Photo | “The Courier” – 42
Benedict Cumberbatch is riveting as real-life, Cold War sort-of-spy Greville Wynne in “The Courier,” which gives a nuts-and-bolts, behind-the-scenes look at the world-changing drama of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Rachel Brosnahan (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) plays a CIA agent who recruits the innocuous businessman to make contact with a Soviet whose concerns for the future of the globe supersedes his loyalty to Khrushchev and the USSR. Against these well-known historical moments, the actors provide a fascinating personal element by vividly detailing their justifications and motivations for actions, the repercussions of which echo through history.
Greville is chosen for his job as a courier between the CIA and Soviet spy Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) because he is a generic British businessman with no ties to the government. He intentionally loses in golf, drinks heavily and generally yuks it up with his clients like the most average salesman you can imagine, and American agent Emily Donovan (Brosnahan) assures him she and MI6’s Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) would never put so hapless a man as Greville in harm’s way.
Movies with brave, sexy, competent hero types are fun and exciting, but “The Courier” is fascinating because it shows us Cumberbatch as a reluctant, James Bond-type character who gradually finds his grit through a growing sense of duty to a world in danger of nuclear annihilation and a father-to-father bond with Oleg. It’s compelling to see a normal person rise to an extraordinary occasion like that, even if he sweats and vomits his way through it. One of my favorite moments shows Greville initiating a little home exercise regime for himself after he begins his missions. It’s heartrending.
His sudden willingness to do push-ups and leave the country sets off alarms for his wife, Sheila (Jessie Buckley), who is wary due to her husband’s past infidelities. Greville takes his nerves out on their young son, and generally behaves worryingly out of his extremely justified fear of being nabbed by the KGB and thrown in a gulag. Meanwhile, the world trembles on the edge of nuclear war between the U.S. and USSR, and the thousands of pieces of stolen intelligence couriered by a paunchy British salesman control the outcome.
I was glad to see Brosnahan in something new, and while her role was important, it is also fairly straightforward. I would have thought the phenomena of her charming TV show would have seen her in more film roles by now. She does unflashy work here as a no-nonsense CIA agent, determined to get as much as she can out of Greville while going above and beyond to keep him safe.
Most cinematic heroes are impossibly muscular and able to leap from building to building in a single bound, but Cumberbatch, in one of his best performances, gives Greville the superpowers of entertaining clients, holding his liquor and empathizing with a brave and desperate man who wants to defect from Moscow to Montana. It makes for a very relatable hero. Spy cameras, hidden drawers and poisoned cigarettes show up too — this is, after all, a legitimate and exciting spy film. But it is the mundane believability that makes Greville’s heroic actions all the more thrilling, because you can imagine your own doughy, unsophisticated and terrified self in his situation.
“The Courier” is now playing at the Crescent Theater and is available to stream.
New This Week
“Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train”: After completing their rehabilitation training, Tanjiro and his comrades arrive at their next mission on the Mugen Train, where over 40 people have disappeared. Together with one of the most powerful swordsmen of the Demon Slayer Corps, Flame Hashira Kyojuro Rengoku, they face the nightmare on board. All multiplex theaters.
“The Truffle Hunters”: This documentary follows a handful of men, 70 to 80 years young, in Piedmont, Italy, on the search for the elusive Alba truffle. They’re guided by a secret culture passed down through generations, as well as by the noses of their cherished and expertly trained dogs. The film subtly explores the devastating effects of climate change and deforestation on an age-old tradition through a visually stunning narrative that celebrates life and exalts the human spirit. Crescent Theater.
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