Based on true events, The Courier (2020) isn’t an overwhelmingly successful dramatization of history, but it’s less prone to biopic mediocrity than other tales of its stripe. Set during the early sixties, the story involves a key Soviet intelligence source for the the Americans and English during the Cold War: Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a military intelligence officer with high-level knowledge of the Soviet nuclear program. Worried that the world is on a collision course with armageddon, Penkovsky reaches out to the west in the hopes of helping avert nuclear war. The allied intelligence officers tasked with opening a pipeline to Penkovsky — up-and-coming CIA representative Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) and veteran MI6er Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) — are concerned about both the risks and the logistics of communicating with Penkovsky in Moscow, given the blanket surveillance to which their conventional agents are subjected on enemy soil. Instead, they hit on the idea of sending a civilian to open the channel: Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), an international businessman whose presence in Russia is less likely to raise red flags. Wynne isn’t a typical British patriot and definitely doesn’t have any spycraft under his belt, but he undertakes the adventure anyway, befriending Penkovsky during the course of his business trips and becoming a messenger for his intelligence drops. Greville’s initially casual participation escalates into something more committed as his friendship with Penkovsky grows. But with that come escalating costs, both to Greville’s tenuous relationship with wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) and to his own personal safety.
The Courier is a professional, workmanlike spy film that manages to make a reasonably satisfying narrative of its historical details, which are similar to — and perhaps influenced? — John le Carré’s 1989 novel The Russia House. As spy thrillers go, the plot is fairly straightforward, but it still makes for a reasonably interesting tale of friendship and sacrifice, as the efforts of two individuals (played with good rapport by Cumberbatch and Ninidze) contribute to an operation that helped resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis. Brosnahan and Buckley don’t have nearly enough to do in support, unfortunately, and I suspect viewers who aren’t naturally drawn to this sort of film won’t find much here to warrant going out of the way for it. But I tend to like period spy dramas of this ilk, and The Courier delivered what I was wanting from it.