Despite its high illegality and moral ambiguity, society has come to know espionage as one thing above all else: sexy. From James Bond to Sydney Bristow, there is a certain glamour that comes with the lifestyle of a fictional spy—extravagant parties to elaborate disguises and dangerous rendezvous, you get the picture. In film, spies are often portrayed as cunning, sharp, attractive, and well-trained. But what happens when the reality of a spy’s job turns out to be nothing like the glamorous roles portrayed in movies?
The Courier, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as real-life MI6 hero Greville Wynne, is the perfect answer to that question. Set in Cold War-era London and Moscow and based on a true story, the film follows the recruitment of the unassuming English salesman by the MI6 and CIA. Wynne is tasked as the titular courier who must transfer classified nuclear intelligence documents from Soviet Intelligence Col. Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) to the United Kingdom. What begins as a low-risk mission on Wynne’s part quickly becomes a tale of sorrow, heartbreak, and the perseverance of humanity as he fights against time, the tensions of marriage, and the emotional turmoil consuming Cold War Europe.
After seeing Cumberbatch play numerous different, but almost always wildly intelligent, characters over the last few years (Marvel’s Doctor Strange, Sherlock Holmes, and Alan Turing), it’s disarming to watch him play the role of the “fool.” After all, that is what his central intelligence recruiters see him as—a brave, bumbling fool making their jobs significantly easier. As Wynne becomes further embroiled in his mission, however, he becomes increasingly important in stopping the Cuban Missile Crisis, and in turn, earns the respect of his supervisors. He is not a spy in the traditional sense, but he quickly discovers the importance of his role.
The film starts slow. In fact, it remains slow until the halfway mark. Audiences are introduced to the looming threat of nuclear war right off the bat. But almost immediately after, the audience falls victim to a sweet but ultimately boring first hour of conversations between Wynne and Penkovsky as they trek back and forth from London and Moscow. The sense of urgency that normally accompanies nuclear war and espionage is notably absent—until it emerges on the screen in full force, knocking the emotional wind out of viewers.
This is where The Courier picks up. As soon as Wynne and Penkovsky are discovered by the Soviet government, Cumberbatch begins to shine. But it’s not intelligence that makes his portrayal of Wynne so moving. It’s the pure kind-heartedness of his character. Here, instead of being a hindrance, his amateurism aids him in staying in the fight. As a result, the last 30 minutes of the film are an absolute emotional rollercoaster and bear witness to some of the best acting of Cumberbatch’s career. As Wynne, Cumberbatch is not snide nor devilishly witty, as he is in so many other roles. He is simply a good man.
Ultimately, The Courier is an excellent film. It’s not the classic seductive tale of espionage usually seen, but that’s what makes it so poignant. Wynne was a regular man that chose to risk his life in the pursuit of peace. Penkovsky sacrificed his life in order to warn the United Kingdom about the threat of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and to this day, he is considered to have changed the entire course of the Cold War. The Courier is the true story of two men who saw an opportunity to do the right thing, despite the obvious risk, and as a result, they changed the world.
Photo Courtesy of FilmNation Entertainment