CALLERI: It’s spy helping spy in new Cold War-era thriller

Benedict Cumberbatch (left), Angus Wright, and Rachel Brosnahan star in the new spy drama, “The Courier.” (Lionsgate)

The Cold War was an era of hostile diplomacy between the United States and the Soviet Union, and their respective allies, that lasted from 1947, with the start of the Truman Doctrine, to 1991, with the theoretical end of Communist Party rule in Russia.

President Harry Truman’s edict called for resisting Soviet expansionism around the world. It was a banner period for espionage and a dangerous time for spying.

In Washington D.C., Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin saw Communists in every cloak room in the U. S. State Department and in every closet in Hollywood. In Moscow, Nikita Khruschev held the title of First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964 and threatened to bury the West.

Into this Cold War mix of volatile egos, military expansionism, and children practicing for atomic bombs being dropped by ducking for cover under their desks, a very real danger arose. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, also known as “13 days in October” (the 16th through the 29th), had people fearing that Armageddon was a dangerous diplomatic mistake away.

The Soviets were placing missiles in Cuba capable of carrying nuclear warheads; some allegedly aimed at Niagara Falls’ electric power generating capabilities and points in between. The lights wouldn’t just go out in Georgia, they’d go out everywhere else in the United States. And because the U.S. would have to retaliate, the lights would also go out in Russia and in that other Georgia.

“Thirteen Days,” a good movie from 2000 about this historical event, focuses on how President John F. Kennedy and his team faced the crisis. And we know from another political thriller, “Bridge Of Spies,” from 2015, why spying was a vital cog in international events.

The new movie is called “The Courier.” It details international spying in a way that satisfies as cinema, even if a generation of moviegoers may think it’s a little bit old-fashioned. You know what, sometimes old-fashioned is good.

I like spy thrillers, and one of the best is director Alfred Hitchcock’s “Foreign Correspondent,” from 1940, which involves Joel McCrea as an American reporter in Europe participating in a continent-wide chase to expose spies in Great Britain as World War II roars into high gear. The film has some terrific set pieces. “Foreign Correspondent” is available on DVD and Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and through some streaming services.

“The Courier,” directed by Dominic Cooke and written by Tom O’Connor, is entertaining and informative and offers a strong central performance from Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s playing in theaters and can be found on VOD and streaming. Don’t confuse it with the “The Courier” from 2019, which is a weak action picture starring Gary Oldman.

In his “The Courier,” Cumberbatch plays an average British businessmen, a likable and successful chap, who finds himself caught up in the spying game. But, not just any spying game. This one has links to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A good businessman has the ability to think on his feet and switch negotiating tactics when necessary. The goal is to close the deal. You have to be a bit of an actor. Anticipating the needs of your potential client in order to sign a contract is essential.

“The Courier” is rooted in the true story of Greville Wynne – how’s that for a spy’s name – an Englishman with extensive business contacts in Soviet controlled Eastern Europe. When a secretive Soviet official (a potential defector named Oleg Penkovsky; played by Merab Ninidze) lets it be known that he wants to communicate with the West, the knowledge enters the domain of CIA agent Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan). Penkovsky is concerned about Khrushchev’s antics and his activities in Cuba.

Donovan’s plan avoids the usual trappings of experience and brawn. She goes for brain and absolutely no experience. Wynne (Cumberbatch) is an espionage amateur from the get-go. Why him? Because he actually does business with Soviet-era businesspeople. He has reasons and permission to cut through the literal and figurative red tape and travel to Moscow.

Don’t think for a second that he isn’t watched by the KGB. However, being in the middle of a Cold War doesn’t mean the economy will be ignored. Russian vodka doesn’t come from Stratford-upon-Avon.

“The Courier” is a suspense thriller delivered in the classic style. I appreciated this. Throughout, there’s the fear of Wynne and the Soviet spying on his own country being discovered. If the potential defector is found out, it’s a permanent Gulag for him.

The movie touches on the mysteries of life in Russia, when, reportedly, people turned in their neighbors for this or that transgression in order to curry favor with the ruling class for some extra food, more money, or even a better apartment.

Cooke’s direction is crisp and solid. He’s created a society that relies on careful nods and glances to communicate. O’Connor’s screenplay is smart and never heavy-handed. I liked the relationship between the young American CIA agent and the middle-aged MI6 chief (Angus Wright), both of whom are thoroughgoing professionals.

“The Courier” is well-acted and offers alluring atmospheric cinematography from Sean Babbitt and a music score by Abel Korzeniowski that is perfect counterpoint to what we’re watching.

The film carefully leads moviegoers through the apocalyptic maze that once controlled the world.

Michael Calleri reviews films for the Niagara Gazette and the CNHI news network. Contact him at

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