Part of the problem with a lot of spy thrillers is that the films lean much more into the action fantasy than the actual tradecraft of espionage, for fear that the actual nuts and bolts of an operation would come off as boring. A couple of films over the past decade plus have given it a go — most notably The Good Shepherd and Breach — with some degree of success. But even those rare attempts don’t really focus so much on the intelligence gathering, but rather in presenting a compelling character study with some lip service to the inherent risk of the profession.
However, Dominic Cooke’s latest film, The Courier, is able to give us satisfying character beats while also getting into the meat of how spycraft works, showing the worldwide effects of gathering intel. Set in the early 1960s and keeping the focus narrowed to the build-up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the movie succeeds by depicting the bond (not James) between a source and a go-between, because this kind of work, especially during the Cold War, relies much more heavily on interpersonal relationships than the more action-based examples.
The film was originally called Ironbark when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival last year, which is somewhat appropriate, as that was the codename assigned by MI6 and the CIA to Col. Oleg Penkovsky, who turned spy for the West and provided thousands of photos and documents about Soviet armaments and Nikita Khrushchev’s nuclear ambitions. The film even opens on Penkovsky, played by Georgian actor Merab Ninidze (who ironically played a KGB interrogator in Bridge of Spies a few years ago), hearing Khrushchev’s propaganda and having his change of heart from the party line, before making his first envoy to the U.S.
It’s only after this establishment and a meeting of MI6 and CIA agents (Angus Wright and Mrs. Maisel herself, Rachel Brosnahan, respectively) that we meet the ostensible star of the film, Benedict Cumberbatch as Greville Wynne, a salesman who does business in communist countries in Eastern Europe. This is a somewhat brave choice on the part of the filmmakers, because they’re showing us right from the beginning that Penkovsky and Wynne are on equal footing as far as story priority, that it will be the strength of their relationship that defines the progress of the plot, rather than just making this a star vehicle for Cumberbatch. You get the feeling that the title change was an executive decision made by Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate after they acquired the distribution rights post-Sundance. That allows them to market this as a Cumberbatch showcase without spending the money to rewrite certain scenes or reshoot them to shift attention. As studio interference goes, it’s rather tame.
Wynne is recruited by MI6 to serve as a messenger to Penkovsky under the guise of his normal work setting up corporate contracts. As Wynne puts it, regardless of politics or ideology, factories still need machines, and those machines still need parts, so he puts companies and governments in touch with one another, which affords him a semi-comfortable lifestyle. It’s made abundantly clear — to the degree of comic insult — that he’s not there to perform any heroics or to take any action that one might see in what most would think of as a “spy movie,” nor is he capable of such life-or-death tactics. He simply has to make contact with Penkovsky, set up a line of communication, and smuggle back the intel — the lesser he knows about it the better.
This to me is quite compelling, because it’s the most real look I’ve seen at espionage on film in quite some time. The true craft is Wynne ingratiating himself to a different culture, and forming a friendship of mutual benefit with Penkovsky, who despite being an officer in the GRU is nominally a member of the national Trade Committee, which provides a plausible context for their association. Trust is developed through empathy and sharing of culture, and that drives the action, such as it is. Now, I don’t know what’s fact or fiction in this film. Perhaps in reality Wynne and Penkovsky’s relationship was purely transactional. Honestly it doesn’t matter, because everyone involved is long dead. But you get the sense, through Cooke’s careful direction (he’s got a laundry list of theatrical accolades including serving in the royal court) that we’re at least going for a sense of honesty within the confines of dramatic license.
It also helps that the two lead performances are pretty stellar. Cumberbatch is reserved, but his emotion still comes through via his facial reactions rather than chewing scenery. A bead of sweat in a tense situation or a tear during a performance of Swan Lake speaks louder than any protestations about nuclear proliferation and a sense of patriotism could. And as for Ninidze, he’s the one with actual stakes in this equation. It’s pointed out fairly early that if they’re caught, Wynne will be imprisoned for up to a few years until their respective governments make an exchange, but Penkovsky will be executed and his family forever shamed. He has to do the heavy lifting emotionally because he has to be the one to always keep calm and not tip his hand in any way. Ninidze walks that tightrope admirably. Further, I’m not sure if this was intentional, but Ninidze has a mole just off from center of his forehead. That’s his actual face, not makeup, but I half wonder if the makeup team accentuated it just a bit to make it more noticeable, because when the camera focuses on him, especially in the more suspenseful moments, it looks like a metaphorical sight line, like a laser target from a gun. His entire life is on the head of a pin, and he could be taken out at any moment, yet he continues this course in the hopes of deescalating the global tensions. That mole on his head serves as a constant reminder that he’s a walking target.
There are some pacing issues in the film, particularly in the third act. I won’t go into too much detail to avoid spoilers, but honestly, at least 5–10 minutes could have been cut from it without sacrificing any of the drama. Also, in an attempt to build stakes for Wynne, there’s a subplot about his wife, Sheila, played by Jessie Buckley, who I adore, but here it just doesn’t work. You see, Wynne has to be ignorant/secretive about his mission because, you know, espionage, which means he can’t tell his wife anything. This leads to manufactured tension because she thinks he’s having an affair. And oh, what a shock, he’s had one well before the events of the film, completely offscreen, and only mentioned in dialogue, so of course that batshit conclusion is lent credibility. Compared to what Penkovsky is going through, it’s the smallest of potatoes, but because the two are supposed to be seen as two sides of the same coin, the filmmakers felt the need to shoehorn in the chance that Wynne’s wife might leave him to parallel the more hopeful family life Penkovsky yearns for. I get it, I just wish it didn’t drag the film down for about 20 minutes of the runtime, and there had to be a less clichéd way to do it.
The final thing worth mentioning is the ambient score, composed by Abel Korzeniowski, who’s done some great work over the years, including Nocturnal Animals and A Single Man. Here, he’s able to hit the right notes for the dramatic needs of the scene, but what really struck me was how mellow the whole thing was. Again, I think it feeds back into this central theme of what we think of when we see “spying” on screen versus actual spying, which is to say it’s not nearly as exciting as it’s depicted. Korzeniowski’s score is functional, competent, and simmers just beneath the surface of the scene. It really only swells when someone is truly in danger, or when Penkovsky and Wynne deliver actionable intelligence, like the location of military installations in Cuba.
That’s what this movie is about. If real espionage had as much violence and action as the James Bond movies would have you believe, there’d be no such thing because there’d be an international outcry for so much public murder. For the last decade, the best seasons of Archer have been the ones that show that dichotomy between someone who thinks he deserves to be Bond without doing the actual work of spying, and it shows that he’s mostly just an asshole. This film is the other side of the equation, showing the yeoman’s work that truly goes into this type of operation, the real-life stakes involved on international and personal scales, and focusing on the currency that is relationships in this craft. When the film first started, it was heartwarming to hear the audience applaud, just because we’re still fresh in the “get back to the movies” phase of reopening. But when they applauded at the end, it showed that the message of the film got across effectively.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you enjoy spy movies, be they realistic or pure violent fantasy? Has there ever been a more perfect mustache than the one Cumberbatch has here? Let me know!