The Courier gives Benedict Cumberbatch one of his best roles. The film is a true story set during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Other movies have tackled that subject, but this one does so in a more intimate, personal way, looking at the significant contributions of one ordinary man in helping to avoid calamity. Even though the story could have clarified certain elements of his mission a little more, enough about the tale works to make it gripping.
Cumberbatch plays Greville Wynne, a businessman who is approached by MI-6 agent Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and CIA operative Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) with a proposition. A Soviet officer named Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) has grown deeply concerned about Khrushchev's actions and may be willing to pass along information. They want Wynne to set up business in Moscow, establish a relationship with Penkovsky, and transport messages back and forth. The theory is that he will fly under Russia's radar, given that he's got no obvious connection to any intelligence agencies.
The hitch is that Wynne has to keep his motives hidden from his wife, Sheila (Jessie Buckley), even after she grows to resent all the time he's spending away from home. As the mission goes on, a bond forms between him and Penkovsky, but there's a constant need to look over their shoulders because, as Franks reminds Wynne, no one can be trusted.
The Courier is a little light on showing Wynne's ordinary business dealings, so it isn't always clear how he's setting up shop or carrying out his trade. In terms of playing on the paranoia of the situation, though, the movie offers plenty of tension. Despite the cover of Wynne's profession, there is still a delicate need to keep up appearances. He's keenly aware that if he ever once looks shady, the gig will be blown and he could lose his life.
Next to that is some interesting conflict with Franks and Donovan. The more information Penkovsky passes along, the higher the stakes become. Wynne has moments where he wants out, only to have them pressure him into going a bit further. At the same time, resentment builds at home. Even if he saves the world, he might end up losing his family. That proves to be the heart of The Courier. It's a look at a guy doing something to literally save the world, except he can't talk about it and therefore could suffer all kinds of unpleasant personal repercussions.
Cumberbatch is excellent in the lead role, conveying the mounting pressure his character feels. Many of the best scenes find him grappling with the desire to sever ties with MI-6 and the CIA while simultaneously realizing that his morality drives him to continue. The actor makes this conundrum fully credible. Brosnahan is also very good, sparring expertly with her co-star. She makes Donovan someone who knows just what buttons to push in order to keep Wynne on the hook.
The Courier works very well telling a story that many people may not know. Aside from the valuable history lesson, the movie is a potent reminder of the difference one individual can make, even in a world crisis.
out of four
The Courier is rated PG-13 for violence, partial nudity, brief strong language, and smoking throughout. The running time is 1 hour and 51 minutes.