It was nice to be back at the movie theater this last weekend. The joy was enhanced by the fact that I had spent the previous week seeing an awful set of movies, featuring the painfully repetitive Hotel Transylvania trilogy. In between, I was reminded of the great shows that used to make the Public Broadcasting Service (did you know that is what PBS stood for?) destination television. Whenever they need money, PBS reminds its audience that they once showed Downton Abbey. I loved that show, and my Facebook memories occasionally bring me the fun ways I used to announced my excitement to watch it. Another PBS offering that glued me to my seat on Sunday nights around the same time Downton Abbey was airing was Sherlock. It was the vehicle that really introduced Benedict Cumberbatch to the world. I am tempted to review all those episodes as each one is basically a feature length movie. Maybe one day. In the meantime, I am glad to have seen him in films like The Courier.
We tend to think that we are living in a dangerous world these days, but the height of the Cold War was pretty scary, too. Actually, that might be an understatement, and you will see why. Either way, this is the period that is covered by The Courier. After World War II, the world became divided between East and West, so-called communism and so-called capitalism, in short, between the Soviet Union and the United States. Even shorter, this was the Cold War. The film picks up in the early 1960s where the respective countries’ leaders, Nikita Khrushchev (Vladimir Chuprikov, who looked remarkably like the former Soviet premier) and John F. Kennedy, played a nuclear chess match against each other. The film focuses on the Soviet side of this struggle, and specifically a highly placed official named Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze). He is a beloved former soldier during World War II, and now in charge of trade. However, he sees Khrushchev as dangerous to world peace, and seemingly taking his country towards nuclear annihilation. His solution is to begin revealing Russian nuclear secrets to the West. Once word gets to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of this potential new source of information, they need to figure out a way of getting to it. Because of the political situation, Agent Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) decides to approach the British intelligence service, MI-6, for assistance. In order to not raise any further suspicion, they turn to a businessman with no connection to espionage to get the information they need. Enter Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), a debonaire salesman with ties to Eastern Europe. Initially, he wants no part of it, thinking it was going to be dangerous. But, they assure him that if it was truly risky, they would not send him. As he begins to build his connections with the Soviets with a bogus trade mission, a strong connection develops between Wynne and Penkovsky. While Wynne is carrying state secrets given him by Penkovsky, they also meet each other’s families. Unfortunately, the Soviets eventually learn of Penkovsky’s activities. Wynne travels one last time to the Soviet Union in order to help his friend defect, but it ends with both of them being arrested. Though Wynne was aware of what he was doing, he maintains plausible deniability despite being starved and tortured. After spending over a year in a Russian prison (which basically says it all), Wynne’s release is effected and he returns home. Unfortunately, Penkovsky is executed. However, his information is crucial in preventing a nuclear disaster during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Espionage is a messy business that you seldom hear anything about unless it is years after the fact. After all, the events of The Courier happened sixty years ago. Clearly that is the subject of the film, but it is also a spy thriller with a heart. There is a touching scene towards the end where Penkovsky is brought in during one of Wynne’s interrogations in order to try and break the would-be British agent. Instead, they share a moment when the Russian reminds his friend that he was just a courier, and Wynne tells him that his information prevented nuclear war. As it turns out, this meeting never happened. Still, it was nice to see that Penkovsky’s sacrifice made an impact. His act also brings up a moral conundrum: when is it okay to lie? As Christians, we are to never to tell an untruth. I appreciate moments in other films, like in Kingdom of Heaven (2005), when Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) gives his son Balian (Orlando Bloom) the knight’s oath. Part of that vow is to never lie, even in the face of death. In The Courier, Wynne and Penkovsky face that very choice. It involves concealing their activities not only from governments, but from their families. It is a difficult decision that drives much of the tension in the film, particularly for Wynne whose wife, Sheila (Jessie Buckley), suspects him of having an affair. At the same time, their illicit deeds prevent millions of deaths. How does one maintain moral rectitude in such situations, or, as another part of the oath in Kingdom of Heaven goes, to “be . . . upright, that God may love thee?” That is at the heart of my own daily prayers, to grow closer to God who is love. When we sin, though, it is a step away from God. So, how can a sin like lying be a good thing? I could go on philosophizing about the subject. In the end, it is God who not only judges outward actions, but also the intent behind them. That is good enough for me. Obviously, The Courier brings up a tricky situation, though everyone is faced with moments where they believe telling a “white lie” will do more good than harm. Personally, I try to steer clear of such things, and tell the truth as nicely as possible no matter how hard it is to say. Luckily, I am not a spy.
The Courier is rated PG-13, though I cannot imagine the entire family enjoying it together. Unlike the James Bond franchise, most spy movies are slow moving. They rely on the uncertainty of whether or not that person is going to get caught to keep people interested. The Courier is no different. What makes it better are the performances, particularly Cumberbatch’s. I pine for his Sherlock days and get by with him playing Dr. Strange, but in the meantime we have solid pieces like The Courier to sustain us.