A RESPECTABLE (YET FAMILIAR)
History has recounted the events of the Cold War as a geopolitical between the Soviet Union and the United States and their respectable allies. Taking place after the events of World War II and beginning (more or less) from the Truman Doctrine in 1947 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the war signifies the tension between the two superpowers, with the term “cold” being used is the terminology of there being no large-scale fighting directly the warring nations; especially compared to the two World Wars or the Vietnam War. In fact, the conflict was based around the ideological and geopolitical struggle for global influence between the two nations, including a nuclear arms race, as well as more psychological warfare tactics such as propaganda, campaigns, embargoes, espionage, competition in technology feats such as the Space Race. Due to its long duration and different facets of the innerworkings of the two nations, Hollywood has taken a interest in the events of the Cold War; shining a camera lens on both fictional and non-fictional narratives and using the tense historical backdrop setting for several cinematic tales over the years, including 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate, 1990’s The Hunt for Red October, 2000’s Thirteen Days, 1979’s (and 2011’s) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, 2015’s Bridge of Spies, and 2017’s Atomic Blonde just to name a few. Now, Lionsgate, Filmnation Entertainment, and director Dominic Cooke present the latest offering for a cinematic look into the Cold War with the film The Courier; based off of the events surrounding Greville Wynn and Oleg Penkovsky. Does this movie find insight into its espionage premise or does it get lost within the classic Cold War tropes that have been played out many times before?
In 1960, Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) is British businessman, who is trying to make ends meet for his family, including his wife, Shelia (Jessie Buckley) and his son, Andrew (Keir Hills). While dealing with clients and using his practiced social skill set and friendly demeanor, Greville is suddenly recruited by MI6 official, Dickie Franks (Angus Wright), and CIA overseas agent, Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan), asked to meet with Soviet agent Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), who’s managed to contact the American Embassy in Moscow, warning them of Nikita Khrushchev’s (Vladimir Chuprikov) plans to escalate the nuclear arms race. Oleg wants to stop the madness for his loved ones, while Greville is initially used as a courier; assigned and tasked with traveling to the Soviet Union under the guise of business arrangements / negotiations, secretly meeting with his contact, who passes over military documents pertaining to the growing threat in Cuba. As the years pass, Greville gets in deep, putting his trust in Dick and Emily to prevent disaster, while Oleg beings to realize the enormity of his actions. Yet, their actions soon come under notice of the KGB; putting the lives of both Greville and Oleg in very serious danger.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
While I do enjoy movies and films throughout the years, I do have another passion found in the form of history. Yes, I do love history (in general), with a few specific time periods that I love such as Ancient History (Egyptian, Greek, Roman, etc.), the Middle Ages (Medieval, the Renaissance, Age of Exploration, etc.), US history (from the Pilgrims to World War II), European History, and the two World Wars just to name a few. The events of the Cold War are a bit interesting to me. Given the events of World War II and the Vietnam War, the Cold War is what I would consider a “propaganda war”; depicting the US (and its allies) against the Soviet Union in smear campaigns and situations that takes place outside the theater of war as well as the idea of a “covert war” with the usage of spies and espionage deals being prominent throughout on both sides. Its interesting that the events of the Cold War lasted roughly forty-four years and with so many different stories to tell, which is probably why Hollywood’s interest in such narratives to spin and create theatrical feature films about this time period, the events that take place therein, and the various people who participated in the shaping of the nations. There is a fine line between fiction and non-fiction cinematic narratives, but I do like a few one of them, including Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (I like the 2011 one a bit more because of the cast), Bridge of Spies, and Atomic Blonde. Thus, with a wealthy of information still coming to light from this time period, movies about the Cold War will continue to be produce; reimagining the years of propaganda, covert espionage, and the nuclear arms race between the superpowered nations of the US and the Soviet Union.
This, of course, brings me around to talking about The Courier, a 2021 historical drama that sets in the middle of the events during the Cold War. Like a lot of movies that I have recently reviewed during the beginning of the 2021 year, this particular film kind of escaped me and went “under my radar”. In truth, I really didn’t know about until the day I actually saw the movie. I guess that since all the big studio tentpoles and leading feature films are still being shuffled around (due to the events of the COVID-19 pandemic), some of the smaller / indie movies out there are finally getting the attention that they deserve. Anyway, I came across The Courier after looking it up on the Fandango app; glancing at the film’s movie trailer, and I do have to say that I was definitely interested in seeing it. I did like the spy angle that the trailer presented for the film and I do like Benedict Cumberbatch as an actor and the movie seemed to put him in the lead role. So, with the day off, I decided to check this movie out and purchase a ticket to go see it at my local movie theater. And what did I think of it? There are parts that aren’t quite ironed out correctly, but The Courier still manages to deliver a very insightful feature that’s definitely aided by Cumberbatch’s acting. The movie isn’t the quintessential espionage Cold War feature that has come out of Hollywood of late, but it still worth a look.
The Courier is directed by Dominic Cooke, whose previous directorial works include such projects such as The Hollow Crown and On Chesil Beach. Given his background in his directorial works, Cooke makes The Courier his most ambitious project to date; approaching the “based on the true story” material for the film with a sense of honesty and insight into the story. In this regard, Cooke definitely succeeds and shapes the film to bring to the light the narrative that has been spun by the deeds and actions that both Greville Wynne and Oleg Penkovsky did during this time period. To be clear, these two men are genuinely unsung heroes during this portion of the Cold War and Cooke seems to give their story a platform for us (many of the viewers) to learn about. This makes The Courier very intriguing right from the get-go and, while it does have a few bumps that aren’t completely ironed out, Cooke manages to cultivate a feature that is quite meaningful and poignant from onset to conclusion.
Cooke does a great job in setting up the two men in their home environments; depicting Greville with a sense of your “average” of British Joe, who is looking for opportunities and enjoying life with his family, while Oleg is looking for ways to undermine his government in fear of what might befall him and his family during such turbulent times. This contrast is almost like the film’s “bread and butter’, with Cooke staging events to showcase the stark reality of the two men and finding truth in this story. By no means, The Courier is a great thriller, but is more of an informative slow burner (more on that below) and is effect in is acting performances of the cast and the narrative the film has to offer. Naturally, Cooke plays with the concept of espionage aspects and tropes that have with tales such as this and utilizing the Cold War as the film’s backdrop showcases the effectiveness that the movie projects. Plus, with a runtime of only 112 minutes (one hour and fifty-two minutes), Cooke makes The Courier an almost breezy theatrical film, despite some sluggish moments here and there. Overall, I thought that Cooke did a good job in making The Courier feel informative and entertaining as well.
The overall technical presentation of The Courier is pretty good and definitely meets the industry standards for a project like this. Granted, the movie doesn’t showcase anything expansive or grandiose, but the film does prove plenty of time appropriate appeal and backdrop settings that make the feature’s narrative have a slick and believable way. The contrast depictions of England and the USSR (in all the various layouts therein) are utilized in making this cinematic world feel like it did exist during the early 60s. Thus, the various “behind the scenes” team on the film, including Suzie Davies (production design), Charlotte Dirickxx (set decorations), and Keith Madden (costume designs) should be commended for their efforts made on The Courier. In addition, the film’s cinematography work by Sean Bobbitt is pretty decent and lends some dramatic / cinematic nuances in some of the film’s more dynamic moments. Lastly, the movie’s score, which was composed by Abel Korzeniowski, delivers a solid composition throughout the movie; lending some dramatic pieces that definitely compliment the feature’s various scenes.
There are a few marks of criticism that hold The Courier back from reaching cinematic greatness. Perhaps the most important part of this aspect is found within its overall execution, which (of course) is handled by Cooke himself. While I certainly do praise him from bringing this story to light (as I mentioned above), Cooke’s direction for the film is a bit rough around the edges; playing some conventional directions for the movie and almost playing it a bit too safe. In truth, a lot of the film plays out in a very predictable fashion. As with the idea of Cold War espionage stories goes, The Courier is slightly generic, with Cooke presenting a lot of familiar spy tropes that, while part of the narrative’s genetic make-up, yet still feels rather bland to the touch. This creates a lot of limitations that the movie can’t overcome, including a rather boring second act. I wouldn’t say that is a snooze fest or anything like that, but the second act of the feature feels quite underdeveloped, with Cooke showing a lot of montage sequences of the espionage workings between Wynne and Penkovsky. It works for what the movie needs, but it ends up being a bit shortchanged, especially when examining the info that are being passed off between the two men. I kind of wanted to see some of the ramifications and / or insight as to what the two men were passing off and the importance. In addition, there is a bit of an odd quirky comedy that Cooke employs in the movie and, while it is probably needed for the feature in trying to counterbalance some of the story’s gravitas moments, it just comes off as a bit of jarring in a few places. Overall, it seems that Cooke doesn’t want to color outside the lines too much when shaping The Courier; making the Cold War film a bit formulaic to the touch.
There are also some issues found within the pacing (as mentioned in the second act); making the film have a somewhat slow burner type feeling that, while delivering a stirring conclusion to this “based on a true story” narrative, causes the film to feel sluggish or even lacking in some certain areas, especially when something enticing comes along. In addition, the movie’s climatic moments during the third act can be a bit hard to swallow for some of the more sensitive viewers out there as Cooke’s changes gears in The Courier’s overall tone by going for some more darker nuances that happen to the character of Greville. It’s definitely something that is gruesome and that Cooke displays well (depicting some of the horrors that befalls Greville), yet it seems like such an abrasive and unexpected change of tone for the film that can seems a bit jarring to the feature entirety as well as bit uncomfortable to sit through for some viewers out there.
The cast in The Courier is pretty good and each acting talent involved certainly give their best in shaping this film’s narrative with a sense of appropriate involvement and artistic integrity. Leading the charge in the movie is actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays the film’s central protagonist character of Greville Wynne. Cumberbatch, known for his roles in Doctor Strange, Sherlock, and The Intimation Game, is certainly a commanding and terrific actor; projecting the right amount theatrical thespian portrayals in many of his roles, which makes him such a great character actor in whatever he’s in. Thus, it makes sense for him to do such a role like in The Courier; approaching playing Greville Wynn with a very human quality (a sort of “everyman” ideal) and generates a lot of dramatic moments. In truth, Cumberbatch is terrific in the role and the actor’s talent clearly shines through in his performance; shouldering a lot of the film’s dramatic and emotional elements in this movie and masterfully does so. All in all, I was quite pleased with Cumberbatch’s performance; bringing a lot of humanity and dramatic nuances to both Greville Wynne and to the film itself. It may not be his most memorable in his career, but it is a fine additional to Cumberbatch’s career of character roles to step into.
Of the supporting players in the movie, actor Merab Ninidze (McMafia and Homeland) does quite an impressive job as the character of Oleg Penkovsky, a Soviet Russian agent who is troubled by what is happened within his nation and wants to aid the American allies in their fight in the Cold War. Much like Cumberbatch in the movie, Ninidze gives a memorable performance in his portrayal of Oleg; representing a man that is caught between doing what is right and what he should do for his country. His scenes with Cumberbatch are also quite good and some of the most dramatic dynamic scenes of the entire feature. Behind Ninidze, actress Jessie Buckley (Judy and Wild Rose) does give a very compelling character role in her performance of Shelia Wynne. Yes, the character is a bit conventional as the “concerned wife” cliché / architype, but Buckley’s performance is stirring and gives some great scenes when she and Cumberbatch are together. Additionally, actress Rachel Brosnahan (House of Cards and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) and actor Angus Wright (Flowers and The Iron Lady) give solid supporting roles in the movie as American CIA officer Emily Donovan and MI6 official Dickie Franks; playing to the feature’s diplomatic / political espionage roles with their involvement.
The rest of the cast, including young actor Keir Hills (Vodafone: Raising Voices – DC) as Greville’s son Andrew Wynne, actor Vladimir Chuprikov (Diplomatic Situation and Polarnyy) as Nikita Khrushchev’s, actor Anton Lesser (Game of Thrones and The Crown) as MI6 official Bertrand, actor Kirill Pirogov (McMafia and The Murder’s Diary) as KGB officer Gribanov, are in minor supporting roles in the movie and, while some have greater screen-time than others, most (if not all) give good performances in their respective roles.
The story of two men and what they did during the events of the Cold War are presented underneath a cinematic spotlight in the movie The Courier. Director Dominic Cooke’s latest film takes a further look into the world of espionage of the nuclear arms race; presenting a tale of Greville Wynne and Oleg Penkvosky that has depths within its narrative substance and meaning for what they saw to do. While the movie is a bit sluggish and boring in a few places (as well as a few jarring tonal shifts), the film still finds its entertainment rhythm, especially thanks to a few beats of Cooke’s direction, the feature’s technical presentation, an intriguing narrative, and solid acting across the board (most notably Cumberbatch). Personally, I liked this movie. Sure, it plays upon the commonly used tropes of the Cold War espionage angle, but the film is still worth a glance in my opinion…. especially if one doesn’t know the story of Wynne and Penkvosky. Thus, my recommendation is a favorable “rent it” and is definitely worth a look. While the Cold War has been over for quite some time, narratives about this heightened build up will continue to form and The Courier seizes that opportunity; demonstrating a respectable (yet familiar) espionage drama that focuses on the human condition of honor, duty, and sacrifice in the nuclear twilight period of superpowered nations. Whatever you take away from this movie (good or bad), the valiant efforts made by Greville and Oleg should be praised and what they accomplished during tumultuous period of war….and The Courier examines (and honors) what they did.
3.8 out of 5 (Rent It)
Released On: March 19th, 2021
Reviewed On: April 7th, 2021
The Courier is 112 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for violence, partial nudity, brief strong language, and smoking throughout