Fans of the espionage genre are never short of a new tale to tell, and “The Courier,” out now in theatres, is a new angle on the Cuban Missile Crisis featuring that staple of British historical drama cinema, Benedict Cumberbatch.
Cumberbatch stars as Greville Wynne, a rather unassuming salesman recruited by MI6 and the CIA to make contact with a source within the Soviet Union. While forging business in-roads for himself within Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, Wynne undertakes a series of visits to the country and retrieves documents critical to efforts to end the nuclear stalemate between the two countries.
What is most remarkable about The Courier is not that it is a tale of one of the many missions that were part of the entirety of the Cold War, but how it establishes such a moving connection between Wynne and his contact, Oleg Penkovsky. We are not rooting for Wynne, and by extension, the Western World to win. We are rooting for this pair of unlikely friends to survive war between world powers. The third act deals entirely with the repercussions of the actions of the two and the most emotions evoked by the film are at its conclusion when we discover the fates of the two men driving the story.
That the most emotion invoked by the film is felt solely at the end is one of the most significant shortfalls of the film. The difference between The Courier and others of its genre is that the tension inherent to a spy film is nearly absent. This is not a fault of the story itself, but in how evenly paced the story unfolds, to the point that the very act of building tension is undercut from the moment Wynne sets out on his mission. Without the buildup, the third act centering around a dramatic exit strategy is almost toothless in its execution, and the wood-paneled, smoke-tinted hue of the entire film leeches any additional vibrancy from the experience.
The entire cast, led by Cumberbatch, is no stranger to historical dramas and brings a level performance to every role. The most energetic performance is by Rachel Brosnahan, portraying the CIA agent liaising with MI6 on the mission, and who has an unspoken drive to keep continuing herself in an entirely male-dominated field.
Fans of the genre will love “The Courier.” While the film is an emotionless experience for most of its duration, there is no denying the excellence in the execution of the movie or the superb acting bringing it to the screen. Its most valuable contribution is not in telling another story of the Cuban Missile Crisis but in showing us the effects events like it have on the everyday lives of the men and women involved.