Skip to main content

LATEST UPDATES: Tracking COVID-19 | Vaccines | Racial Injustice

The Courier’ Tells Lesser Known Real Life Spy Story

Benedict Cumberbatch film opens in cinemas

Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) and Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) are ...

Credit: Lionsgate

Above: Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) and Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) are players in the lesser known true life spy story of "The Courier."

UPDATED STORY, June 1, 2021

"The Courier," which opened in cinemas earlier this year, is now available on Bluray.

Listen to this story by Beth Accomando.


Movie theaters reopened on Friday, which is exciting news for people waiting for big Hollywood films like "Godzilla VS Kong," the new Bond and "Black Widow." This weekend many of the Oscar-nominated films are hitting cinemas for the first time and the one new release is the spy thriller, "The Courier."

"The Courier" is based on the true story of how British businessman Greville Wynne was recruited by MI6 to help transport crucial intelligence from a Soviet man named Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze).

It's the early 1960s and Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a salesman who represents Western manufacturers in foreign countries. MI6 sees him and his international dealings as a perfect cover for smuggling information out of Soviet Russia.

Mostly, Wynne was to carry on business as usual. But from time to time he would be asked to bring pilfered Soviet secrets back to London. Penkovsky works for the KGB but has the official title of trade specialist, which means it would be quite unextraordinary for him to meet repeatedly with Wynne.

Penkovsky seems an unlikely spy at first glance. He's a World War II hero and seems a loyal Soviet citizen. But his loyalty is not merely to those holding power; it is to something bigger. So when he sees Krushchev pounding the podium and heating up the Cold War tensions, he becomes so concerned over the dangers of potential nuclear war that he decides to turn secrets over to the West in the hope of avoiding a nuclear armageddon.

The story of these two unlikely spies is more in the vein of John La Carrè than James Bond. What the film delivers is something that is both fascinating and utterly mundane. The interactions between the two men were designed to take place in plain sight and not involve any danger, and for the bulk of the film that’s true, which, as you might suspect, is not exactly riveting cinema. Wynne and Penkovsky engage in bland business banter while Wynne’s wife (Jessie Buckley) assumes his new secretiveness is to cover up an affair. The fascinating part is how something that seems so unexciting proves to play a key role in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Director Dominic Cooke is a serviceable director. He endows his film with a meticulous sense of detail but without ever making those details feel riveting. The fault lies in part with the script, which gives Wynne the greater focus when in many ways it's Penkovsky who is the more interesting character. The film also creates a female American spy (played by "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel's" Rachel Brosnahan) to bring the film some gender equity, but the role feels very much like a plot device.

"The Courier" serves up a fascinating chapter of spy history but it may not be the film to send you rushing back to the cinema. The film is worth seeing, though, so that we can pay tribute to a pair of rather ordinary men who showed extraordinary courage because they had a genuine sense of human decency and desire to keep the world safe for their children and future generations.

"The Courier" is playing in multiple cinemas in San Diego.


San Diego News Now podcast branding

San Diego news; when you want it, where you want it. Get local stories on politics, education, health, environment, the border and more. New episodes are ready weekday mornings. Hosted by Anica Colbert and produced by KPBS, San Diego and the Imperial County's NPR and PBS station.

  • Your curated weekly guide to local arts and culture in San Diego, from Arts Calendar Editor Julia Dixon Evans, delivered to your inbox every Thursday afternoon.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Photo of Beth Accomando

Beth Accomando
Arts & Culture Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.