In Brief: A very poorly told based-on-truth story that deserves a better telling.
From 1958 to 1964, Nikita Khrushchev was the premier of the Soviet Union. If you’re not much into history and are too young to remember, most of Russia was the Soviet Union.
Khrushchev was famous tyrannical rants. He pounded his shoe on his desk at the United Nations General Assembly during a speech critical of communism. In 1956 Khrushchev told ambassadors from the West, “We will bury you.”
At the time, Khrushchev was the bully of the world.
In October of 1962 Khrushchev put nuclear missiles in Cuba and set off what history now calls The Cuban Missile Crisis. I was 13 and sat in our living room in Kennewick, Washington with my father and watched President John Kennedy announce a naval blockade of Cuba.
Since plutonium for our nukes came from the close by Hanford Nuclear Reservation, it was a logical Soviet target. Kennewick is close to Hanford. Too close. We feared that any minute missiles would fly from both sides and we were all going to die. Schools in the area started nuclear war drills. A bell went off and we hid under desks.
Boy, did I feel safe.
One time we were told to head home and stand in a doorway or go into a basement. Apparently that protects from the destruction of the bomb. Or something like that. Anyway, I didn’t make it home. Neither did a lot of my friends.
It was mid-Cold War and a fearful time. I bring that up because the movie, The Courier brought how it was to live in the U.S. at that time. The Cold War was scary. The film is about a Soviet Union spy who tipped Great Britain off to Khrushchev’s plan.
In turn, British officials gave the info to the U.S.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Greville Wynne. He’s an out-of-his-league salesman arm-twisted and guilt-tripped by Britain’s MI-6 and — it is assumed — the CIA into connecting with Oleg Penkovsky. He’s done by Merab Ninidze. Penkovsky was high up in Soviet military intelligence and tells Wynne that Khrushchev frightens him.
He frightened all of us, too. Penkovsky was frightened enough to risk his life and that of his family to shuttle that information to the Britain.
The Courier is their story.
Cumberbatch (Marvel’s Dr. Strange, TV’s Sherlock) plays Wynne as a nice man and a brilliant salesman who once strayed on his wife. He’s constantly off to Moscow, drinks heavily, parties a lot and leaves her home. What’s a woman supposed to think? That adds pressure to an already pressured situation.
It feels contrived and put in the plot to add drama to a story that is sorely lacking in drama.
Ninidze’s Penkovsky is much more believable. The only great performance in the film belongs to Ninidze. He quietly shows Penkovsky as a very brave — and very doomed — man. You sense the struggle the real Penkovsky went through as he betrays his country and his family for the good of human kind.
He disappears in the third act and the movie implodes.
Acting wise, Cumberbatch has been lots better. Donned with what looks like a fake mustache, or at least a badly dyed one, Cumberbatch paints an intense, almost panicked look on his face and marches through the movie.
Wooden soldiers are more animated.
Blame much of that on the writing. The film is written by Tom O’ Connor. He penned the decent thriller, The Hitman’s Bodyguard in 2017. This one is as bad as it was good. O’Connor and director, Dominic Cooke (The Hollow Ground) don’t give this movie much depth.
You see a scene or two of the secretive passing of notes, a shot or two of Penkovsky snapping photos with his spy camera and once in awhile you catch someone you think might be KGB checking Wynne out. Is he being followed? Did Penkovsky slip up?
That kind of stuff.
This is a one-dimensional movie with very little to offer other than an historical perspective. To help set the stage for the drama, Cooke puts some vintage footage in the film of nuclear bombs exploding and there’s Kennedy announcing the blockade and a few other goodies.
What he doesn’t do is give “The Courier any tension. Try as you might, even if you lived through the events like I did, you just aren’t going to care much about this moment in history. Nor will you care much about the fate of two brave men who helped stave off World War III.
Maybe this movie shows spying for what it really is, and that’s very dull, almost mundane business. Whatever the case, most spy movies have a lot more going for them than The Courier
James Bond this isn’t.
Director: Dominic Cooke
Stars: Merab Ninidze, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel Brosnahan, Angus Wright, Jessie Buckley
Rated PG-13 for mature themes and some violence. A spy story that falls flat. James Bond this isn’t. Might have made a better documentary. Give it a disappointing 1 on the Friday Flicks with Gary 0 to 5 scale.
You can find The Courier at a few local Portland/Vancouver area theaters.
Gary Wolcott has been reviewing movies on radio, television and newspaper since 1990. He believes — and this is an estimate only — that he’s seen something close to 10,000 movies in his lifetime. Gary is a lifelong fan of films and catches a couple of hundred movies a year. He believes movies ought to be seen on the big screen and not on the small screen in your living room or family room. While he loves movies, he also says reviewing film can be a real sacrifice and that he sees many movies so you don’t have to.
He is one of KXL 101.1 FM’s film critics and joined the news staff in 2014. Gary is also the film critic for Tri-Cities, Washington’s Tri-City Herald.