THE IMMEDIATE COMPARISON with this superb movie is with Bridge of Spies, the Spielberg movie about an insurance agent who’s dragooned into ‘the service’ to broker a spy swap. In both films, the stories, set during the period of the cold war, centre around the idea that individuals who muster up the courage can move worlds. And here’s where Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the smooth salesman, Greville Wynne shines: with his slicked back hair and a silly moustache, Cumberbatch’s face dissolves into the role and he convinces in a way the all too iconic face of Tom Hanks, for all his superb acting skills, simply can’t.
Based on a true story, it is a time when a mercurial, all powerful and dangerous Nikita Khrushchev is on the rise. The story begins when a whistleblower, a highly decorated colonel, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), aware of Khrushchev’s mania to destroy the US, slips a note to the US embassy. The note speaks of the immanence of a Soviet nuclear threat. But the Americans, reeling from recent security compromises are forced -reluctantly – to lean on MI6 as the go-between with the whistleblower.
MI6 and the CIA, wary of internal leaks, agree that the go-between must be someone with absolutely no connection with any of their governments, especially with their espionage departments. Someone ‘invisible’ and impossibly unlikely; someone who the Soviets will never suspect, and who will remain innocent of the precise nature of the mission. And this is where an overweight, slightly sleazy, smooth talking, heavy drinking European focused businessman – Cumberbatch’s Wynne- comes into play.
Apart from Cumberbatch’s superb performance (during which – as seems the norm – he loses about 5 stone, morphing from a chunky self-assured, if out of his depth smooth talker, to a skinny, angular, withdrawn and introspective man), theatre director Dominic Cooke’s directing is economical and focused. He converts a tale of silence – wary watchers, secret compartments and covert photography – into two hours of tense, riveting drama.
He manages to slowly tighten the screws of tension at just the right moments to just the right levels without slipping into melodrama. Abel Korzeniowski’s note-perfect score that segues from Tchaikovsky (never has a performance of Swan Lake fueled such nerve wracking sweats) to atonal thrumming, frames and shapes the dramatic arc of every scene. Sean Bobbit’s cinematography along with Suzie Davies’ production design give the whole enterprise the feel of a 60’s news reel. As if this is no mere period drama but the real thing happening in the now.
And the real thing is that of the unfolding of the Cuban missile incident. The idea is that just these two men, Wynne and Penkovsly, bonded by the need to do what’s right for humanity, find the courage, the mutual trust and the selflessness to outwit Khrushchev’s madcap ambitions. Wynne shape-shifts from the nervous, very reluctant naïf to a person of real courage and deep moral principle. In this, increasingly dangerous, enterprise, his fecklessness and sly dissimulations slip away to reveal a person of steely determination and genuine heroic character. For, in the end, the story suggests, the shape of history all comes down, not to the decisions of cold government dictats, but to the courage and humanity of ordinary people who rise in a moment of crisis.
Wynne is managed by two handlers, Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) of MI6 and his CIA counterpart, Emily Donovan (Rachel Broshnahan who seems more Mrs. Maisel than CIA). Wright is outstanding in the minor role of the MI6 handler: all solid, stiff upper lip British civil service…without the faintest shard of trustworthiness. Jessie Buckley, Wynne’s wife, who is aware that something is amiss, and assumes he’s having an affair (another one) shines in her modest role (and deserved bigger roles in the future).
This fabulous movie’s multiple threads, rich characterization and dense historical storytelling are deftly brought together by a tight, no nonsense, and often funny script by Tom O’Connor.
The idea – call it, of the army of one driven by unwavering moral conviction – is brilliantly dramatized. Cooke (the director) creates that all too real cold war world when the ever-present fear of ‘the bomb’ loomed so large; when the narrative of having four minutes to run to safety was drilled into every citizen. I wasn’t as convinced by the cartoonish geo-politics at play: the buffoonish Khrushchev, the fearless CIA operative, the narrative of the noble West v the evil Russia.
And – mark of a thoughtful movie – one can’t help but wonder beyond the walls of the story, where were these noble voices of honour and truth in the West’s hubristic occupation and then retreat, from Afghanistan?
At this moment when Netflix dominates storytelling, The Courier is a reminder that what makes the cinema worth going to isn’t its larger than life action but its larger than TV artistry.
THE COURIER: Dir: Dominic Cooke (On Chesil Beach). With: Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, (Homeland), Rachel Broshnahan (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), Angus Wright (The Crown), Jessie Buckley (I’m Thinking of Ending Things). Script: Tom O’Connor (The Hitman’s Bodyguard). Cinematography: Sean Bobbit. Music: Abel Korzeniowski. Production Design: Suzie Davies (Peterloo, Mr.Turner)