BAXTER — It’s been said that heroes are just ordinary people doing the best they can in extraordinary circumstances.
By that measure, British businessman Greville Wynne could be called a real-life hero for his actions during the Cold War in the 1960s. His courageous and covert acts are the basis of “The Courier” starring Benedict Cumberbatch, now playing at the Lakes 12 Theatre in Baxter.
Wynne is a reluctant and unassuming businessman recruited by MI6 and a CIA operative to make contact with a Soviet officer willing to spy on his countrymen to avert a nuclear war.
Cumberbatch as Wynne escapes initial detection by the KGB but finds himself a nervous wreck in his private life as tries to maintain his calm during the real high-stakes game of life-or-death.
The ordinary businessman’s facade is always in danger of cracking in the former Soviet Union and its ever-present communist regime’s scrutiny of the outsider is almost unbearable.
Wynne was recruited by the foreign intelligence service of the United Kingdom for his frequent business trips to Eastern Europe before he became a courier for top-secret information.
But the befuddled Wynne is not some super-suave spy like the fictitious James Bond of Britain’s MI6 but a capitalist who comes to place national security above personal financial gain.
The Russian Oleg Penkovsky informs the U.K. through Wynne about the Soviet placement of missiles in Cuba, which U.S. President John F. Kennedy considered tantamount to an act of war given the communist island country’s close proximity to Florida’s coast.
The true story of the pair of family men working together to provide classified documents to the West to avert a nuclear showdown by defusing the Cuban missile crisis is a truly harrowing tale.
The PG-13 thriller is also a personal story of friendship between Wynne and Penkovsky, the Soviet military intelligence colonel who offers to provide the intelligence in the first place.
Directed by relative newcomer Dominic Cooke from a story by another relative newbie Tom O'Connor, the screenplay almost writes itself with its truth-is-more-fascinating-than-fiction plot.
“The Courier” had its world premiere under its original title “Ironbark” at the Sundance Film Festival in January of last year but was not released in the United States until March 19.
The period drama about the civilian-turned-spy and his Russian counterpart-turned-friend, who was given the codename “Ironbark,” works on a personal level as President John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, the former premier of the Soviet Union, stand off against one another.
Cumberbatch undergoes a physical and spiritual transformation of sorts in the movie — from a somewhat befuddled, reluctant recruit whose self-serving ways come to pale in comparison to what his country is asking him to do as a public service and for the greater good of mankind.
The compelling Cold War thriller begins with the execution of another Soviet spy — an execution in front of Penkovsky and others — so Penkovsky is well-aware of what might happen if he is caught cooperating with those that Khrushchev considers the Soviet Union’s enemies.
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“Maybe we are only two people,” Penkovsky later tells an understandably nervous Wynne during one of their many so-called business meetings. “But this is how things change.”
“Maybe we are only two people. But this is how things change.”
— Col. Oleg Penkovsky, a Soviet military intelligence officer who spied for the West
Penkovsky is played by Merab Ninidze, who was born in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR. Audiences may recognize the CIA operative played by Rachel Brosnahan from her role in the Amazon Prime Video series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
“The Courier” is Cumberbatch’s third major motion picture involving British intelligence, and the second to be set during the Cold War. He previously appeared in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” in 2011 and “The Imitation Game” in 2014.
“The Courier” holds a laudable 84% approval rating among critics and a 97% approval rating among audiences at Rotten Tomatoes, a review-aggregation website for film and television.
“‘The Courier’ delivers a rousingly effective old-school spy adventure elevated by a thrilling fact-based story and Benedict Cumberbatch’s nervy central performance,” according to the critics’ consensus on Rotten Tomatoes.