The Courier doesn’t rank among the spy film greats and misunderstands its own core, but it’s a diverting enough shadows-and-cigarettes throwback.
The Dad Movie of 2021 arrives with The Courier, Dominic Cooke’s sturdy historical thriller chronicling the two men responsible for halting the Cuban Missile Crisis. A fascinating espionage yarn involving one reluctant spy and a whistle-blower desperately trying to save the world from the brink of mass destruction, it’s rather surprising that this true-life tale has taken so long to make its way to the screen. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Greville Wynne, a glorified traveling salesman recruited in a joint venture by MI6 and the CIA to routinely fly to Russia under the guise of business to obtain intel from high-ranking Soviet military intelligence colonel-turned-informant Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze). Over the course of several years, the two men would covertly meet after hours to exchange photos and documents detailing Nikita Khrushchev’s nuclear threat, resulting in the discovery of missiles covertly smuggled into Cuba that, if launched, would result in unimaginable devastation.
In film form, this little-known slice of history mines most of its drama from the fact that Wynne is completely out of his depth, an overweight family man knowingly being used as a pawn by both the United Kingdom and the United States. The usual spy tropes are on full display — late-night meetings in dark alleyways and parking garages, suspicious glances from strangers, genteel conversations loaded with vague threats — but take on greater weight when viewed through the prism of an everyman who seems incapable of even throwing a punch. Much is made of the two men’s personal lives, how the necessary secrecy of their deeds put a strain on their familial relationships, highlighting the disparate pair’s similarities and underscoring their unexpected, budding friendship.
On its surface, the first two-thirds of The Courier plays out in a vein similar to Bridge of Spies (another Dad favorite): both are Cold War-era spy flicks that highlight an unlikely bond between two men from different worlds working together in the name of international diplomacy. But where Bridge of Spies had master filmmaker Steven Spielberg at its helm, The Courier has the guy who directed On Chesil Beach. Cooke’s direction here is workmanlike and not much else, although he is given a great assist by DP Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave, Hunger), who excels at capturing the film’s numerous shadowy, clandestine meetings, nodding to espionage sagas of yesteryear with light-diffusing filters and dramatic curls of cigarette smoke. The thrilling score by Abel Korzeniowski (Nocturnal Animals) is similarly accomplished, also harkening to a previous era, its quickening strings nimbly playing on and guiding the emotions of its audience members.
It’s only in the final 30 minutes that the film loses its footing, as the two men are forced to pay for the consequences of their actions. What should be the movie’s most devastating section unfortunately becomes its most tedious, as events have been so neutered in an effort to make them palatable for audience members — or perhaps simply to retain its PG-13 rating — that they lose any raw power they might otherwise have held. The tortures and atrocities these men endured are unimaginable, but screenwriter Tom O’Conner hustles through them like a high school student finishing a history assignment at the last minute. It does a great disservice to the sacrifice the men made, which should have been the film’s core, and lessens its overall impact. Ironically, it’s only during this particular section that the actors are given anything resembling dramatic heft, with Jessie Buckley finally allowed to bring dimension to the thankless role of “concerned housewife,” while Cumberbatch channels the heretofore unseen emotional depths — and demons — of Wynne. The Courier certainly isn’t going to clock as one of the all-timers of espionage cinema, but as a movie you can check out on-demand in three months on Father’s Day, it will likely elicit a grunt of approval from the old man.