“The Courier” makes for a fascinating story about an ordinary British businessman who became a crucial part of the MI-6 intelligence information gathering system in the early 1960s. Based on true events, this man went into the Soviet Union at a time of increasing international tensions. He was able to befriend a top Soviet source, who was codenamed “Ironbark”. A man with no connection to spies, and no training in undercover operations, was able to get and deliver much needed Soviet secrets back to the British government.
Greville Wynne (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is an ambitious salesman and business broker. He has many connections in all of Europe, and he has made inroads into Eastern Europe. These communist-run countries want Wynne’s business smarts to make deals across the Cold War divide. But there is a man named Colonel Oleg Penkovsky (played by Merab Ninidze). He is an intelligence leader in the U.S.S.R. He has grave misgivings about the current leadership of the Soviet Union. He passes a note into the British Embassy.
MI-6 Director Dickie Franks (played by Angus Wright) needs any of Oleg’s information that he can get. He works with CIA operative Emily Donovan played by Rachel Brosnahan) to come up with a scheme to smuggle Oleg’s secrets out of the Kremlin. They approach Wynne and convince him to travel to the U.S.S.R. under the guise of a new business opportunity. There, he can make contact with Oleg and gain his trust. Grenville’s wife Sheila (played by Jessie Buckley) is concerned that Wynne could get into trouble there.
Greville Wynne decides to make the trip and he makes contact with Oleg Penkovsky. They hit it off and Oleg sets up a series of trips that Wynne can make into the communist country to ‘do business’. Every time that Wynne goes there, he is an unassuming naive businessman. Nobody would suspect him, right? Luckily, this works, and Oleg is able to get documents to Wynne, who then brings everything back to the U.K. Franks is pleased, and so is Donovan, but they feel they need to have more. Wynne knows that this cannot go on forever, and he knows that Oleg is ready to get himself and his family out of the U.S.S.R.
But the Cold War heats up to Super Hot, when the Soviets move missiles into Cuba. Oleg Penkovsky comes under suspicion by the KGB, and as a result so does Greville Wynne. Franks, the MI-6 Director wants to end everything right away, and keep everyone safe. But that would sign a death warrant for Oleg. Wynne will hear none of that, because he feels an obligation to Oleg and his family. Wynne wants to do one more mission and he is supported by Donovan. She can make all the plans to sneak the family out of the Soviet Union. That is — if everything goes right and nobody suspects. But it is far past that point…
As you might imagine, the KGB and the Soviet government do not like state secrets winding up the hands of British and American intelligence. So, when that final trip is made to Moscow, Greville Wynne is about to become a pawn in a big Cold War game. Will the plan succeed? And if it doesn’t, what will happen to the people involved? Will the information that Oleg has supplied up to this point make a difference?
“The Courier” is based on true events, and the outcome is devastating. The people involved are brave souls who wanted to see a better outcome for the world. The Soviet leadership was becoming more unhinged, and this was just a small way that two men could make a difference. The movie is tense and absorbing. The acting from all parties on screen is riveting. The story is very interesting to see how an ‘amateur’ spy could become a critical cog in obtaining information.
Benedict Cumberbatch is very committed to this role. He takes on the character and literally transforms into a shadow of himself in the last part of the movie. Merab Ninidze is just as good, and he plays the tired and cynical agent who has everything to lose. Everyone else also do a spot-on job with each role. The costuming is correct for the era. People gain information for the radio or from black and white TV sets, which is accurate for that time. The direction moves the story along, and it makes you emotionally involved with the two main characters – Greville and Oleg.
“The Courier” might seem to be a very generic and unexciting name for a spy story. But is an accurate description of the job that one brave British businessman did to help stop the Cold War.
Directed by: Dominic Cooke
Written by: Tom O’Connor
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley, Angus Wright
Music by: Abel Korzeniowski
Cinematography by: Sean Bobbitt
Edited by: Gareth C. Scales
Distributed by: Lionsgate, Roadside Attractions
Release date: March 19, 2021
Length: 111 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13 for violence, partial nudity, brief strong language, and smoking throughout
Genre: Historical Drama