4 out of 5 stars
With all that is going on in the world today like pandemics, political tensions and natural disasters, it may be hard to remember a time when nuclear war was the primary threat. Yet, it was not too long ago that the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States raged on. Most of the work of espionage was occurring between these two superpowers. One story focuses on two men's work, one an influential leader within the Russian hierarchy and the other a British businessman, and their work to maintain peace on the planet.
In the late 1960s, tensions between the Kremlin and the White House moved towards breaking point. Each country was doing its best to build the most extensive nuclear arsenal. Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) was a war hero and prominent member of the Soviet regime. Still, he saw what this stalemate was doing to his country and the world. This led him to send a letter to the CIA and MI6 agencies with a proposition to consider gaining access to Russian secrets as a means of staving off the inevitability of nuclear war. The two intelligence agencies' response was to find a non-conspicuous person to serve as a courier of this information. Which led to their eventual recruitment of British salesman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), who had dealings in Eastern Europe and was not a trained agent.
After some convincing, the unassuming salesman took up the opportunity to make new contacts across the Soviet Union and to meet Oleg Penkovsky, who he called Alex. The two men with the espionage community's support worked through a system of smuggling the information out of the country. In the meantime, the men become friends. Which led to a bond that transcended their commitment to their countries. Their friendship and patriotism are put to the test as the ensuing Cuban missile crisis looms on the horizon. This leads both men and agencies to decide the best tactic for getting Penkovsky and his family out of the country.
What could be dismissed as a long-forgotten mission from a bygone era would be a mistake on so many fronts. We need to have these reminders of our history to ensure that they do not repeat themselves. Yet, the most critical aspect of this film is that it is based on real people who were putting their lives at risk for the sake of world peace and that it is exceptionally well told. This is an espionage tale worth discovering between the compelling drama and the outstanding performances from the lead cast.
With the subtle and understated manner of director Dominic Cooke (On Chesil Beach) and the winsome tone of British culture, this has a unique tone within the espionage narrative. Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange) captures the naive arrogance and unassuming style of Greville Wynne. At the same time, Jessie Buckley (Misbehaviour) provides the perfect foil as his wife, Sheila. Then to add in the marvelous performance of Merab Ninidze as Penkovsky along with Rachel Brosnahan (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) and Angus Wright (The Crown) as the spy agency attaches makes for a beautiful mix of characters. Even though it is visually cast in the gray tones of the Soviet Union, the story is driven by this talented team of actors.
The Courier is an example of how humanity has changed, but remains the same in so many ways. The technologies and methods of communication have evolved over time. The methods of our political structures and how we treat our fellow men have not deviated much over time. Still, Wynne and Penkovsky’s quiet historical battle does show the value of friendship and loyalty. More importantly, it shows how we are capable of good even though everything around us seems to prove the contrary.
REEL DIALOGUE: Are you faithful to your country?
Where are the roots of patriotism? The Courier will cause the least patriotic person to consider their love for the country in which they live. It is a tale that shows how patriotism can be something worth dying for, but still forcing anyone to consider the costs of that grand commitment. Wynne and Penkovsky’s account will cause audiences to ask what they would do to betray or fight for their country. It has the potential to rub every nerve raw. However, it interestingly will still manage to cause one to think about their own level of commitment to the land they love.
Yet, is patriotism a biblical concept? Yes and no. A Christian should understand that their citizenship is not found in an earthly kingdom, but in the Kingdom of God. Not to diminish or undermine a person's pride in their country, but to realise the first priority of a follower of God. Loyalty to God and then to the earthly country they live in during this life.
Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he chose for his inheritance. - Psalm 33:12