Dominic Cooke, “The Courier” (2020)
The story of Greville Wynne, a most unlikely character ever to become a spy for MI6 during the Cold War in the early 1960s, shuttling between London and Moscow and ferrying classified Soviet information given him by a military official in the Kremlin that reveals nuclear warfare capabilities to MI6 and the CIA, is given widescreen movie treatment that explores the nature of friendship and loyalty in extreme circumstances. Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) comes to the attention of MI6 and the CIA, represented respectively by handlers Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) as he travels frequently to eastern Europe as a sales representative for an engineering company. Wynne is asked to go to Moscow and contact Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a Soviet military intel official, who will give him papers to bring back to London, in his usual role as sales representative. After initially resisting the offer, Wynne goes ahead to Moscow and meets Penkovsky. A routine is quickly established: Wynne starts making trips to Moscow to catch up with Penkovsky who takes him to the opera and the ballet, and introduces the British man to his family, all the while feeding Wynne with information and photographs that eventually prove valuable to US intelligence and the White House in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. However the Soviets themselves have a mole working in MI6 – there were a number of double agents in British intelligence working for the USSR – and the mole helps the GRU to work out who is passing valuable Soviet secrets to the British. Penkovsky and then Wynne are arrested by the GRU, tried and charged with espionage, and both men are thrown into gaol. Wynne winds up in the then notorious Lubyanka prison where he suffers many privations and beatings over a period of nearly two years before he returns to Britain in 1964 as part of a spy swap.
The film serves mainly as a character study of an ordinary Englishman, initially unremarkable in personality and very apolitical, suddenly thrust into a situation where he eventually is forced to take sides and finds himself capable of heroism to try to save a man he comes to regard as a friend when that man’s life is in danger. In doing so, he is captured and is forced to suffer brutal violence, near-starvation and ill health in prison, subjected to psychological manipulation and not knowing if he has been abandoned by MI6. Cumberbatch does excellent work as Wynne who grows in moral stature through the film even though what he does as a courier is a thankless task – there is no suggestion that MI6 and the CIA reward him for the risks he is exposed to. Indeed MI6 is quite willing to discard Penkovsky and his desire to defect to th West once the GRU (Soviet military intelligence) is onto his trail and only Donovan rallies to Wynne’s side to try to save Penkovsky from arrest and certain death. The suffering Wynne undergoes is matched in the physical rigours Cumberbatch had to undergo including near-starvation to get the haggard look. Unfortunately the film ends at the point where Wynne is released from prison and reunited with wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) and son Andrew (Keir Hill) and we do not see the psychological traumas and other effects – including separation and divorce from Sheila – Wynne suffered, and this perhaps is a grave oversight on the part of the script.
The other actors in the film, and Ninidze in particular, also give very good performances. Buckley does what she can with a very limited role as Wynne’s long-suffering wife. As a sop to current Western identity politics, the character of Donovan is a composite character of several actual CIA and MI6 agents who include a British woman, Janet Chisholm, who also was a conduit for Penkovsky. The cinematography is well done, emphasising the greys of a world of 60 years ago in which black and white were actually not so clear-cut as we think they were, without being remarkable. The scenes set in Moscow or which involve Russians appear very stereotyped and viewers get no real sense of how Russians might have viewed Penkovsky and Wynne after they have been caught and their espionage made public.
The film is well made and fairly faithful to its source material, extracting from it a story about one man’s personal growth and a friendship that transcends politics and the grubby and frequently unethical world of espionage. Still I can’t help but feel that “The Courier” was made largely in the service of current British government propaganda and deliberate disinformation and lies demonising Russia for no reason other than that Russia has been a long-standing rival to British global imperialist and predatory ambitions, and that this context in which the film was made must surely have had some influence on the way the script was written and what may have had to be omitted. While the Americans get what they want to outfox the Soviets on the latter’s deployment of missile bases in Cuba, and the Soviets shut down Penkovsky as a traitor, the British must still be seen to “win” in some way, hence perhaps stopping an interesting story of how espionage was usually done and how unsuspecting ordinary people got roped into spying and ended up paying a price for it, just to achieve that “happy ending”. Intel agencies carry on duelling against each other in spite of the alarming collateral damage they create along the way.