The (Near) Death of a Salesman

Benedict Cumberbatch plays a British businessman turned reluctant spy in ‘The Courier.’

Coming so soon after the death of John LeCarre, Dominic Cooke’s The Courier is a reminder of the writer’s gifts. Watching The Courier, one is pestered by memories of the film made from LeCarre’s take on similar material, The Russia House (1990); you have to swat those thoughts away, as if they were a cloud of gnats.

Like The Russia House, The Courier tells of how a small-time non-spy is eased into the game by MI-6. In the earlier film, the late Sean Connery’s affable middle-aged nullity Bartholomew ‘Barley’ Blair managed to win his round. This time the main character is nearly broken by the weight of the secrets he’s ferrying from Moscow to London.

Starring and executive produced by Benedict Cumberbatch, The Courier has echoes of The Russia House’s ingenuity. Asked by his recruiter if he can hold his liquor, Cumberbatch’s Greville Wynne says, “It’s my one true gift.” (The perfect version of this exchange is adapting screenwriter Tom Stoppard’s line in The Russia House, with Barley describing his own booze intake: “I like to give myself a wide berth.”)

The Courier is based on the true story of the machine-parts salesman Wynne, who had business dealings in the Soviet bloc in the early 1960s. Recruited by British intelligence, this salesman carried messages to and from Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, code named “Ironbark.” The colonel was the highest-level informant who ever gave secrets to the West; he knew the truth about the USSR’s relative weakness in the field of nuclear missiles. The friendship deepened between the Englishman and the Russian, even as events escalated and the Cuban Missile Crisis loomed.

Cumberbatch’s excellence is visible in one particular scene. It’s a close up on his strangely lean, tight face; he’s half out of his mind with fright from how close the stalking KGB are getting. Just before trying to run out of Russia, Wynne and the Colonel (Merab Ninidze) get tickets to the Bolshoi ballet performing Swan Lake. Watching the dancers, Wynne is first entranced, then overwhelmed. Cumberbatch definitively illustrates that zen parable about the man caught between a pair of tigers, eating that last luscious strawberry before his doom. As a master of theatrical acting, Cumberbatch shines in later scenes of captivity, making the best of the lighting that makes him look wasted and sick. We watch his breakdown through a peep-hole in an iron door.

There’s elements of snap in the script. Wynne’s wife Sheila (the rising Irish actress Jesse Buckley) starts as a brake on the action — “Do I detect the smell of burning martyr?” as Basil Fawlty put it, watching his wife seethe. She improves, though. Sheila tells her distracted husband that some function at his son’s school is mandatory: “Before you ask if you have to come, you have to come.”

As a CIA analyst named Emily Donovan, Rachel Brosnahan tries to put some sympathy into this cold war opus. The Marvelous Miss Maizel star looks as chic in early 1960s costumes and hairstyles as anyone around, give or take Anya Taylor-Joy. She gets a chance to show off her rapid, clipped diction in a pretty credible scene. She warns Wynne about the consequences of a nuclear bombing on London, explaining to him point by point how little a four-minute civil defense warning will mean. Admittedly, it’s a curious part: a human face of the CIA, an organization that in the early 1960s was not that keen on hiring women. 

What’s missing in The Courier is what Le Carre would have brought to it: an idea of the bungling humanity on both sides of the Cold War divide. Ending with a cavalcade of Communist brutality, The Courier begins with Secretary Nikita Khruschev’s famous 1956 outburst against the West, which was translated as “We will bury you” — it could also have been interpreted as “We will outlast you,” or “We will leave you behind in the dust.”

It’s a cinch to use the surroundings of the USSR to terrify the audience — there’s that mix of the cyclopean and the cruel in Communist architecture, the sense that the walls have ears. Composer Abel Korzeniowski works studious Shastakovich-like themes to add to the tension.

But there’s times when this thriller looks like something that’d be welcome at a Dinesh D’Souza theater party. 

One splash of violence is the execution of a Russian traitor in front of the army troops — a “this is the price of failure” style of killing that 007’s nemesis Blofeld carried out in that gaudiest series of spy stories. 

In real life, the Soviets preferred to work in more mysterious ways; it’s a bit worse if you don’t know exactly what happened to a purged, vanished traitor. Their method gave the imagination a little more to play with.

Other historical questions arise. How much did the Western intelligence agencies know about the existence of the Gulags, before Solzhenitsyn published The Gulag Archipelago in 1973? Speaking of, the word ‘gulag’ gets tossed around a lot here. And here, a snarling Soviet officer is the only one who mentions that NATO had its own ring of missiles on the USSR’s Western border. 

One could present Russia’s Cuban adventure not as blind aggression but as a legitimate move in the chess game it was playing with the West. Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s comment that we’d gotten eyeball to eyeball with the Russians — and that we’d made them blink — sums up the so-called brinksmanship of the era. Happily, it worked. Unhappily, it wasn’t called out as the bluffing of some very dangerous gamblers, who could have easily lost everything.

This is one of those fictional films that includes a bit of documentary footage at the end, and it probably shouldn’t have been there. It sabotages the illusion. The real Wynne was a discernibly slippery person. In his real life cameo we see a bit of a smirk, a suave, Patrick Macnee-like self-amusement at his deception; Wynne later spread that amusement to the world in a pair of dubious memoirs. Tom O’Connor’s script doesn’t erase the story of Wynne’s adultery. His wife hadn’t gotten over the betrayal. The closest The Courier comes to comedy is the farcical side of the affair: Sheila smells a rat about her husband’s trips to Russia. There have been adulterers who told their naive spouses they were actually working for the CIA. The reverse happens here, with Sheila mistaking Wynne’s exercising, and his new ardor in bed, as evidence that he has someone on the side… perhaps on the other side of the Wall. 

In the film, Wynne stumbles into spying; in this real life news clip we see someone who had a glitter in their eye about the hustle. Some are blackmailed into spying, but there is a certain type of person who enjoys the duplicitous life, whether lived for patriotism, cynicism, or just the love of the game.

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