Soon after moving from Dallas-area suburbs to Washington, D.C., I met up for dinner with a dozen or so 20-somethings connected to a local church. We started our meal by trading standard questions about background and job.
“I work for the State Department,” said one guy. “Oh, for what agency? Do you travel often?” I asked. “I just work for State,” he said pointedly. I was perplexed until another friend clued me in that those who work for the CIA and NSA cannot divulge hardly anything about their jobs.
This moment from more than a decade ago came to mind after watching “The Courier,” a tightly wound thriller just released on Amazon Prime Video. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch (“Doctor Strange”) and Rachel Brosnahan (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”), it starts as a throwback espionage flick before revving up to its powerful third act.
Praised by many as one of this year’s best films so far, the drama benefits from screenwriter Tom O’Connor’s extensive research into little-known history — with some speculation, as certain details are still classified. In contrast to James Bond-style action tropes, audiences encounter a briskly paced story that elevates the discreet, perilous realities of spycraft.
Ordinary Men, Extraordinary Exploits
The year is 1960. Roughly a decade into the Cold War, tensions are rising between the Soviet Union and the pro-democracy forces of the United States and England. In Moscow, ruthless Communist Party leader Nikita Khrushchev executes any government official he perceives as disloyal. Concurrently, he takes covert actions to challenge American influence worldwide.
Panic about nuclear war has grown widespread—including for many families behind the Iron Curtain. A father and disaffected Soviet military officer, Oleg Penkovsky operated at the highest levels of party military strategy including in meetings with Khrushchev. By chance, he encounters an American student in Moscow and stealthily relays his willingness to defect and work with foreign intelligence agencies.
Oblivious to such geopolitical drama, salesman Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch) sees his business growing as more office processes are automated and modernized. His travels to trade shows across Europe catch the attention of the CIA and of British spy agency MI6. What if they recruited this unassuming businessman to interface in Moscow with the Soviet whistleblower?
“The Courier” follows their clandestine meetings over nearly three years, as they grow increasingly dangerous but also more valuable to spy agencies. As Wynne’s CIA handler, Brosnahan’s character strings along the family man — who agreed to help as a service to his country before he learns that leaving would put his wife and son in danger.
While it has shades of “Bridge of Spies” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” this film has something more, as producer Ben Browning explained. “The difference here is that, rather than being about inscrutable people with inscrutable motives, it has a clear emotional heart,” he said. “It’s essentially about a relationship between two men who did something extraordinary.”
At Home and Abroad
The role of Wynne seems tailor-made for Cumberbatch, who has the range to play a good-humored everyman thrust into a high-stakes role he doesn’t fully understand. Naturally, his wife Sheila sees through Wynne’s sudden increase in long-distance travel and begins to suspect an affair.
In an uncommon move for a historical thriller, director Dominic Cooke takes as much time with relational dynamics as with world-changing undercover moments. “I don’t think you get that much about marriages in many spy dramas,” he said. “It tends to be overlooked. Someone under pressure domestically is going to be put under stress, which is quite likely to threaten their abilities to carry out the mission.”
But the fallout in his home life is hardly the only wrinkle for Wynne. In Moscow, where Penkovsky puts on a show of wining and dining the businessman every few months, while covertly passing on microfiche documents, Wynne gets to know the officer’s wife and daughter. The stakes become personal as the two men bond and realize their mutual risk.
History reveals their work paid off. Penkovsky is credited with helping tip off the U.S. military about Khrushchev’s plans to arm missiles in Cuba with nuclear-tipped warheads in late 1962. “Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation,” stated President John F. Kennedy in his momentous October 22 televised speech.
However, in espionage, the real drama often happens when the cameras are off. The film’s final third shifts the drama into another gear. Wynne bucks his handlers, who intend to cut the Soviet officer loose now that they have what they need. He heads back to Moscow for a final extraction mission, which hardly goes as planned.
With an action-packed finale and mounting tension throughout, “The Courier” makes historic events personal. By spotlighting the work of amateur secret agents, it instills in viewers a greater appreciation for all professionals in the field of intelligence. After all, like Wynne and Penkovsky, many agents never receive official recognition from the people they serve.
Rated PG-13 for violence, partial nudity, and brief strong language, “The Courier” is currently streaming via Amazon Prime Video.