This Cold War spy thriller could have come from the pen (typewriter? Word-processor?) of John Le Carre, except that it’s true.
In a nutshell, the story is that two brave men – one an English businessman and the other a senior Russian military intelligence officer – risked life and liberty to save the world from a nuclear war.
The story starts in 1962, when the Soviet Union secretly installed nuclear missiles in Cuba. American spy planes have already spotted them, but when the British embassy in Moscow is approached by a Soviet source with information about Russian military plans, they and the Americans are desperate to find out more about what Khrushchev, who’s been rattling sabres and threatening to ‘bury the West’, is capable of.
They must tread very carefully, because their last Russian mole has just been summarily executed for being a CIA spy. What they need is someone outside the spy network whose presence won’t attract suspicion. They find Greville Wynne – a businessman who sells office equipment to the Eastern bloc and travels there regularly. Wynne, played to his usual perfection by Benedict Cumberbatch, is a congenial man who likes a drink, qualities which have served him well in his dealings with the Russians.
He’s a bit reluctant, a bit fearful for himself and his family, but in the end he succumbs to the pitch that he’ll be helping to save his country and the free world.
He gets to Moscow and eventually makes contact with Oleg Penkovsky, the highly-placed Russian military officer whose own motivations are essentially idealistic. Penkovsky is convinced that Khrushchev’s blustering and boasting will lead his country into an unwinnable nuclear war, and he’s in a position to know. Using Wynne as a courier he manages to arm the West with the information it needs to call Khrushchev’s bluff and, eventually, to defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. In return, he asks for and is promised passage to the West for him and his family.
(I won’t reveal here his eventual fate – you can always look it up – but Penkovsky became probably the West’s most valuable double agent during the Cold War.)
The Courier tells the story of how these grave and momentous events unfolded from the street-level perspectives of these two men. The exposition is sometimes classic spy genre, such as when Penkovsky first approaches two random young Americans in Moscow to take his message to the British Embassy, and sometimes harrowing, such as when we see Penkovsky’s predecessor summarily shot as a traitor in front of his colleagues.
In counterpoint to the sheer dread of the high-stakes game Penkovsky in particular is playing is the genuine growing friendship between these two men who recognise in each other a basic decency and humanitarian outlook on life.
I hadn’t realised how many westerners went to and from the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. To most of us it was a closed, grim society shrouded in mystery: frightening but a touch exotic too. The film shows how, in Moscow at least, normal life went on under the surface of Soviet control. There’s that typically Russian propensity to ignore physical discomfort in the pursuit of cultural consumption: Russians will endure hours of cold uncomfortable seating (or standing!) to absorb a display of high culture, but the ordeal will be followed by unbridled feasting and vodka-fuelled fellowship rituals. (It’s a practice thar runs deep in Russian history: Peter the Great did it, Stalin did it – they demanded their lieutenants join them in spectacular drinking bouts, on pain of exclusion or sometimes death!)
It won’t surprise anyone who knows me that I absolutely loved The Courier. The spy thriller is my favourite genre, a true one even more so, and my long-standing interest in Russian history puts the icing on the cake of my enjoyment. That said, The Courier is a powerful film in its own right, made with great attention to detail and authenticity.
I left the cinema astonished that this story had never been told before. I’d certainly never heard it. It’s high time that these two courageous men were honoured with the telling of it.