*** Out of **** (Three Out of Four Stars)
Not long after it actually began, the Cold War became reliable fodder for feature films and television which continues to this day.
A test of wills and not one of traditional engagements involving the exchange of gunfire on a battlefield, the Cold War still presented the very real threat of nuclear obliteration which, to many people, was far more nerve-wracking.
In virtually all these dramatic presentations, spies, spooks, government officials and military brass on both sides engage in the ultimate form of chess and, to the credit of both the U.S. and the USSR, the world was spared World War III.
One of the rare fact-based productions about the Cold War, "The Courier" (originally titled "Ironbark") examines the relationship between the two men who were instrumental in the behind the scenes operations of what became the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Making this movie all the more historically significant is that it is the third production of the story (the previous being two BBC TV films from 1985 and 2007). More than a few people in key positions have found this tale something worth revisiting.
Within the first 15 minutes, it becomes clear we’re not watching a traditional "spy vs. spy" affair.
The film opens with a fiery speech about his plans regarding the United States being delivered by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (Vladimir Chuprikov) to an auditorium overflowing with enthusiastic sycophant politicians who — when you think about it — had no choice but to appear overjoyed.
The lone exception in the crowd is Oleg Penkovsky (Merhab Ninidze), a longtime member of the KGB who can barely mask his contempt for Khrushchev and his worry of the true consequences of nuclear war. Penkovsky isn’t anti-Soviet or pro-U.S., but rather a patriotic Russian pragmatist who thinks all of the chest-thumping, saber-rattling and blusterous rhetoric is only Khrushchev marking his alpha-male territory.
It is during this portion of the first act that we’re introduced to Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), an English engineer and business man representing an unnamed company hawking non-military machinery and parts to multiple Eastern Bloc countries (but not Russia).
A button-down type with a wife and son, Wynne purposefully sabotages his golf game and laughs at his customer’s bad jokes as to better help with the closing of various deals.
Wynne’s everyman soft touch and ability to blend into the background catches the attention of CIA operative Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) and MI6 executive Dickey Franks (Angus Wright) who (rightfully) believe Wynne would be the perfect candidate for thier new joint mission.
During their getting-to-know-you ambush luncheon with Wynne, Donovan and Franks eventually transform his attitude from horrified, offended and skeptical to grudgingly dutiful, receptive and a way to make up for his lackluster World War II service record.
Above all, the seasoned spies convince Wynne he will not be a spy but rather an unthreatening middle man — a courier, something he already does quite well.
Frequently the weakest link in any movie, the second act here is arguably the best of the three as screenwriter Tim O’Conner and director Dominic Cooke strongly resist the temptation to rev up the pace and bring in unneeded action elements.
As good as they are the nearly dozen or so installments in the "James Bond" franchise taking place in the Cold War and/or featuring KGB characters stretch the boundaries of believability.
They’re immensely fun to watch, but are rooted more in fantasy escapism than a true reflection of real world espionage.
For some viewers, the lack of action and gun fire in a spy flick could equate to tedium and complacency and eventually lead to boredom and indifference.
Make no mistake, this is not another Bond film or the newest installment in the "Jason Bourne" franchise; it’s a slow-boil, character-driven piece with exactly one chase scene — and it is on foot.
It’s also the kind of movie where knowing nothing of the real events taking place after what takes place in the first acts is crucial.
Being aware of how it all ends will all but ruin the viewing experience.
An often overlooked facet of any film is the musical backing score and the best of the lot do exactly that: remain in the background.
Unfortunately that is not the case here.
At first just a mild distraction, Polish composer Abel Korzenioski’s ham-fisted and repetitive accompaniment becomes a major irritant.
This is a story which requires sinister undertones, not bombastic orchestration. It’s a major disappointment for fans of Korzenioski’s previous economical work on the "Penny Dreadful" TV series and his two movies with director Tom Ford ("A Single Man"  and "Nocturnal Animals" ).
Music aside, every other ingredient in "The Courier" makes it a must-see for spy-flick aficionados.
If you like "The Courier" and are looking for other movies containing similar content, check out both "Thirteen Days" (2000) and "The Good Shepherd" (2006).
Presented in English with frequently subtitled Russian.
"The Courier" is now available only in select theaters.
Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national film industry media outlets and is based in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a regular contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on floridamanradio.com. Over the last 25 years, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles and is one of the scant few conservative U.S. movie critics. Read Michael Clark's Reports — More Here.
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