Granger on Film: ‘The Courier’ is one of most compelling Cold War espionage thrillers

Merab Ninidze and Benedict Cumberbatch in"The Courier." (Liam Daniel/Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions)

Merab Ninidze and Benedict Cumberbatch in"The Courier." (Liam Daniel/Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions)

Liam Daniel / TNS

Based on a real-life story, “The Courier,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch, is one of the most compelling Cold War espionage thrillers of recent years. Yet it got lost during the pandemic.

In the early 1960s, blandly unassuming British businessman Grenville Wynne (Cumberbatch) was recruited by MI-6 and CIA operative Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) to form a secret partnership with Soviet official Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) to provide the crucial intelligence necessary to prevent a nuclear confrontation and defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Under the code name “Ironbark,” Col. Penkovsky runs the state committee for scientific research, and he’s become so alarmed by the fast pace of Nikita Khrushchev’s arms race that he offers to pass Russian nuclear secrets to the West: “Krushchev frightens me. He’s impulsive, chaotic…a man like that should not have nuclear commands.”

Having conducted legitimate business in the Eastern Bloc, Wynne’s well-mannered expertise in trading in scientific machinery, puts him in a position that would place him above suspicion.

“Would I be putting myself in danger?” likable Wynne naively inquires at the beginning of his mission.

What no one expected on his many trips from London to Moscow was that Wynne would actually become friends with the high-ranking “mole” Penkovsky. They met each other’s families and developed a warm, caring trust and camaraderie which they plan to continue after Penkovsky’s defection.

“We are only two people,” Penkovsky says, “But this is how things change.”

Originally titled “Ironbark,” it was written by Tom O’Connor and directed by Dominic Cooke (“On Chesil Beach”). It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020. Tension-filled, the script delves into each of the primary characters, keeping the audience emotionally invested in the outcome.

Although the premise is reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” (2015), the acting is remarkably convincing, even totally-change-of-character “Mrs. Maisel” (Brosnahan).

On the Granger Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Courier” is a suspenseful 7 — now available in Redbox kiosks and on Vudu, Fandango and Prime Video.

Susan Granger has been an on-air television and radio commentator and entertainment critic for more than 25 years. Raised in Hollywood, Granger appeared as a child actress in movies with Abbott & Costello, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, and Lassie. She currently resides in Westport.