The Courier is a movie chiefly about British businessman Greville Wynne who was recruited in the early 1960s by his own and American Intelligence to conduct during business visits to Russia the secretive back-and-forth with our highly valued informant inside the Soviet hierarchy, Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, on the command, performance details, and deployments of burgeoning Russian strategic weaponry and, based on that status relative to ours, a first-hand source for judging Khrushev’s actual willingness to go beyond saber-rattling (“We will bury [the US!]”). Obviously the question was primary for President Kennedy and the British leaders during the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962. Indeed, Penkovsky advised that the Soviets of that day had yet to achieve a “first strike” capability (an enormously complex matter no movie can really convey.)
Yet the large drama of the sudden and awful Cold War ramping-up of nuclear weapons and their absolutely unprecedented existential threat to humanity, especially the increasing risk of a Catastrophe of catastrophes during the nuclear arms buildup between the U.S. and the Soviets over just such a situation as the Soviet emplacement of missiles with nuclear warheads in Cuba, doesn’t quite come home in The Courier. There are hints–little more–of Penkovsky’s authentic fears of a nuclear Armageddon, especially in his view of Khrushev and his peers as reckless. And Penkovsky, it was said by some, had a mix of motives also sourced by a love of Western culture and a corresponding hatred of Soviet authoritarianism: a brief scene supposedly showing this predilection has Penkovsky reveling in a nightclub night on the town in a Western city with Wynne and other businessmen.
The picture of Khrushev manifest in a couple of surely bombastic scenes struck me as a caricature and misleading about his frustrated but thankfully abiding real sense of realpolitik.
Well, can a movie find a way to dramatize an Ultimate Nightmare? Hopefully in some or other artistic hands. But such doesn’t happen in The Courier. Instead, the stuff of most films is to be found. Wynne and Penkovsky develop a relationship. Both are wary of their sneakiness itself bringing marital tension (and Wynne’s necessarily innocent wife grows suspicious at changes in his behavior under a mysterious stress). The MI-6 and CIA sponsors/handlers seem likely callous–willing to write the two agents off if they are caught.
The immense larger stakes–civilization if not much life itself– in this signature story of our times at best lurk about; it almost seems as though they themselves must be spied upon and revealed.
One of the ironies about the epic space-opera/barbarian-redux dreck streaming everywhere in TVLand these days is how often the heroes, often crosses, male and female, between medieval armored knights and impossible alien life forms from Somewhere Out There, must Save the World if not the Entire Universe by acting as warriors. If the evil cabal in City X can be done in, all’s well.
Solving the real existential threats can’t be oversimplified, can it? Obviously Hollywood doesn’t think so.
Given these caveats, The Courier should nevertheless be seen; its serious matter alone places it above much movie fare. And any sincere gesture in the movies toward warning of existential threats is probably worthwhile. And the usual trappings of the espionage thriller are handled dutifully and suitably. The grim-faced KGB gets on to the spying. The expeditious U.S. and British spymasters react classically. Menace pervades Moscow street settings. Citizen informants may be everywhere in interiors and eyeing Wynne and Penkovsky. Second thoughts about the spy adventure dawn as the danger increases. Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as Wynne; so is Merab Ninidze as Penkovsky.
There is possibly in the Penkovsky matter a horrific reminder of the price throughout history that can be paid for treason in the interests of the common good. People I’d tend to believe in matters of tyrannical retribution–a Russian historian of Penkovsky’s Soviet organization, the GRU military intelligence agency; Tom Clancy; William F. Buckley, Jr–say among others that Penkovsky was not shot but thrown alive into the GRU crematorium after intensive interrogations. Wynne, also taken by the KGB, was eventually returned to Great Britain.
The Courier–a movie whose essential seriousness may sooner or later instill itself.