It is very likely that while watching The Courier, you will be reminded of other spy movies and the tropes within them. Set during the Cold War, this film based on real events focuses squarely on the sacrifices a few individuals make, not for personal gain but for the greater good. There are many clichés with stories like this and The Courier has its fair share of them. However, clichés can be done right when the core effect of the film is for you to care about these real-life people and the heroic acts they accomplished.
The story here centers around Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), a British businessman who is approached by the CIA and MI-6 to help smuggle thousands of pieces of intel out of Russia. Wynne has a good cover and works with Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze). Penkovsky is a high-ranking Russian agent who has decided to do whatever he can to prevent nuclear war. Wynne and Penkovsky are able to sneak out a lot of intel thanks to Wynne's charm and the perception that he has capitalist intents for being in Russia.
Wynne is initially very worried about being a courier when he is recruited by MI-6 agent Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and CIA agent Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan). He initially turns them down, thinking the whole proposal is preposterous. He's a family man with a son and loving wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley). We learn that Wynne had an affair at one point and so sudden trips to Moscow will arouse suspicions from Sheila. Still, Wynne agrees and begins traveling back and forth to Moscow in order to transport intel.
The Courier does a nice job making connections between Wynne's skills as a businessman who is very good at making his clients happy and the acting involved in spying. He is playing a role, one that requires him to suppress emotions and worry. Wynne and Penkovsky become close friends through the process, both aware of the sacrifice they may have to make. Cumberbatch and Ninidze have great chemistry together and their friendship feels authentic and compelling.
Director Dominic Cooke stages the whole film in a rather dull manner. The Courier is short on style or anything visually memorable. However, the acting across the board is fantastic. The first hour of the film succeeds in making us care about these men and their lives. Cumberbatch captures Wynne's fears and the internal struggle of doing what is right for his country versus what is right for his family. Ninidze is fantastic, holding so much stress and worry in his face. The second half of the film is less compelling but is greatly helped by Buckley's performance. She could easily come off a shrill character but screenwriter Tom O'Connor gives weight to her role once Wynne is imprisoned. The movie benefits from this as it creates a deep empathy for all the characters involved in the story.
The Courier falls back on many things we have seen before. The prison scenes in particular feel uninspired. However, this doesn't affect the overall impact of this true-life story of two men who saved the world and got little recognition for it. The film's performances are truly what stands out.