Opening March 19 in select theaters, “The Courier” brings a whole new meaning to the term “don’t shoot the messenger.”
Starring Emmy winners Benedict Cumberbatch and Rachel Brosnahan, the Cold War drama based on true events screened a lifetime ago at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Then dubbed “Ironbark,” the film tells the story of how an ordinary businessman assisted MI6 in obtaining intelligence about the Soviet Union in the early 1960s.
Russian informant Oleg Penkovsky (codename Ironbark, played by Merab Ninidze) has been filtering information from the Kremlin to UK and US intelligence officials through the hands of a seemingly innocent British businessman, Greyville Wynne (Cumberbatch). The events leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis frame the narrative for the film, written by Tom O’Conner and directed by Dominic Cooke. With impressive imagery that makes it more artful than most spy genre films, “The Courier” tells an unbelievable, compelling true story with heartbreaking intensity.
Cumberbatch brings the same signature humanity he exudes in other real-life roles, but Wynne is altogether unique from his previous Oscar-nominated portrayal of code-breaker Alan Turing, or the bullheaded inventor Thomas Edison. But his raw depiction of internal conflict is the same, which makes the audience care deeply what happens to him, despite lulls in the plot.
Highland Park native Brosnahan is steady as Emily Donovan, a determined U.S. diplomat who arranges Wynne’s meetings with Ironbark. The men’s work together leads to an unexpected friendship that propels the story forward, to surprising and sometimes painful-to-watch places.
In a pandemic era that feels like its own form of wartime, with sides and death and sacrifice, “The Courier” also has the benefit of feeling relevant. Especially when audiences are forced to consider Wynne’s sacrifice – the risk he took to help other people who lived in daily fear of nuclear war.
Despite its lulls, Cooke’s film just might restore your faith in how ordinary people can make the world better – especially during a crisis. With slogans like “Stay Home, Save Lives” feeling incredibly distant in the rearview mirror of this year, Wynne and Cumberbatch’s portrayal are good reminders that you don’t have to be a government official or superhero to do something special with your life. Even if it means undergoing temporary suffering for the greater good. Even if you’re “just the messenger” – that’s worth something.