the Brits to ferry extremely sensitive documents  from a complicit Russian informant in Moscow. Because Wynne has traveled to eastern Europe on many sales trips, he will not arouse suspicion when he applies for a visa to enter Russia. At first Wynne laughs at the suggestion that he would be doing the work of a spy, but Donavan is convincing and assures him of his safety and of the importance of the information he will carry back to the West.

The other superb actor in this spy thriller is Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a former Colonel in the Soviet Army and now a top researcher in the USSR’s military intelligence agency. Appalled at the rapidity of the nuclear research conducted in Russia and alarmed at Khrushchev’s weapons build-up and threats of nuclear war, Penkovsky, also married and with a young daughter, wants to do all he can to avert a nuclear disaster in which there would be no winners.  He is the C.I.A.’s contact and he will be passing the documents to Wynne.

Using all of the familiar tropes of spy thrillers, “The Courier” has scenes in which identity is established by use of a particular tie clasp; two men talk in a hotel room with a radio turned on so that surveillance bugging devices cannot detect them; documents filmed by a Minox camera hidden in a desk drawer; chalk marks used on outdoor equipment. Cooke’s trips to Moscow become protracted as more and more evidence of Russia’s nuclear capabilities appear in documents that Oleg passes on to Wynne.

The two men grow to trust and even like each other. One scene is particularly engaging when Oleg, in an effort to show Wynne the cultural heritage of Russia, takes him to a   performance of “Swan Lake” in Moscow’s most prestigious theater. Also attending, in his own box, is Nikita Khrushchev, on whom all eyes are cast as he is seated. The two men share their dreams of a future without the constant threat of nuclear disaster. Wynne smiles in surprise when Oleg tells him he hopes that someday he can defect to the United States and live under the open skies of Montana.

To round out the characters of both men we are given scenes of their domestic lives, especially Wynne’s, whose wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley), becomes suspicious over a possible infidelity when her husband’s trips to Moscow grow even more frequent. She reminds him that she has forgiven a past infidelity but assures him that she will not tolerate another one.

Before this movie is over, we relive the collective relief experienced in the U.S. and abroad when Krushchev backed down and removed the missiles he installed in Cuba.  It is time to tell the true and compelling story of two men who helped make this outcome possible.

Movie theaters are reopening, and this movie was seen at the Fullerton AMC.

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