Director: Dominic Cooke
Written By: Ton O’Connor
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley and Angus Wright
It’s hard to imagine for younger generations that not that long ago there was a real threat that humanity would wipe itself out through the use of nuclear weapons. You can find copies of the Civil Defence Information Bulletin videos that were to be played on all TV stations in the 1960s around the UK if there was ever a nuclear attack. Watching them is chilling at how close the end was and how pointless the attempts to survive would have been. Looking at what happened in Japan, the advice in the videos would have done nothing. The four-minute warning wouldn’t have been enough. It was more of an attempt to keep people calm.
One of the highest points of tension of that period was when the USA learned that the Soviet Union had moved nuclear weapons to Cuba, known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. One of the events that is seen as the turning point of this crisis that avoided a nuclear war is the secret documents that Oleg Penkovsky, a colonel in the Soviet Union, gave to British spy Greville Wynne. This story has been dramatized in The Courier starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Wynne and Merab Ninidze as his Soviet counterpart.
Bringing the fascinating true story to life is two incredible performances by the leads. Cumberbatch plays a middle-aged salesman who is enrolled by MI5 to act as a courier between them and Oleg. He is on top form with giving one of the best performances of his already great career. He’s a perfect fit as a stiff-upper-lip Englishman. When you compare him to the actual Wynne, who is shown in the final moments of the film through archival footage, Cumberbatch portrays him perfectly. Ninidze is also great as Penkovsky, and you real feel his struggle through being patriotic and trying to make the world a better place.
Their lives, with wives and children, mirror each other bringing emphasis that despite the Cold War, people were just trying to live their lives. They are driven by the idea of making the world a safer place for the ones they love and that’s something that everyone can wish for.
The Courier is one hell of a tense film. Everything that Wynne is in Moscow you will be on the edge of your seat, hoping that nothing bad happens, and every time he’s back in England there is a sigh of relief. The pacing is really good with the story being engaging and doesn’t slow down for a moment. At points it can be horrific and you can’t believe that what he went through.
The Courier may overstate the part Penkovsky and Wynne had in averting trouble (there were reports from on the ground spies in Cuba about the missiles, that isn’t mentioned in the film) but their position in Cold War history is still important. They played a part in averting what could have been the deadliest war in history. The Courier captures this with the nervous paranoia of the time and emphasises that we are all people regardless of where we’re from.