The Courier (2021) is a very good film that could have been a truly great film. It tells the remarkable true story of two men: Soviet military intelligence officer Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze, the fine Georgian actor, star of the Oscar for Foreign film winner Nowhere in Africa) and British businessman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch). Penkovsky is eager to share military secrets with the United States because he thinks Nikita Krushchev is reckless and that the West overstates the strength of the Soviet Union. Wynne is a British gentleman whose only distinction is his job, traveling behind the Iron Curtain to make contacts for British manufacturers. Over the course of a year that includes the Cuban Missile Crisis, their strange friendship would yield a vast trove of information astonishing for both its size and importance.
As viewers, we grapple with questions of duty, family, and sacrifice—what might draw a person out of private life and convince them to place themselves at great risk for uncertain political goods?
From Citizen to Spy
American CIA officer Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan, famous as the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) and MI6 operative Dickie Franks (Angus Wilson) discover Penkovsky’s desire to deliver information to the West and need to contrive a way to make contact. They decide to use our protagonist, Wynne, precisely because he has no connection to the world of politics and has business interests that lead him to travel regularly. They know that Penkovsky’s cover is as a member of the Soviet Committee for Scientific Research—a body that would receive visitors like Wynne for the purpose of aiding Soviet manufacturing.
We see an asymmetry in the way the West grants a measure of independence to commerce versus the control exercised by the Soviet regime. We know Wynne has navigated this asymmetry before as he says that he’s done business in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. His knowledge of how one goes about making contacts on behalf of his clients in the West is precisely what makes him useful to the intelligence agencies and what would make his appearance in Moscow unremarkable. The Soviets appear eager to use whatever technology and products the West is prepared to offer—they are pleased to turn the apolitical capitalist desire for profit to good account. But they also underestimate the patriotism and the shrewdness of men of commerce, becoming vulnerable to espionage conducted through amateurs.
Donovan and Franks make their proposal to Wynne in December of 1960. He is shocked by this offer but seems reassured once they emphasize he need do nothing more than what he always does when cultivating contacts for his clients in a new country. Wynne’s visit to Moscow goes just as planned and he and Penkovsky get along well. Penkovsky is aware that Wynne, as he puts it, is an amateur, but a “good amateur.” We wonder whether Penkovsky has been evaluating Wynne for a more significant place in his plans to get information to the West. Penkovsky then visits London with a Soviet trade delegation and the friendship between Wynne and the military intelligence official really starts to develop.
Franks, the MI6 officer, had assumed Wynne’s task was done after the initial contact had been made in Russia and then Penkovsky was able to get to London and start transmitting secret information. The Americans have a different plan. Donovan and Franks meet with Wynne a second time and now comes the big ask: would this ordinary British businessman be willing to act as a courier to get precious military secrets out of the Soviet Union? Donovan presents Wynne’s use as a courier as Penkovsky’s idea. Now Wynne is even more stunned than he had been during their first meeting and rejects the offer outright. He’s a patriot, but it’s not his job to get involved in espionage.
Donovan—undeterred by Wynne’s strident refusal—launches into a ruthless account of what might happen should a nuclear attack be launched against London. She knows how long it would take for Wynne to get to his wife and child after the first warning alarms go off. She knows the status and relative integrity of fallout shelters—all substandard when compared to the government ones. Donovan asks the man of commerce: could you live with yourself if such an attack should come to pass and you know you might have done something to prevent it? “How dare you?” is his reply to her rather dramatic threat. Franks—who had seemed not entirely comfortable with Donovan’s approach—tells her that they’re probably better off without him. “He’ll do it,” says the American.
He does, of course. But why? And why was Donovan so confident that he would? Was it simply a matter of his susceptibility to her vision of a world on fire and the implicit duty of men to act, rather like in Arthurian tales where noble men face off against monsters? This surely plays a role, but the film adds some complexity here. First, Penkovsky himself seems to have played some part behind the scenes, both in terms of espionage and in the movie, off-camera, in making the suggestion. He calls Wynne a “good amateur”—good as in useful, but perhaps good in a deeper sense. Of the two, Penkovsky faces far the worse danger, but also has the better judgment, and he seems to have chosen to rest all his hopes on this unprepossessing gentleman.
Donovan sees something in Wynne too. His status as a businessman who won’t be suspected by the Soviets is not nearly enough for her to have the confidence to ask him to take on this new role. He won’t, after all, be just an ordinary businessman any longer once he agrees to do this. He’ll have an entirely different set of tasks and concerns—all of which he’ll have to conceal—from the Soviets, from his wife and child, and from anyone else with whom his path crosses. So while it appears that Wynne is in a sense being manipulated—or pushed around, if that’s too strong—Donovan would not have confronted him with the ugly necessities of the Cold War and the prospects of nuclear combat if she did not think he could handle the pressures of covert work.
Wynne continues his periodic visits to Moscow and successfully smuggles a treasure trove of documents. The film draws viewers into the pressures and tensions of the work of Wynne and Penkovsky adroitly. The stakes are very high as we are reminded of the international context—the start of the construction of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban missile crisis occur during the action of the film. We are also reminded that it took more than high-level politicians to deal with these problems, more than celebrity journalists to find out the truth and judge events—private men, anonymous but for this story, also acted, facing personal dangers unknown to the famous leaders, making decisions in face of uncertainty, which no one could make in their place, and without any assurance of help. There are times when private men of the most ordinary type might be required to step into the world of politics and war. They may be the most unexpected players on a stage to which they are not accustomed and might even seem quite out of place. Yet some such people know they must brave what is unfamiliar and threatening if they are to remain free.
Man, Patriot, and Friend
As a study in character, The Courier also offers a judgment about national character and recommendations about what intelligent patriotism requires. Cumberbatch’s Wynne is accordingly the focus of the story and he is a very well-drawn character—the move from reluctant, deer-in-the-headlights businessman to courier of military secrets is entirely convincing because it’s subtle and yet the two opposing poles seem somehow not too distant. Penkovsky is crucial here, of course—consistently teaching and encouraging Wynne, bringing him into danger while making him better able to deal with that danger, the two becoming more alike as they work closer together. The friendship that develops between Wynne and Penkovsky is understated and solid—we know that the trust and devotion that develops between them is the ground of the operation as it develops and begins to yield great benefits.
When home in London, Wynne starts exercising more regularly and his libido is, shall we say, enhanced. Becoming manlier through danger encourages him to take himself more seriously, as though preparing for a personal crisis. His wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley, whom viewers will recognize from HBO’s Chernobyl) is perplexed and suspects an affair. She tells her friend Tamara that Greville is defensive and secretive since his Moscow travels—but notes too his constant exercise and that he’s so “energetic in bed.” Tamara replies, “Oh that sounds so awful. Poor you.” Along with its gravity, the film adds these light touches—we cannot help but see the test and triumph of a noble man from the outside and it looks very ridiculous. Like Sheila, we find it very hard to enter into the man’s secret desires and don’t see what he’s heading into but find it thrilling in both senses—there is excitement and trouble both, a fear suspended, but growing as the plot thickens, and yet a secret desire for a confrontation that might yield a worthy victory. And we have great sympathy for Sheila and understand the strains Greville’s visits to Moscow place on the family. Private life has consolations but its own demands as well and the film demonstrates the costs of Greville’s embrace of his new role.
Wynne’s smuggling continues for just over a year. The KGB eventually gets suspicious of his frequent visits and his meetings with Penkovsky. When the Soviet officer’s second trip to London with a trade delegation is canceled, he knows he’s in trouble. In exchange for the information, he’d asked the Americans and British to make plans for his defection and his family’s emigration. At this point, Donovan and Franks had concluded Wynne’s visits—understanding the danger was now too great. But things have changed dramatically, so they have a third meeting and it’s Wynne who makes a proposal to Donovan and Franks that he be allowed to travel back to Moscow to share with Penkovsky the plans to get him out of the Soviet Union. Wynne is adamant that the Americans and British owe Penkovsky an attempt to extract him and prevent a certain execution. We won’t share the details of the attempted extraction and conclusion of the film here—but it’s handled deftly by the director.
We cannot stress enough the most extraordinary fact about this whole adventure: that it is a true story. These two very different men become friends because they both aim to save civilization and therefore to embody it. The British gentleman is an image of the moral virtues—the intellectual dark arts of espionage, the most disturbing part of politics, are foreign to him and there are always other people telling him what to do. But he has to learn to think for himself in light of the specialized knowledge others give him and ends up a model of intelligent citizenship, indeed, a model of a president.
The Russian spy is a model of intellectual virtue and The Courier would have greatly benefited from more Penkovsky. Ninidze’s portrait is excellent—we want him on-screen more, we are charmed by his suave manner, his ability to withhold information about himself while at the same time exuding confidence, self-possession, and even a certain kind of ease or gracefulness when it comes to the dark arts of espionage. He is at home in this world, he introduces Wynne into it almost as a great director guides his actors to a winning performance. As Wynne is manly, so is Penkovsky, who embodies Hemingway’s celebrated definition of manliness—grace under pressure. His fate, that of his family, that of the world lead him to action, but don’t seem to burden him—an amazing character, whose like we rarely ever see in our cinema.
But this raises many questions with which the film fails to deal, its main shortcoming. How did Penkovsky rise so high in the hierarchy of military intelligence? How does he navigate the pressures of his daily life? Early in the film, we see him look at a “Little Octobrist” pin on his daughter’s coat and beam with apparent pride. Does he think Khrushchev is betraying the revolution? Or is the revolution itself rotten? The Soviet Premier seems to acknowledge Penkovsky at a ballet performance, so Penkovsky is an important man indeed. All these hints are tantalizing, which is effective dramatization, but turns into poor characterization, as though the writer and director couldn’t fathom the mind of such an unusual man.
So also with Wynne there is a problem. His transformation reveals his true character and leads him into danger, but we never get close enough to him to understand his thinking. We take the journey alongside him, in a sense, but this experience doesn’t lead to insight, the only thing movies can do, since they cannot make heroes or spies of us. Cumberbatch here, as elsewhere, seems to be crippled by a problem of our times. He believes in conservatism, in the greatness of the British past, so he portrays an English gentleman with rare, controlled confidence. You see him become an aristocrat without any difficulty, however difficult it is for us to recognize this in a time when aristocrats are creatures of tabloids or PR operations. He even tries for sainthood, if you can believe it—watch the movie and you’ll be stunned.
But he takes British reserve to the extreme of making it seem sometimes pathological and sometimes not only speechless, but brainless. We do not want to take this criticism too far. Wynne’s drama with his wife especially, and with his child, reveals his need to be understood and loved, and the difficulty of achieving real intimacy in the modern, post-War world which has little admiration left for its old heroes, now considered obsolete. There is much in that portrayal that achieves a beautiful sensitivity, overcoming the therapeutic clichés of feminist marriage ideas and pop psychology. But it’s just not enough to allow us to understand this man, in whom we are far more interested than in his wife or child.
We criticize this movie only because we want to love it more—it came close to greatness and then the burden proved too much. This, as much as Cumberbatch’s flawed characterization, is a problem of our times. How would a movie, any more than a man, dare to aspire to greatness? Not caricature through flamboyance, not success-worship aided by the media, not fake shows of courageous transgression by pampered parasites—but honest greatness, which we all recognize in our admiration, to say nothing of those moments of silent patriotism when we get choked up or teary-eyed. It may seem strange, it surely is strange (perhaps the strangest thing about our times), that believing in one’s country and justice is considered, in many prominent quarters, indecent. But we believe we ought not to give in to this strange temptation, and we could begin to see why by watching this movie—you will be jolted by knowing it’s a true story, happy to know such men are real, and perhaps you will be dissatisfied, as we are, and long for more. That’s not a small achievement.