Yaaaaaaaaaas. As I had hoped, The Courier (2020) delivered an assortment of my favorite film characteristics:
- Espionage thriller
- Period piece
- Historical context
- Based on true events
- Creepy cobblestone alleys
- Mustaches & fedoras
This dramatic portrayal is the true story of two spectacular men: A “regular-guy” British businessman and a Soviet officer—both risking it all to LITERALLY save the world.
Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a British businessman recruited by the CIA and MI6 to help thwart nuclear confrontation with Russia and diffuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. His Russian counterpart is Soviet officer Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), who has secretly defected from the Soviet Union to impede Kruschev’s destructive will.
The stakes are high; the risks are even higher. Both men have families to worry about and plenty of reasons to avoid involvement, yet they forge bravely into an increasingly dangerous operation because they know the fate for all of humanity if they fail.
But how does a random British businessman get recruited by two of the world’s top spy agencies? I’m paraphrasing here, but it goes something like this:
“Hey Greville, you’re literally nobody and therefore perfect for a covert mission because the Kremlin won’t suspect you.”
“Uh, I’m flattered(?), but I have no idea what I’m doing so I shall decline with a respectful HELL NO.”
“Fair enough, but, if you don’t help, your family gon’ die from nuclear fallout. Oh and also, the whole world will be annihilated, and that’s just awkward for everyone.”
“Mmm, solid point. Ok, fine. But is it dangerous?”
“Nah (fingers crossed behind their backs), you’re too soft for anything that’s actually perilous. Plus, even if something did happen, we promise to protect you and your family. It’s a square deal! Now let’s talk about spy stuff…”
Meanwhile in Russia, Oleg is straight thug. As a high-ranking, well-respected official with a ton of Soviet medals for bad-assery, he plays this game better than anyone. He’s been a double agent for a few years already, but now he’s ready to push his espionage skills to the max and sacrifice everything for what he knows is right.
Greville and Oleg begin their covert operation under the guise that Greville wants to sell industrial engineering products to the Soviet Union. Because of this ruse, the two men are able to meet for dinners and events with little suspicion.
As Oleg continues to transfer his intelligence to Greville, the two allies become friends. These heroic and intelligent individuals have an unspoken brotherhood and mutual respect. Cumberbatch and Ninidze portray an authentic chemistry that can be felt with all your being.
But of course, even as careful as they are, suspicions eventually arise. In the second act of the film, Greville and Oleg find themselves in dangerous territory. When the jig is up and circumstances become truly dire, MI6 and the CIA have a choice to make: uphold their promise to get these men and their families out of harm’s way NOW, or leave them to endure betrayal and abandonment.
MI6 seems good with the abandonment idea, but the CIA contact, Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan), makes a compelling case for helping Greville and Oleg: Who will want to work for us (and who will even trust us) if we break our promise and do not use all our resources to try and save these men?
The mission is arduous. It may not be wholly successful, but they have to try. The remainder of the film is a wild ride through the course of several years where Oleg and Greville (both captured) put their friendship and loyalty to the ultimate test, battling through bouts of sacrifice, humility, despair, and fear while trying to survive another day.
Will they be saved?
The Courier is an intriguing and gripping espionage thriller that reveals the important contributions of these men, and many others, who worked behind-the-scenes to stop the Cuban Missile Crisis and prevent a nuclear world war.