Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 6, 2021)
With 2020’s The Courier, we get a historical drama. Based on true events, it takes us back to the early 1960s.
As the Cold War threatens to turn hot via nuclear catastrophe, Soviet official Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) seeks to pass secrets to Western powers. If US authorities learn of the behind-the-scenes issues under Premier Nikita Kruschchev (Vladimir Chuprikov), Penkovsky hopes that the apocalypse can be averted.
When a joint CIA/MI6 force learns of Penkovsky’s willingness to transmit this information, they need to find a way to get the material to/from the USSR without detection. They choose an unusual intermediary: Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), a middle-class British businessman.
Wynne initially resists this gig, but CIA agent Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) appeals to his desire to prevent nuclear war. Wynne finds himself in a sticky spot as he works with Penkovsky and tries to avoid detection by Soviet authorities.
Going into Courier, I entered with fairly high expectations. For one, it got strong reviews, and for another, the topic and genre appealed to me.
I’ve long been a student of 20th century history, and the early 60s Cold War – with the barely averted calamity of the Cuban Missile Crisis – definitely fascinates me. I wasn’t born until a few years later, so a potentially cataclysmic event so close to my creation seems particularly relevant. A few bombs drop and I never exist!
Even without that semi-personal connection, Courier simply sounded like it should offer a taut, tense thriller – and it should. Unfortunately, much of the time, it doesn’t.
Much of the problem stems from pacing and tone. Courier evolves as a fairly slow rate, and it takes quite a while to develop any sense of tension.
Granted, this makes some sense, as the story shouldn’t start out at the proverbial “11”. Matters should heat up slowly until they eventually come to a boil.
Nonetheless, Courier shows a notable lack of urgency for too much of its running time. The events develop in a way that make us disconnected from potential threats or dangers to a large degree.
As such, Courier can feel oddly bloodless. The characters often speak of the risks but the movie rarely makes us feel them.
The film comes with odd stabs at drama as well. For instance, in one scene, Wynne finds an Russian dictionary on his desk.
Presumably someone placed it there to indicate they suspect his “secret agent” status, but this makes no sense. Why wouldn’t a British guy who often works in the USSR have a dictionary to aid with translations?
While obviously talented, Cumberbatch often comes across as a chilly actor, and that makes his version of Wynne hard to embrace. For this story to work, we need to invest in the lead’s fate, and we do – kind of.
But not as much as we should. Because Cumberbatch’s performance keeps us at arm’s length, we don’t invest in his journey as much as we should.
Admittedly, the movie’s third act helps redeem matters. I’ll not reveal what happens in the interest of spoiler avoidance, but Courier finally finds its sense of drama and emotion during its final portion.
Unfortunately, it feels like a hard climb to get there, as too much of the preceding material lacks great impact. Courier delivers a well-meaning and professional film but not one that fulfills its goals.