THE COURIER (2020)
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley, Angus Wright, Kirill Pirogov, Keir Hills, Zeljko Ivanek, Jonathan Harden, Aleksandr Kotjakovs, Olga Koch, James Schofield, Fred Haig, Emma Penzina, Maria Mironova, Anton Lesser, Charles Walters, Petr Klimes, Benny Maslov, Marián Chalany and Vladimir Chuprikov.
Screenplay by Tom O’Connor.
Directed by Dominic Cooke.
Distributed by Roadside Attractions. 111 minutes. Rated PG-13.
With the resumption of world hostilities with Russia, it was only a matter of time before Cold War spy thrillers came back in vogue – if they ever really went away.
The Courier becomes something of an interesting conundrum – it tells a fascinating, tense, true story, and yet it all feels like something we have seen before. Many, many times. It is an extremely well-made example of this style – and it has the added benefit of being based upon a real incident – but how many times can we sit through this kind of story?
It’s exciting and at the same time it’s kind of dull.
Which is not totally the fault of the film – the actual plan behind the spying campaign was designed to not attract attention and was rather boring by design. Because of that, the exchanges are rather banal and commonplace – one man slipping another man a note in public while in the middle of a small talk conversation about their families or the weather.
In actuality these exchanges were extremely dangerous, taking place in the brutal totalitarian regime of Khrushchev’s Russia, where everyone is watching and getting caught could lead to imprisonment, banishment to Siberia, or death. However, despite the bravery and gravitas of the mission, it’s not exactly a visually stimulating example of spy craft.
Undoubtedly, much of spy work is more like this than the explosive stuff shown in the James Bond, Mission: Impossible and Bourne movies, however there is a reason those series have serious followings and keep getting revisited over the decades. As moviegoers, we want our spies to be put in outlandishly fiendish danger, to fight valiantly, to come up against power-mad villains and gorgeous femme fatales and to save the world in an explosively rousing manner.
The story behind The Courier is much more subtle and cerebral – and like similar films like The Bridge of Spies or The Debt or The Good Shepherd – it gains its dramatic power and tension in smaller, less-action packed moves.
The Courier basically takes a look at the Cuban-missile crisis from the point of view of the British. Khrushchev and Kennedy are sniping at each other, the world is creeping closer to the threat of nuclear war, and a British MI6 agent and an American CIA operative approach a civilian London businessman with business in Russia to contact a Russian operative who has agreed to supply the western governments with classified information because he fears that Khrushchev will cause global nuclear Armageddon.
Like I said, these are some really high stakes. I just wish that The Courier could make this collective global danger feel more immediate, more stimulating.
It does benefit from two great performances at its center. Star Benedict Cumberbatch takes on the second real life military thriller he’s released in about a month, following hot on the heels of The Mauritanian. (That one also was more of a quiet look at international spies, the horrific story of a Middle Eastern man who was held and tortured for nearly twenty years in Guantanamo Bay prison without being charged after the 2001 World Trade Center attacks.)
When Cumberbatch is onscreen the film takes on a tense immediacy, even when what he is doing (again, mostly by design) is rather humdrum. As his Russian counterpoint, Merab Ninidze also easily crosses and double-crosses the line between everyday life and extreme peril, making understandable how a faithful servant of the USSR’s power structure can be pushed to the point where he would betray his long-held beliefs for the good of the world. The movie is worth seeing simply for their interactions.
However, other sidetracks, like the machinations of the ambitious American spy (Rachel Brosnahan of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) and the strain Cumberbatch’s activities put on his marriage tend to bog the story down. They don’t make the movie bad, per se – in fact it is mostly good – but they distract from what is really important here.
With the global stakes so high – still to this day – there is a great deal of importance in looking back at our not-so-distant past. In many ways, The Courier is a well-made and vital porthole into a world that still looms ominously behind us.
I just wish it moved a little more quickly.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2021 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: March 19, 2021.