Benedict Cumberbatch is predictably outstanding in The Courier, a Cold War thriller about an accidental British spy. Rachel Brosnahan, of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel fame, puts in a strong performance as his CIA handler. The production design is gorgeous; the story almost unbelievable, but it’s true.
Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch), a seemingly unremarkable businessman, really was recruited by the British secret service at the height of the Cold War to ferry messages from a Soviet defector in Moscow: Oleg Penkovsky (played aptly by Merab Ninidze), a colonel in the military intelligence GRU.
Penkovsky, the highest-ranking Soviet defector at the time, provided the West with crucial information about the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal and strategy at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s not a stretch to argue, as the movie does, that the Penkovsky intelligence Wynne brought to London helped avert World War III in 1962.
My only hesitation in endorsing this wholeheartedly is that the third act of the movie felt so divorced from the first two. It’s hard to explain without spoiling the plot. Suffice to say that for the first two-thirds, The Courier feels like a James Bond-esque spy adventure, high on style and irony, and the last bit does not.
Judging from the almost universal praise — The Courier holds a 86 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes — it may be a minor point. If you liked Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (our review here), I bet you will enjoy this too.
As a follow-up, I suggest Thirteen Days, starring Kevin Costner and Bruce Greenwood, which is an accurate-enough dramatization of the Cuban Missile Crisis from the perspective of President John F. Kennedy and his administration.