In North by Northwest, Hitchcock showed us Cary Grant as a boozy, sardonic ad man caught between the deadly Cold War machinations of the Americans and Soviets. Amazingly, The Courier presents a real-world version of that same tale: Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) was a smooth-talking Everyman asked to ferry dangerous information between Moscow and London. It’s wild to imagine that world peace could hinge on a pipe-and-slippers salesman, and even wilder that we’re all still here to talk about it. This is another one of those stories that’s so crazy, you know it has to be true.
It’s 1960, and the Cold War has settled into its darkest hours. The United States and the Soviet Union stockpile atomic weapons at a blistering pace. Rhetoric grows increasingly hostile; détente seems like an impossibility. Enter Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a high-ranking member of Soviet intelligence. An honorable man, Penkovsky opens a backchannel to the West, in the hopes that his information will stave off a nuclear winter.
Unfortunately, Penkovsky is too important for such work to go unnoticed. His capture would mean immediate execution, something the CIA and MI6 want to prevent at all costs. With that in mind, Penkovsky’s Western counterparts go looking for a contact least likely to look like a spy: Greville Wynne is a middle-aged, upper middle-class milquetoast with the most boring KGB file in history. In a typical day, Wynne knocks back a few gin cocktails with clients, putts a few golf balls, before settling into his evening chair and taking in a little BBC. He’s a nobody from nowhere, thus making him the perfect man to make contact with Penkovsky.
Amidst these extraordinary circumstances, the two men quickly bond over the things that make them ordinary: Both men have a wife and child back home. They love good food and drink. Finally, both are affable and affable individuals left baffled by the socio-political madness around them. For Wynne’s British (Angus Wright) and American (Rachel Brosnahan) handlers, this means asking him to risk his life for reason’s he can’t–and shouldn’t–fully understand.
This angle of the film gives it a strong resemblance to Steven Spielberg’s underrated Bridge of Spies. Much like Tom Hanks’ negotiator in that film, Wynne’s nimble charisma and intelligence serve him surprisingly well in the world of secret agents. And, as with Mark Rylance’s captured spy, Penkovsky seems too noble, too genteel for his chosen profession. That unfaltering goodness could signal his doom.
The performances of Cumberbatch and Ninidze drive the film. Cumberbatch is generally known for playing characters with outsized personalities, but here he excels at playing someone who could be any of us. Wynne may be a savvy salesman, but this game of spies and killers turns him into a sweaty, shaky mess. (Some people might tell you they could go through the events of this film and not be scared out of their britches. Some people would be lying.) Ninidze plays Penkovsky with facade of coolness that belies the trembling anxiety within.
When The Courier focuses on the dynamic between these two men, it makes for gripping entertainment. Wynne and Penkovsky were real men with everything to lose, and we feel real terror as they try to stay a step ahead of the KGB. The film occasionally pivots to the ethical quagmire of Brosnahan and Wright, and it loses a little steam in the process. By design, we don’t know much about their characters, except that they’re probably too slippery to get caught and stay caught. Fewer scenes with them would’ve given The Courier an even sharper edge.
The Cold War seemed to be waged on two distinct levels: On one, blustery men played an apocalyptic version of chess. With each move and countermove, there seemed to be a crazy hope that cooler heads would prevail before all the pieces were swept onto the floor. The other level featured good people like Wynne and Penkovsky, working within the shadows. They kept the peace and received very little credit for it. Now, with films like The Courier, common people with uncommon bravery can finally get their due.
111 min. PG-13.