The most famous Cold War spies worked for the other side: the Rosenbergs, Burgess and Maclean, Kim Philby. The name of Oleg Penkovsky is not nearly as well known. Yet the secrets that the Soviet colonel passed on to the West helped keep the Cuban Missile Crisis from becoming the Cuban Missile War.
Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) figures prominently in “The Courier,” a based-on-fact Cold War drama which opens in theaters Friday but isn’t available for streaming. (How odd it would have seemed a year ago that there’d be a need to make that distinction.)
As the title suggests, Penkovsky’s not the center of attention. That would be the go-between relied on to get his information from Moscow to London. He was an English businessman with the very English-businessman name of Greville Wynne. As played by Benedict Cumberbatch, he’s slightly oily and slightly anxious, with a fuzzy-caterpillar mustache that emphasizes a waxy pallor. The actor narrows his eyes even more than is usual, and that’s saying a lot. He portrays Wynne with a slightly tottery aplomb which seems all the more right for being recessive. This is a man doing something heroic without quite being a hero.
So why Wynne? His being a businessman gives him a convincing reason for regularly visiting Moscow. He has another qualification. “Can you hold your alcohol?” asks an MI6 higher-up (Angus Wright). “It’s my one true gift,” Wynne replies. As events will prove, he has others.
Assured and well made (Dominic Cooke directed), “The Courier” offers bits of tradecraft — Penkovsky photographing documents with a miniature camera, a special tie clip used as identity-establishing bona fide — and a high-stakes extraction plan gets put in motion. But it’s less about what gets done than the persons doing it.
Ninidze makes Penkovsky sympathetic and, much harder to do, plausible. When he tells Wynne, “They must use my information wisely, as a tool for peace,” you believe he means it and that’s why he’s risking his life. Wright is persuasively sinister-suave (more latter than former). Wearing a blonde wig, Rachel Brosnahan (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”), has a harder time of it as a CIA operative. She mostly just gets to look concerned.
Jessie Buckley, as Wynne’s wife, has an even more thankless role. Yet she works wonders, creating a real person out of a stand-by-your-man stereotype. Anyone who saw Buckley in last year’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” knows what a talent she is. This performance isn’t necessarily more impressive, but the talent is all the more evident insofar as this role is so different.
Espionage is about getting secrets from them, which can often mean keeping secrets from us — personal secrets even more than political ones. It’s the emotional and moral toll espionage exacts — Penkovsky, like Wynne, has a wife and young child — that “The Courier” emphasizes. In that sense, it’s in the John le Carré tradition, though without le Carré's twistiness (that’s good) and depth (that’s bad). Consider it the courier who came in from the cold, if not quite cold enough.
Directed by Dominic Cooke. Written by Tom O’Connor. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley, Angus Wright. At Kendall Square, Boston theaters, suburbs. 111 minutes. PG-13 (violence, partial nudity, brief strong language, and smoking throughout).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.