Every year sees movies that seem primed for awards attention that for one reason or another end up overlooked. The Courier is undoubtedly one of those movies. Premiering way back at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, under the title Ironbark, the film is oddly being released just outside of the eligibility calendar for this year’s award season. Perhaps no matter what it would have been overlooked had it been released among the many contenders that have dominated this year’s extended awards season. It’s hard to imagine that being the case, though, as Dominic Cooke’s espionage thriller based on true events ticks off so many of the Academy’s favorite boxes, and does it well.
Set during the Cold War, Cooke’s film (written by Tom O’Connor) tells the story of two men who worked together to prevent impending nuclear war and help defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. One of them, a man who earned the codename Ironbark, was a Soviet officer named Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), and the other a mild-mannered British businessman with the fantastic name Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch). Wynne was recruited by the MI-6 and CIA to use his position in sales as a way to cross enemy lines and connect with Oleg in order to transfer information across borders and help his country acquire the upper hand.
This is a gripping story of adversity against all odds, a film in the tradition of recent crowd-pleasing Oscar favorites like Argo and Bridge of Spies, mixing patriotism and uncomplicated heroics with a well-paced structure that knows when to escalate and when to settle back into the calm. Cooke knows exactly the right moments to put the foot on the gas to keep the audience engaged without ever moving this story so fast that we can’t keep up. At one point, Oleg says the line, “Maybe we’re only two people, but this is how things change”, and it’s a powerful moment, yet for some viewers it may feel a bit too on the nose and difficult to swallow when we can turn on the news right now and see so many horrific, inhumane displays of evil happening every day. Maybe The Courier is a movie that would have played better to audiences in the early 2000s than it does in 2021. Then again, maybe it’s the movie we need right now.
Perhaps that relatively black and white nature of the story was a little too clean for The Courier to take off on the festival circuit? There’s certainly never a question here as to who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Still, it’s hard to be too deterred by any perceived lack of nuance when the story being told is such an immersive one full of old-school cinematic entertainment, and an inspirational story of people fighting with all of their might to try and do what they believe is the right thing. This is the kind of movie where you’ll be in the middle of watching it and simply assume that it’s got “Academy Award winner” attached to its title.
It certainly helps that Cooke has assembled a mighty selection of actors to bring these characters to life. Cumberbatch has possibly never been better cast than he is here. He expertly navigates this man’s blend of charm, naïveté, and courage, effectively building this arc from semi-reluctant civilian to a man full of bravery and a genuine belief in something. You can’t imagine anyone else in the role. Ninidze and him establish a bond that you truly invest in, and Rachel Brosnahan and Jessie Buckley steal scenes as a CIA operative and Wynne’s wife, respectively.
This is the story of two men often overlooked by history, whose stories aren’t often told, and Cooke gives them the attention they deserve. The final act shows us how hard they had to push to maintain their courage in the face of great strife, making it impossible to walk away from this film without feeling something. As is the case with their stories, The Courier’s questionable release strategy right in the thick of awards conversations that it’s not eligible for will likely mean it will be forgotten quickly, if not entirely overlooked upon its release. That would be a shame, as people would be missing an effectively told espionage film the likes of which we don’t often see anymore.
The Courier releases in theaters on March 19th, 2021