Review: ‘The Courier,’ Neck on the Line

Benedict Cumberbatch stars in the titular role of a real-life suspense drama that explores the Cuban Missile Crisis from a fresh perspective. 

Stern and tight-necked people abound in The Courier, and no wonder! Heightening tensions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in 1960 threatened to erupt into another world war, one that might end everything, due to the proliferation of nuclear weapons on both sides of the conflict. 

Everyone was worried, which can clearly be seen in the popular culture of the day, yet no one could do anything much about it. Well, that’s not quite right. World leaders could do something about it, if they ever stopped rattling their own sabers, and so could ordinary people, if they happened to be in the right place at the right time and manifested a degree of bravery. 

Originally titled Ironbark, the code name assumed by a high-level government official in the Soviet Union, The Courier explores what happened when an “ordinary businessman” accepted a request from two spies in plainclothes to get involved in helping a Soviet informant funnel information he obtained to the West. 

Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a soldier who rose to become a high-ranking official, has become concerned by his government’s actions, and so gets word to the U.S. embassy that he wants to defect to the West. First, though, he is willing to spy on the Soviet Union’s plans to seed Cuba with military equipment and missiles. The U.S., in the person of C.I.A. agent Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) seeks the assistance of the U.K., in the person of MI6 agent Dickie Franks (Angus Wright), to contact Oleg. To avoid possible detection, she suggests that an ordinary businessman be found who could more easily travel to Moscow without arousing undue suspicion from Soviet agents.

Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is a rather dull salesman for various manufacturing companies in Britain, accepts the request, though the details are kept secret from him. He’s a family man, married with a child, and is understandably concerned about the possible consequences. 

Still, Greville makes contact with Oleg, and the two form a friendship that is initially wary and then becomes increasingly warm. Oleg, too, is happily married and has a child. Both men keep their activities a secret from their families and Greville remains innocent of any knowledge about the sealed packages that Oleg passes along to him to transport to the West. Things heat up around them as relations between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. become frayed and tensions reach the boiling point, but it’s not so easy for either man to withdraw from this particular relationship. 

Handsomely mounted and impeccably acted, The Courier percolates quite pleasantly in suspense for much of its running time before boiling over into perhaps inevitable melodrama, given that this is based on a true story. Even so, it’s quite a compelling story to watch unfold, and Benedict Cumberbatch has become a marvelous ‘reactor’ to the events around him. His facial expressions and body language are jolted, almost in slow motion, as the full force begins to press upon him, and we can feel nothing but empathy for his character, who was only trying to do the right thing. 

The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on March 19, 2021, via Roadside Attractions. For more information about the film, visit the official site