Oleg Penkovsky is not a household name, but it definitely should be. His actions during the Cold War helped stave off a nuclear showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union. The courier tells his story, just not from his point of view. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Greville Wynne, a British businessman who was recruited by MI6 and the CIA to contact Penkovsky in Moscow. The film has moments of espionage intrigue and political theater, but feels like a play in its execution. A subdued production design with similar sets reduces the dangerous espionage. The courier needed a little more tension, but is played well by a solid cast.
1960 Russia, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) is a senior GRU colonel who serves on a committee for the Minister of Commerce. Penkovsky, an excellent soldier and family man, is dismayed by the leadership of the Soviet Union under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev. He feared Khrushchev as a belligerent warmonger. Who would move the US and its European allies to an avoidable confrontation? Penkovksy decides to act. He speaks to two employees of the American embassy and gives them information that can only come from a high quality source.
In London, the CIA sends Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) to a meeting with the British secret service (Angus Wright, Anton Lesser). They have to contact Penkovsky, but want to send “an amateur” to avoid the KGB’s suspicions. Her choice was Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), a talkative businessman who had been doing business in Eastern Europe for years. Wynne is absolutely amazed at their offer. Why would he endanger himself with a loving wife (Jessie Buckley) and young son (Keir Hills) to look after? He changes his mind about the possibility of a nuclear holocaust. Greville Wynne is sent to Moscow to meet with Penkovsky. They become key players in the Cuban Missile Crisis, but pay a devastating price.
The courier works as a character drama on several levels. Penkovsky and Wynne learn to trust each other with their lives. But the extraordinary secrecy ravages Wynne’s personal life as his wife suspects he is having an affair. Benedict Cumberbatch is brilliant as a man torn between his family and his civic duty. Jessie Buckley is every bit as good as his angry and suspicious spouse. Rachel Brosnahan almost steals the show as a savvy CIA agent surrounded by men who underestimate her. The interplay between the actors is tight, believable and the strength of the film.
Merab Ninidze also gets top marks for his portrayal of the understated Oleg Penkovsky. My problem is that I wanted to see more of him. The courier is based on Greville Wynne’s experience, but Penkovsky’s motivations and eventual decisions are fascinating. He betrayed his country because he believed it was on the way to destruction. This is true heroism or the ultimate betrayal, depending on which side you are on. Dominic Cooke, a revered theater director who directs the film, could have added tension by focusing more on Penkovsky. We see glimpses of his espionage, but I could have used more details.
The courierteaches at least one valuable lesson that cannot be forgotten. The Cold War bypassed global annihilation with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Oleg Penkovsky and Greville Wynne are directly responsible for the positive result. No child today does duck and cover exercises or help build a fallout shelter. The courier is a production of 42, FilmNation Entertainment and SunnyMarch. Roadside Attractions will have a theatrical release on March 19th.
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