Back Rowe Reviews
Real Time Movie Reviews from the Back Row of a Theater

July 2021

The Courier (PG-13)

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Directed by: Benedict Cumberbatch
Starring: Dominic Cooke
March 2021



Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The Cold War heats up in this political thriller from director Dominic Cooke (
On Chesil Beach).

A Russian spy, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), secretly believes Soviet leader Khrushchev’s (Vladimir Chuprikov) policies and rhetoric have become too aggressive (“…we…will…bury them!”), and that he shouldn’t be in control of an arsenal of nuclear weapons. Penkovsky sends a message to MI6 in London, outlining his plan to relay top secret information to British Intelligence in exchange for extraction from Russia.

In a bold move, MI6’s Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and CIA agent Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) recruit a British businessman, Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), to establish contact with Penkovsky. Wynne flies to Russia on a business trip to meet Penkovsky, and the two men begin an association that will lead them into ever greater intrigue and danger.

I’d love to tell you more of the plot, but then I’d have to kill you…and I like you. So I won’t.

There are two reasons I wanted to see this film:

1. Though it doesn’t directly deal with the conflict, the subject of the movie is the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. This is a personal historical event for me since my father served aboard a destroyer that was part of the blockade (his ship turned its large deck gun on a Russian U-boat, which promptly tucked tail and headed back to the U.S.S.R.).

2. The movie stars Cumberbatch, whom I esteem as one of the finest actors of our generation. His acting in the film has further reinforced that opinion. Not only is Cumberbatch’s performance finely-nuanced, his Tom Hanks (
Philadelphia and Cast Away) and Christian Bale (The Machinist) style emaciation is startling.

So, have you seen this movie before under different guises? Yes.

Penkovsky’s plan to leave Russia is reminiscent of Marko Ramius’ (Sean Connery) intention to defect from Russia to the U.S. on the eponymous nuclear submarine in
The Hunt for Red October (1990). Another similarity between these films is Penkovsky’s desire to live in Montana; the same state Captain Borodin (Sam Neill) wants to live in after he’s defected from Russia in the Red October.

Of course, a more recent touchstone for this film is Steven Spielberg’s
Bridge of Spies (2015). In that movie, American insurance lawyer, Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) is sent to Berlin to mediate the exchange of an American pilot for a captured Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance).

There are many parallels between
The Courier and Bridge of Spies. Both films are set during the Cold War and both are based on real events. Also, both Wynne and Donovan are hardworking everymen with no prior espionage experience. They both befriend a Russian spy, albeit for completely different reasons. Both men step up to the challenge (lesser men simply wouldn’t have gotten involved) and exhibit courage in the face of danger.

The entire thrust of the movie is about spying. Not only are Penkovsky and Wynne spying against the Russians, the Russians are spying on themselves. This fills the film with a pervasive paranoia.

It also provides a stark contrast with the scenes in London, where there isn’t the same feeling of anxiety that’s present in the scenes that take place in Russia. It’s the difference between a nation spying on its enemies (Great Britain) versus a country spying on its enemies
and it own citizens (Russia).

Sadly, we’ve had a long litany of spying in America. We’ve gone from spying on our neighbors (the Red Scare), to spying on political adversaries (the Watergate scandal), to spying on terrorists in our midst (the Patriot Act), to spying on individuals (Carter Page), to spying on the masses (hackers and social media platforms).

The script by Tom O’Connor is a slow-boil political yarn in the vein of
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), which also featured Cumberbatch in its cast. For those who enjoy a well-structured plot with riveting intrigue and mild action, this film is for you. Those who prefer more action in their spy film (a la James Bond) might be disappointed by this movie’s slow start and deliberate pacing throughout.

Cooke’s sure-handed direction is further abetted by Sean Bobbitt’s crisp, moody cinematography. Though many of its scenes take place indoors, the film makes excellent use of its Prague and London locations. Most of the on location work was shot under overcast skies, which further enhances the film’s melancholy mood.

At first glance, you probably wouldn’t consider this is a buddy movie, but Penkovsky and Wynne (just like Donovan and Abel in
Bridge of Spies) forge an unlikely partnership that leads to a sacrificial friendship.

When the KGB begins to close in on Penkovsky, Wynne tells Franks and Donovan, “I’m not leaving him.” Wynne flies to Russia to help extract Penkovsky at great personal risk. Penkovsky and Wynne are willing to die in order to protect the secrets that can save millions of lives.

In the final analysis,
The Courier features deft direction, top-shelf writing and fine performances. It’s a finely mounted period piece that superbly captures the Cold War milieu.

Aside from these artistic considerations, the film recalls one of the most dangerous periods in history and leaves us with some nagging questions regarding the nature of spying.

It also spotlights courage and friendship. Penkovsky tells Wynne, “Maybe we’re only two people…but this is how things change.”

That haunting line is the heart of the film and begs the question: If these two men from enemy countries could work together for the common good, why can’t our politicians find consensus to solve the many pressing challenges currently facing our nation?


Rating: 3 out of 4