The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis is perceived chiefly as a conflict between the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union, specifically John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. But in The Courier, the new historical suspense-drama from director Dominic Cooke (On Chesil Beach), we’re reminded of the role of the little guy.
That guy, specifically, is Greville Wynne, a British businessman recruited by MI6. The British spy organization, working with the CIA, wanted Wynne to travel to the USSR and contact Oleg Penkovsky, a high-ranking Russian official looking to smuggle valuable information to the West. Though Wynne was a civilian, his company’s contacts with Eastern Europe and his anonymity allowed him to maneuver within Russia freely and without suspicion, at least initially.
“I’m just a salesman,” Wynne tells the CIA, in the film’s fictionalized first encounter with the agency.
“Exactly. An ordinary salesman with no connection to the government,” the agent responds.
And when things turn dicey, Penkovsky encourages his new American confidante: “Every moment you’re in Moscow, you will be selling one thing — the idea that you are an ordinary businessman and nothing more.”
Portraying Wynne is a sympathetic and relatable Benedict Cumberbatch. In his and Cooke’s hands, the script — by Tom O’Connor — becomes a slightly darker and more true-to-life version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, by Alfred Hitchcock, who understood the effectiveness of throwing an everyman into peril. This version might instead be called The Man Who Was Asked to Do Too Much and Never Got Credit because, as is the norm with classified tales like this, the full details are rarely divulged. At least Wynne is now receiving thanks from a new generation in a very public — if Hollywoodized — way.
Among the talented supporting cast are Jessie Buckley (Wild Rose, I’m Thinking of Ending Things) as Wynne’s wife, Angus Wright (Official Secrets) as an MI6 agent, Merab Ninidze (Homeland) as Penkovsky and Rachel Brosnahan (House of Cards, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) as Emily Donovan, Wynne’s CIA contact. Though Brosnahan is as compelling as always, her part doesn’t quite fit, which is unsurprising considering it’s fictional.
Speaking about the decision to add the character, which is a composite of the men working on the case, O’Connor said (in the production notes released to the press), “Emily is fictional, in the sense that at the time, the officers who worked on this operation were all men. We felt casting another male wasn't the most compelling version of the story to tell these days. We decided it would be more interesting to have the American, the CIA officer, be a woman.”
The Courier, of course, isn’t a documentary. At least that would be the response of those who don’t mind fictional dalliances or argue for gender-balanced casting. As for me, these departures sometimes smell of contrivance and make me yearn for a documentary version, or perhaps either the 1985 BBC television series or the 2007 BBC television docudrama on the same subject.
O’Connor’s version even goes so far as to juice up the Wynne marriage with the backstory of a marital affair, though, admittedly, an affair is a good metaphor for top-secret espionage. And, ironically, Wynne himself, in two books, apparently embellished his own story by claiming that his undercover work dated back to World War II.
These nitpicks aside, The Courier is eminently watchable, even occasionally compelling, but it never fully captures the scope of its unlikely narrative and also feels truncated. Indeed, the most dramatic part of Wynne’s predicament is confined to a small handful of scenes toward the end. But Cumberbatch is a good match for the story, and the story a good match for the big screen. It might have benefited from a lighter touch — something akin to Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! — and it does initially flirt with humor. But turning to dramedy would have further mangled the truth and inexcusably compromised Wynne’s legacy.
Announcing the quarantine of Cuba on Oct. 22, 1962, President Kennedy said, “The path we have chosen for the present is full of hazards, as all paths are, but it is the one most consistent with our character and courage.”
Turns out a lowly English salesman named Greville possessed similar character and courage.