The best salesperson I ever met was a guy named Bob. He was older, chain-smoked like crazy, but as soon as he walked in a door the room would light up. He became close to his clients by getting to know them on a personal level. He would ask about family, sports and hobbies, and close with “Oh, by the way, we’ve got a great deal on...” By that time, you were sold. He felt more like a friend than a salesperson.
Benedict Cumberbatch is the movie version of Bob in “The Courier.” He plays British businessman Greville Wynne whose modest persona was just the ticket MI-6 and the CIA needed to infiltrate the Soviet Union. He was recruited to go undercover and retrieve Russian intel from Oleg Penkovsky (a fantastic Merab Ninidze), a Soviet military officer who was willing to betray his country to avert a nuclear war. Based on true events, the film directed by Dominic Cooke (“On Chesil Beach”) keeps you engaged with riveting performances and three-dimensional characters written by Tom O’Connor who researched espionage history while piecing this incredible story together.
It’s 1960, just before the start of the Cold War as the United States and Soviet Union race to stockpile nuclear weapons. As Nikita Khrushchev boasts about his country’s ever-growing arsenal, he vows to bury the U.S. This frightens military officer Penkovsky who sees his Communist Party leader as a madman bent on starting a war. He manages to get word to the American Embassy that he’s willing to provide the United States with intelligence reports in the hope to bring about peace between the two superpowers. What may seem like treason is evidently the ultimate act of patriotism as Penkovsky risks his life and puts his family in jeopardy for the benefit of all mankind.
Rachel Brosnahan plays CIA agent Emily Donovan who teams up with MI-6’s Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) to pose as members of a Trade Commission in order to recruit British industrial salesman Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch), an unassuming bloke and all-around people person, to convince him to start doing business with Russia (nudge, nudge, wink, wink). “It would be a real service to Great Brittan explains Dickie to which Greville, looking perplexed, responds, “What do you want me to do?”
Greville becomes the go-between acting as a courier between Oleg Penkovsky, who uses the nickname Alex, and British and U.S. intelligence agencies just as tensions begin to mount between Kennedy and Khrushchev leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“I’m here to open a door to the top manufacturers in the West” explains Greville to a room full of Soviet leaders. Soon he’s wining and dining them, gaining their confidence, while Alex volunteers to become Greville’s contact as all goes according to plan.
Cumberbatch is entertaining to watch as he begins to transform from average guy to super spy.
Jessie Buckley (“I’m Thinking of Ending Things”) has a small supporting role as Greville’s wife Sheila who notices a change in her husband. He’s working out and headed to Russia more often plus he’s become short-tempered and defensive. What’s a wife to think? Spy! Of course not, she believes Greville is cheating on her, especially since the story alludes to an indiscretion in his past. Buckley is always a pleasure to watch. She’s a chameleon who never plays the same sort of character twice. Here, she transforms into a more mature role as the concerned housewife and, as expected, she’s terrific.
This is an exceptional cast firing on all cylinders. Cumberbatch is perfect in the role of Greville. He’s convincing as the well-liked salesman and so it feels credible when he gets his foot in the door without raising suspicions. We are also dealing with the Cold War era as Alex explains, “Everyone you meet, assume they’re KGB” and “Every Russian is an eye of the state.” This leads to a conclusion that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
The film’s best performance comes from Georgian actor Merab Ninidze as Oleg Penkovsky aka Alex. He reminds me of Canadian actor Michael Ironside who’s best known for playing tough guys in films that include “Top Gun” and “Total Recall.” He was originally brought in to audition for KGB officer Gribanov (played in the film by Kirill Pirogov) who becomes suspicious of Greville and Alex. Ninidze was so good in his audition that Cooke cast him in the lead role opposite Cumberbatch. A wise move.
How much of what happens in “The Courier” is factually accurate? Who knows? Greville Wynne wrote an autobiography in 1967 titled, “The Man from Moscow: The Story of Wynne and Penkovsky,” but some skeptics have discredited the book as being inaccurate. The film, however, is an entertaining Cold War thriller that manages to hold your attention, and who doesn’t love a good spy flick?
(3 ½ stars)
Opens Friday in theaters.