Cracking the Code of Spy Movies
I just did something I hadn’t done since last September. I went to a movie theater here in the US. What brought me to the theater for the first time since Tenet? The spy movie that just released in the US The Courier. So, join me as I take a quick-fire look at the 2021 movie The Courier.
We have recorded this article as a podcast. You can play it here by pressing the red arrow below if you’d rather listen than read.
I will try to keep the spoilers to a minimum here as I am aware that this movie has a staggered release schedule and isn’t being released in the UK until mid-May, France and Turkey won’t get it until mid-June. I assume it will stream sometime after that.
Why Is Spy Movie Navigator Reviewing The Courier?
One of the things we, at Spy Movie Navigator do when examining movies is to look at influences for a movie: Either real life events or how one movie influences another. For instance, the vault scene in the 1996 movie Mission: Impossible was heavily influenced by both a scene in the 1964 movie Topkapi as well as the second episode, called The System, of the 1988 reboot of the “Mission: Impossible” tv show. Since The Courier is based on real world events, it is right in our wheelhouse.
IronBark, The Courier, and the story of Greville Wynne and Oleg Penkovsky
The Courier debuted at the 2020 Sundance Festival just before the pandemic hit. At the time, it went by the name Ironbark, which was the codename of the main Russian character in the story, Oleg Penkovsky, played wonderfully by Merab Ninidze. Benedict Cumberbatch gives yet another stellar performance in the role of the British main character, Greville Wynne.
Many spy fans already know the basics of the true story of Greville Wynne and Oleg Penkovsky so I’m comfortable relating some of the facts behind this movie, without hitting on spoilers. I will refrain from exposing the movie’s twists and main tension points so that you can keep listening and still enjoy the movie when you see it.
The basic story is that a travelling salesman, with no military, government, or intelligence background was enticed by MI-6 to act as a go-between for MI-6 and a Russian Spy named Oleg Penkovsky.
Penkovsky passed information to the West, often through Wynne. Penkovsky loved Russia, but not the Soviet Union and he really didn’t trust Khrushchev. He was a well-decorated lieutenant colonel in the GRU which was the Soviet Union’s foreign-intelligence agency which is why he had access to the detailed information he passed on.
The information that Penkovsky passed through Wynne would play a major role in the US response to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 between the US and the Soviet Union.
The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
In case you aren’t familiar with the Cuban Missile Crisis, let me give you a short very high-level recap. The US deployed ballistic missiles in Turkey and Italy. In response, the Soviet Union built the infrastructure in Cuba, only 90 miles from Florida, to launch ballistic missiles. A war of words between US President, John F. Kennedy, who ordered a blockade of ships going to Cuba, and Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev finally ended with the Soviets dismantling the Cuban-based missiles. This event is considered to be the closest the two countries every have gotten to a full-scale nuclear war.
The information from Penkovsky alerted the US to the Soviet buildup in Cuba.
This really happened and wasn’t just something that screenwriter Tom O’Connell made up.
Ok, so that’s as much of the plot as I want to give away.
So, let’s talk about the non-spoiler stuff in The Courier.
The Spy Stuff in The Courier
This is a spy movie, in part. It has the intrigue and tension of spy stuff like brush passes, dead drops, and other stealthy activities. It also has the KGB monitoring people, key ladies in the tourist hotels monitoring everything that goes on (which was reality in the Soviet Union for travelers), people being captured getting hoods placed over their heads, people being shot or poisoned. There are even a few gadgets like a mini camera. James Bond uses an almost identical camera in Moonraker in 1979. One gadget I really liked was a hidden drawer-within-a-drawer in Penkovsky’s desk. I thought that was really cool.
In short, this is a spy movie. There is danger all through the movie that the principals could be caught which any spy movie needs.
The Courier is not an action thriller à la James Bond, Mission Impossible and the Bourne. There are no high-end stunts or long crazy car chases in this movie. Rather, think of it closer to something like the 2007 movie, Breach which was about Robert Hanssen or maybe Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Both of those movies were good spy movies without a lot of action, just intrigue and suspense.
Relationships and Loyalty
Earlier I said this was a spy movie, in part. I saw this movie with my lovely wife. As we were driving home, she said “that wasn’t really a spy movie, it was a movie about friendship and loyalty.” I think that is an excellent way to look at this movie. Yes, this was about real-life espionage, but the root of the movie was about the unlikely and deep real friendship of the two main characters. These two guys who were thrown together by fate ended up spending a lot of time together. They went out on the town often and even met each other’s wife and child. It would have been very unusual for a foreigner to meet a Soviet Diplomat’s spouse and children during the cold war. I think that strengthens the depiction of the Bond between them.
We also have to remember that these two could talk with each other about what they were doing, but couldn’t mention it to anyone else, not even their own wives. They needed to trust each other.
At one point in the movie Penkovsky is asked by Wynne’s young son why the Soviets hate the British. Penkovsky’s response nails the movie. He says that it is the politicians who hate the other politicians. The people don’t hate the other people. That explains the relationship well.
The Cast and Crew
The 2 leads, Merab Ninidze and Benedict Cumberbatch were excellent. Ninidze was nominated for the 2020 British Independent Film Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance. I was surprised that Cumberbatch wasn’t up for the Best Actor nomination. Especially in the last ¼ of the film (again no spoilers here), he was amazing. I do want to know what he did for three months to lose the 20 pounds of weight he needed to for that last part of the movie. He said it was horrible losing the weight.
The supporting roles were well acted as well. Rachel Brosnahan as Emily Donovan, representing the CIA along with Angus Wright, playing Dickie Franks (who was a real guy, unlike Emily) were very good in their roles. Jessie Buckley turned in a very strong performance as Greville’s wife who was kept in the dark about what her husband was doing. I also thought that whoever cast Keir Hills as Greville’s young son deserves a mention. This young man really looks like he could be Cumberbatch’s son and he performed his role well.
One person on the crew I’d like to call out is Keith Madden, who was the costume designer. Both my wife and I commented on how good the costuming was in this movie. But, unfortunately the wigs on the women were hideous, just awful.
Although very Accurate, There Are Some Liberties Taken
Ok, so although the story behind this movie is true, some fact bending does occur here. Normally that drives me nuts. But it seems to work here. Part of that is because this is a movie about their relationship. The last ¼ of the movie goes in and out between what really happened and fiction. A very pivotal scene is a conversation Penkovsky and Wynne have. In real-life, this conversation never happened. However, it was a very nice way to bring home the relationship these two guys had. They really cared about each other and this scene showed it. You’ll know the scene I’m talking about when you see it.
Also, in this last part of the movie, Wynne has some tough things to deal with. This is where Cumberbatch’s acting really soared for me. I don’t want to give it away, but you will be impressed when you see it, and a large part of that was true to what Wynne really experienced in real life.
As is common in movies about real-world events, characters are often amalgamations of several people. This is true here, especially with the role of the CIA contact, Emily Donovan, played by Rachel Brosnahan. She didn’t exist in real life but according to the movie’s director, Dominick Cooke, she represented many real-life people: most notably, Janet Chisholm. She was the wife of a British officer and also was used by Penkovsky to pass information.
The Big Question From The Movie
One more thing that fascinated me comes in first part of the movie. We see two tourists in Russia stopped by a man, and they are asked to deliver something. This was right out of the blue for them. They weren’t spies, they didn’t know who was asking or why there were being asked. They were told it was very important. What would you do in that situation? Imagine: it’s the Cold War, you are a tourist in the Soviet Union and someone hands you an envelope and asks you to deliver it for them. What would you do?
A little bit later in the movie, Greville Wynne meets Dickie Franks for lunch. He’s met Franks only once before. Wynne is a travelling salesman, not a spy, just a regular guy. Well, at this lunch he’s asked to become a courier as he finds out that this person works for MI-6. He’s told that because he is just a salesman, no one would be watching. Oh, and you can’t tell your spouse. What would you do in this situation? This one is a bit different because it’s for Queen and Country.
To me, this are two of the most thought-provoking scenes from the movie. “Here, please deliver this for me” or “your country needs you, we need you to perform espionage”.
I’ll leave you with one question: What would you do if you were placed in this situation? How would you, not the people in the movie, not the people from the real-world scenario. But you. The person reading this article. What would you do to when presented with those two situations, especially during the Cold War. Fascinating stuff.
So, that’s about all I want to give away in this quick-fire look at The Courier. I think any movie fan will like this one, especially if they are not expecting an action movie.
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