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‘The Courier’: Benedict Cumberbatch plays it cool as spy who helped prevent WWIII

Thriller sticks to Cold War formula in portraying a reluctant British businessman with a knack for passing along secret Soviet intelligence.

A British businessman (Benedict Cumberbatch, right) is smuggling top-secret documents provided by a rogue Russian intelligence officer (Merab Ninidze) in “The Courier.”

If there’s such a thing as a Cold War Comfort Movie and let’s say there is, “The Courier” fits the bill perfectly, ticking off many of the familiar boxes of the genre:

  • Based on true events, with the expected epilogue showing us photos of the real-life people and telling us what happened to them after the end of this story.
  • An international cast of renowned actors playing Brits, Americans and Russians.
  • Scenes of vodka-swilling Russians and whisky-sipping Brits, most of whom are smoking because that’s what everybody did in the mid-20th century. (One reason listed for the PG-13 rating is “smoking throughout,” and they’re not kidding about that part.)
  • The obligatory Ominous Visit from the KGB, where a smiling, respectful agent can scarcely refrain from baring his teeth as he makes it clear he’s got his eye on you, oh does he ever have his eye on you.
  • Pulse-pounding scenes of documents being exchanged and borders being crossed with the fate of the world at stake, interspersed with domestic moments of our hero at home, as his loyal but increasingly worried wife questions why he is keeping secrets from her, and his adoring son wonders why dad has to go on so many business trips and is hardly present even when they finally do go on holiday.

Directed with economic efficiency by Dominic Cooke, with a screenplay by Tom O’Connor that echoes the works of John le Carre, Graham Greene and Tom Clancy, “The Courier” features fine work from Benedict Cumberbatch as an exceedingly average businessman turned reluctant spy for MI6; Angus Wright as the British agent and Rachel Brosnahan as the American operative who team up to recruit Cumberbatch;, and Merab Ninidze in the film’s most electric performance as one Col. Oleg Penkovsky, a much admired and decorated Soviet military intelligence officer who became so alarmed by Soviet Union premier Nikita Khrushchev’s warmongering strategies he risked his life and the life of his family by funneling top-secret information to the Brits in the hopes it would prevent nuclear war.

When we meet Cumberbatch’s Greville Wynne, he’s a fairly successful British businessman with a proper British mustache — the kind of guy you’d barely notice if he was sitting across from you on a train. Wynne’s a glad-handing sort who enjoys a drink perhaps a little too much, is a bit of a workaholic and is devoted to his wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) and their young son Andrew (Keir Hills). His very ordinariness is what motivates his old friend Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) to recruit him to meet with Col. Penkovsky in the Soviet Union under the guise of expanding business between the two countries, when in fact he’d be bringing back documents and photos from Penkovsky.

Wynne is gobsmacked. He’s known him for years but is just now learning Dickie is actually a spy — and by the way, the American woman he brought to lunch is CIA operative Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan), who comes bearing reassurances she will make sure Wynne and his family are kept safe and will facilitate defection for Penkovsky and HIS family when the time comes. Nothing to worry about, old chum! Just slip the documents and photos into your briefcase when you leave the Soviet Union, and hand ‘em over to the Brits and the Americans, and we just might be able to avoid the Cuban Missile Crisis literally exploding into World War III.

Cumberbatch is magnificent as Wynne gradually transforms from reluctant, mild-mannered errand boy to a coolly efficient, increasingly brazen and doggedly dedicated amateur spy, capable of creative ad-libbing in tight situations as he develops a genuine friendship and trust with Penkovsky, who is heartbroken he has to become a traitor to his beloved homeland but is convinced he’s doing the right thing. The men even meet each other’s families, with their wives and children believing they’re just two businessmen who have become friendly when in reality they’re partners in an increasingly dangerous ongoing mission that could save millions of lives but result in both either going to prison or being executed. There’s even room for an interlude where the two men see a Russian ballet troupe performing “Swan Lake” — a classic Cold War Movie Moment.

Of course, we already know how the tense standoff between the United States and the Soviets played out in the early 1960s — but most of us likely didn’t know the stories of Wynne and Penkovsky, who were from opposite ends of the political world but worked together to help prevent a global war. “The Courier” is a worthy tribute to these two good men.