The Courier (2021)
The Courier (2021)

Genre: Political Thriller and Spy Running Time: 1 hr. 51 min.

Release Date: March 19th, 2021 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Dominic Cooke Actors: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel Brosnahan, Merab Ninidze, Jessie Buckley, Angus Wright, Keir Hills

 


 

B

y 1960, the nuclear arms race between the USSR and the United States intensified to the point that many across the globe predicted that the world was on the verge of imminent destruction. When former artillery officer and current GRU intelligence man Colonel Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) passes sensitive information to the U.S. Embassy, it arrives about four months later into the hands of CIA Agent Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan), who quickly heads to the MI6 headquarters in London. She suggests making contact with the Russian informant through a channel that would be less likely to accidentally expose him – perhaps by using someone outside the usual sources.

And so, MI6 Agent Franks (Angus Wright) approaches an ordinary British salesman, Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), with no connection to the government, who can inconspicuously head to Moscow to conduct casual affairs that wouldn’t be remarkable at all. He doesn’t need to do anything that would put his life at risk; he merely needs to receive a few documents here and there and pretend to be an everyday businessman. “Do business.”

“If this mission was the least bit dangerous, you really are the last man we’d send.” Based on true events (though when it comes to spies, many of the “facts” are disputed), this particular yarn begins with an almost comical vibe, despite an interruptive moment for the execution of a traitor, to remind viewers that the Soviet Union in the ’60s wasn’t without peril – not just for Americans, but also for defectors fearful of Khrushchev’s desire for confrontation with the U.S. Yet the use of an amateur, a somewhat bumbling civilian completely unaccustomed to tradecraft, generates a lighthearted image of spy games. Plus, the film frequently returns to montages of revelry, complete with peppy musical accompaniment. It’s an interesting – if incongruent – approach to the subject matter (thankfully never as outright goofy as “The Informant!” or “Burn After Reading”).

Major historical events pepper the script, but Wynne’s exact involvement is little more than a courier; details about specific documents or other top-secret intel isn’t the focus. The notion that nuclear war could strike at any moment is the primary predicament. That, and getting caught by the countless background characters whose eyes are always scrutinizing the main roles. And, also humorously, Greville’s wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) starts to suspect infidelity – a concept as comparably disastrous to his life as spending a couple of years in a gulag to be traded as a political prisoner, and one that gains a good deal of attention from the writers.

“The Courier” reminds of “Bridge of Spies” from 2015, though the tone here is slightly off, struggling to balance severity with levity. It does well in crafting a pervasive sense of paranoia, with the possibility of the KGB catching up at any moment, yet it never quite feels as if the characters are in the type of jeopardy necessary to designate a top-notch thriller. Much of the script is toothless, even as Oleg faces the brunt of the danger in Moscow – and Wynne contends with his wife’s cold shoulder. Fortunately, by the third act, tensions increase in the movie alongside the escalation of factual Cold War quagmires (such as the Cuban Missile Crisis), finally presenting the level of dread, rigor, and violence required to make real-world consequences (cinematic as they may be) appear genuine and tragic (such as bleak government manipulations). It also helps that Cumberbatch gives a sensational performance. But the conclusion is still a touch too commonplace for political thrillers, destined to leave this film in the realm of largely unmemorable productions.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10