[Screen It]


(2021) (Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze) (PG-13)

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Drama: An ordinary British salesman is recruited by British and American spy agencies to transport top-secret photos of Soviet nuclear war plans -- given to him by a military intelligence officer -- out of Russia.

It's the early 1960s and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev is stepping up his rabble-rousing regarding Russia's nuclear might, all of which has military veteran and current military intelligence colonel Oleg Penkovsky (MERAB NINIDZE) concerned. With a wife and daughter he wants to protect, he sees nuclear war with America as inevitable unless he does something, and thus sets out to get government and military plans out to the West. That's garnered the attention of CIA agent Emily Donovan (RACHEL BROSNAHAN) and her MI6 counterpart, Dickie Franks (ANGUS WRIGHT), who realize they must proceed with caution lest anything they do alert the KGB of Oleg's desires and actions.

Accordingly, they convince British salesman Greville Wynne (BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH) to serve as the courier for what Oleg is offering, with Greville to work under the pretense of wanting to expand his business operations into Russia. But he can't let anyone know of his new mission, including his wife, Sheila (JESSIE BUCKLEY), or their 10-year-old son, Andrew (KEIR HILLS).

As Greville and Oleg begin their risky endeavor, the two men form a friendship, all while realizing they must watch everything they do and say as Oleg begins taking photos of secret plans and gets them to Greville who transports them back to Emily and Dickie.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10

When it comes to unsung heroes, there are those that operate on a smaller scale, such as going above and beyond the call of duty to help those in their community, often when doing so has nothing to do with their normal job. You know, like those who help underserved youth stay on the straight and narrow by mentoring or setting up programs to help those in need.

Other such heroes sometimes work on far grander scales, at least in terms of the scope of what they manage to accomplish and thus the elimination of severe consequences had they not gotten involved. Such folks are usually government types who thwart the bad guys from doing bad things, with few if any of the rest of us knowing just how close we came to calamity.

In rare instances, civilians end up doing the same, and such is the case with Greville Wynne, an otherwise unremarkable Brit who ended up helping the early 1960s world from going up in nuclear war flames. Never heard of him? Me neither, at least until I saw his story told in "The Courier," a well-made and terrifically performed drama that works despite us knowing how things ultimately played out concerning the real-life events of that era.

In this "based on true events" offering from writer Tom O'Connor and director Dominic Cooke, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Wynne, a British engineer and businessman who's cherry picked by CIA agent Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) and MI6 operative Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) to serve as the titular figure in smuggling top-secret files -- or, more accurately, photos thereof -- out of Moscow and back to those western spy agencies.

The concern is that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's rabble-rousing is keeping people in the know awake at night, including one of Khrushchev's top men, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), who'd really appreciate raising his kid (with another on the way) in something other than a nuclear Armageddon setting. Accordingly, he's gotten word out to someone at the American embassy in Moscow of his willingness to leak sensitive info, knowing full well if he's caught, he'll likely end up with a bullet in the head like another traitor of recent.

Doing the old "Star Trek" bit of the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the one, he throws caution to the wind, which also holds true for Wynne -- who's married to Sheila (Jessie Buckley) with whom he has a 10-year-old son -- albeit reluctantly at first. But a little cautionary "pep talk" by Emily -- about the four-minute warning before a Russian nuke would obliterate London and thus his ability to say goodbye to his wife or boy -- gets him on board and he suddenly finds himself playing his own version of spy games.

Again, despite knowing that things ultimately played out to our collective advantage -- and assuming that those behind the camera aren't going to pull an alternate reality switcheroo on us -- Cooke manages to keep the tension level high while occasionally squeezing it tighter and tighter. The result is a gripping drama where you care about the characters (enhanced by the strong performances) and are engaged from start to finish.

In the annals of unsung heroes, the real-life Greville Wynne certainly deserves kudos, and while whatever limited attention he might have received at the time has waned into obscurity, he gets his due and then some in this solid dramatic thriller. "The Courier" delivers the goods and thus rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed March 15, 2021 / Posted March 19, 2021

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