Sometimes a lie is a gift.
There’s a great line about mid-way through director Dominic Cooke and writer Tom O’Connor‘s The Courier wherein Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) are talking about the lies they have to tell to keep their families safe. The latter’s Russian official turned CIA asset is trying to comfort the former’s British businessman turned amateur operative by saying they’re in a similar predicament when it comes to home life only for Wynne to incredulously explain the exact opposite with the words, “Your wife married a soldier. Mine married a salesman.” One does not equal the other. Penkovsky dying in a Siberian gulag has always been a possibility underneath an oppressive regime. Wynne suffering that fate would never be something anyone could even joke about happening.
And yet there he is with that reality looming large above his head while doing what his government (Angus Wright‘s “James”) and the Americans (Rachel Brosnahan‘s Emily) ask despite his inexperience outside of boozing clients to set them at ease before selling them new products. The pitch that this two-year operation would be little more than Wynne “being himself” was therefore never fully true. While he “just” has to conduct business as usual with the types of customers he would have inevitably attempted to hook anyway had he been flying to Russia solely on professional pretenses, he’s also walking into dark alleys with Penkovsky to palm rolls of film holding Soviet secrets. The stress of not knowing whether he’ll board his flight home begins to wear on him.
It’s precisely this struggle that makes Wynne’s story so compelling. What would you do if a spy you didn’t know was a spy called you for a drink in 1960 and dropped the impossible task of unwittingly becoming mankind’s greatest chance at preventing nuclear war? Would you smile and say, “Sign me up?” I’m not certain I would. And even if I did, would I subsequently find myself willing to put my life on the line for this foreign asset who has slowly yet surely become my closest friend? That’s exactly what Greville Wynne does. That’s the heroism at the center of his tale. Not patriotic duty or opportunistic greed. Just the human impulse to put that noise aside and do whatever is necessary to save a friend.
So much of the drama at the heart of The Courier is about this internal tug-of-war that’s occurring within Wynne—this notion that also says keeping his wife (Jessie Buckley‘s Sheila) in the dark and threatening to implode his marriage thanks to a previous indiscretion proving her ability to know when he’s lying is about her safety. Because what happens if he quits or fails? What happens if the one person in the USSR willing to fight for peace while Nikita Khrushchev flaunts a hubristic appetite for power has nowhere to securely deposit his information? The minute hand will continue approaching midnight and the bombs will drop without nearly enough warning to secure safe harbor. If doing what he’s doing ends his marriage, at least she’ll remain alive.
Cooke has leveraged his theater career and the vastly underrated debut On Chesil Beach (itself a bit theatrical in its own right) into tackling a film with a lot more moving parts and he does it with great success as we’re constantly shifting between Wynne, Penkovsky, and Emily’s point of views. Her role may not seem as complex as it ends up at the start considering she’s used as the tough-talking American “bad cop” opposite James’ “good cop” during the recruiting process, but she does ultimately expose a level of compassion behind her “by any means necessary” professionalism that Cooke needs to hold things together. Is the information paramount? Yes. But she’s not so quick to burn the sources procuring that information simply because she can.
There is the matter of the privilege that allows her to be so pro-active (diplomatic immunity is a nice ace card to hold), but watching her risk having to use it isn’t a small feat. The entirety of the Cold War is about clandestine efforts and weighing the options of going too far behind the scenes to spark an international incident, so the fallout of putting a bullet in her head might be worth it when the alternative is letting secrets go. And the severity of her inclusion only augments the growing danger of what both Wynne and Penkovsky are doing without that net. That they would even entertain doing what they do knowing that bullet is all but certain earns this film as a fitting posthumous memorial.
With effective production design and top-notch performances (Cumberbatch, Ninidze, and Brosnahan shine brightest), The Courier keeps us on our toes two-fold because we have to both wade through the suspense of not knowing whether Wynne and Penkovsky will be caught and anticipate the suspense of not knowing whether they’ll survive if they are. O’Connor knows this and writes as many high-pressure scenarios as he can between the dance parties and ballets. What happens when Wynne realizes his hotel room was searched? What happens when the plan for Penkovsky to defect commences? What happens when the KGB tortures these men for answers? That both characters have a young child waiting at home also makes us wonder if they might eventually turn on the other to save themselves.
It might not be as memorably cinematic as Steven Spielberg‘s Bridge of Spies, but it’s definitely a worthy narrative companion piece for that era with a similar “civilian as spy” protagonist putting everything on the line for the greater good. That it willingly eschews the usual anti-communist political slant for a through-line firmly entrenched in the human cost of tradecraft both big picture (nuclear war) and small (protecting each other) only amplifies its success as one of the heart rather than solely of the mind. Whether a scene between Brosnahan and Wright is implausible in its adherence to that fact or not, hearing them agree that they “had to try” is a defining sentiment of the whole. If Wynne could find the courage, so too should we all.
 Benedict Cumberbatch in THE COURIER Photo Credit: Liam Daniel Courtesy of Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions
 Benedict Cumberbatch, Angus Wright and Rachel Brosnahan in THE COURIER Photo Credit: Liam Daniel Courtesy of Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions
 Jessie Buckley in THE COURIER Photo Credit: Liam Daniel Courtesy of Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions