To call a movie a “spy story” may offer a general idea of what it is about, but the term is also too broad to truly tell one what to expect while watching. Is it action-based? Is it a drama? Is it based on historical fact? Is it of a wholly invented past? Is it of a possible future? Is it played for laughs or deathly serious? The list of questions that remain unanswered goes far past this, but specifying any of the above at least provides a more solid starting point than “spy story.” So, yes, “The Courier,” Benedict Cumberbatch’s newest film, is defined as a “spy story,” and while his character gets involved in spying, no one who appears on screen could remotely be thought of as approaching James Bond. Let us then get more specific.
“The Courier” is directed by Dominic Cooke with a screenplay from Tom O’Connor. Taking place in the early 1960s, the movie is based on the real tale of one British man, Greville Wynne (played here by Cumberbatch), who passed information from a Soviet spy to British and American intelligence officials. Some of this information included details about the USSR placing nuclear missiles in Cuba and helped stop the Cuban Missile Crisis from ending life on this planet. Wynne, of course, had no idea when he started passing information that his work would have the effect of helping save the world, but it did.
As the film pitches it, the Soviet officer in question, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), wanted to send information to the West because Penkovsky feared Khrushchev’s potential to do something horrible. In short, while Wynne had no idea where things might end up, Penkovsky walked down the road because he believed something like the Cuban Missile Crisis might occur.
In a different type of spy story, Penkovsky becomes the main character. We follow this man from his first inkling that Khrushchev is a problem (or before) straight through to the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis and its aftermath. In what we do have on screen here, Wynne is even told by his MI-6 and CIA contacts—Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan), respectively—that the risks to Penkovsky are far greater than to himself. Some of this, yes, may just be telling an asset what he needs to hear, but some of it is undoubtedly true.
The Penkovsky centered spy story isn’t focused on a neophyte starting to play a game about which he knows nothing. It isn’t about a man who never intended to work for the government (any government). “The Courier,” however, is very much such a tale and works well in such capacity.
Cumberbatch gives us this non-spy, Wynne, in beautiful fashion. He is a salesman, as adept at missing an easy putt to let a client win a golf match as he is signing the client back in the clubhouse over a drink. He is a family man (as is Penkovsky), with a wife, Sheila (Jessie Buckley), and a son, Andrew (Keir Hills). He had an affair in his past, one he couldn’t keep from his wife, and has not become successful at keeping any truth from her even now. This is a reserved British man, someone who may have a great sense of right and wrong, of being loyal to Queen and country, but who still must be coaxed into action and then, due to his sense of right and wrong, cannot be stopped once he has started down the track.
The movie gives us all of this information with ease, never forcing any bit of it out, just letting the narrative unfold over the course of several years as Wynne grows in his role, gets in over his head, and finds trouble in multiple countries. Cumberbatch’s portrayal is the best thing the movie has to offer.
The second best thing is the relationship Wynne forms with Penkovsky. It is not offered simply in the notion that these two men learn that they have more in common than not, it is in Penkovsky helping push Wynne forward, aiding him in his tradecraft; teaching him to be a spy. Although we do get some of Penkovsky’s personal life, he is a secondary concern for the film, after Wynne. We know enough about him to allow the movie to continue, to feel for him as he struggles, but not more.
One of the other great things the movie has going for it is the music. Orchestrated and conducted by Abel Korzeniowski, the music is fantastic. As much as the costumes and sets and dressing, it situates the viewer with perfection.
The main issue “The Courier” faces is in its all too often being content to merely present moments, merely present history, rather than delving into it. That is, while we get to see the spy elements take place, even when the missile crisis arises, we feel at a remove from it. Perhaps the easiest way to think of it is as the sort of cliched notion of British reservedness, or emotional aloofness, but applied to history. This is, perhaps, an understandable by-product of centering the movie on Wynne, a businessman, rather than Penkovsky, a member of the government, but still undercuts the work as a whole.
In the final summation, “The Courier” is indeed a spy story. It is a dramatic one, focusing more on character than data. Largely eschewing action, the tale centers itself instead on one man thrust into the role of passing information against his will, but also unwilling to relinquish the role until the job is done. Benedict Cumberbatch delivers another fine performance and although the film is never quite as deep or engaging one might like, it is nonetheless an enjoyable affair and provides an insight into a famous moment in history.
photo credit: Roadside Attractions