While For All Mankind gives a fictional look at the Cold War, The Courier provides an honest portrayal. History vs Hollywood informs that the film is a mostly accurate story of a businessman recruited to smuggle documents out of the USSR. Just how successful was he? Some 5,000 military documents and the disclosure of 300 Soviet assets reach the West as a result of the work of this salesman. Was it dangerous? MI6 and the CIA tell The Courier that if the work was dangerous, “you’d be the last person we’d send.” They lied. In a prophetic line most likely written in Hollywood, Sheila Wynne tells her husband, “Do stay out of the gulag, darling.”
Smartly written, extremely well-acted, perfectly shot, The Courier oozes the darkness of the Cold War period. Nikita Khruhschev, Premier of the USSR, announces to the world that “the home of the imperialists will come to an end. We will bury them.” Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, head of the State Committee for Scientific Research, thinks Khrushchev is “impulsive, chaotic. No one like him should be put in charge of nuclear weapons.” If the Americans have missiles in Turkey aimed at the USSR, why shouldn’t the Soviets respond in kind in Cuba? An unassuming salesman finds himself in a crisis that brings the world to the brink of war. I give The Courier 4.0 Gavels and it receives an 87% Rotten Tomatoes rating with a 7.1/10 IMDb score.
In 1960, Col. Penkovsky passes a message to American tourists to deliver to the American embassy. “For peace, not war,” he is willing to work with the Americans. Codenamed Ironbark, the CIA needs the assistance of MI6 to establish contact. The CIA proposes a businessman. MI6 selects Greville Wynn. Will Penkovsky and Wynne be able to easily travel back and forth between Moscow and London? The KGB won’t suspect anything. After all, it’s Penkovsky’s job to steal Western technology. Still, Greville is told “assume everyone you meet is KGB, assume every room is bugged, and be aware that the KGB uses lip readers.”
MI6 describes Greville Wynne as out-of-shape, drinks too much, and with a wholly unimpressive background. As such Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange, 1917) fits him to a T. If you’ve never seen Jessie Buckley in Wild Rose, you are in for a treat. Here, as Sheila, her part is not as meaningful, but she’s excellent at her craft. Rachel Brosnahan (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) can’t get out of the 60’s, but who would want that? Her Emily Donovan, CIA agent, is a composite. Through no fault of Ms. Brosnahan, her character is the only weak link in the film. Just seen in Without Remorse, if you need a Russian, hire a Georgian-born Merab Ninidze. His performance is the equal of that of Cumberbatch.
The Courier refers to the Popov disaster which causes the CIA to have few assets in Moscow, thus the need for MI6 help. Pyotr Popov was a double agent for the US from 1953 until dismissed from the GRU in 1958. Executed as a traitor in 1960, he was the first to tell the US that they had a leak in the U-2 spy plane program.
History also tells us that the Soviets knew of Penkovsky’s activities one year before his arrest. They didn’t arrest him because they didn’t want to expose their mole, NSA employee, Jack Dunlap. Imagine how important he was to the Soviets if they let Penkovsky reveal the location of Cuban missile sites.
Finally, Greville is exchanged for Russian spy, Konon Molody. Molody assumed the identity of a deceased Finnish citizen, then posed as a Canadian businessman. In the US, he aided atomic spy Rudolph Abel. In England, he received information the Harry Houghton, clerk for Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment.
“A sometimes-riveting old-fashioned spy thriller that is occasionally reminiscent of the fictional works of John Le Carre and Len Deighton.” ReelViews
As the Smithsonian Magazine points out, Wynne’s post-release exaggerations put many of his claims in question. In any case, there is no question that the Wynne-Penkovsky partnership made a difference in the history of US-USSR relations.