The Courier Parent Guide
A slickly produced spy drama, this movie illuminates a little known piece of Cold War history.
Parent Movie Review
How much would you be willing to risk to save your country? What about saving the entire world? For Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), an ambitious British salesman with a tendency to drink just a bit too much, this question is going to get very personal.
It’s 1960 and Soviet Colonel Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) is convinced that a nuclear apocalypse is imminent. In a desperate attempt to prevent an atomic nightmare, Penkovsky makes the agonizing decision to start sharing information with the West; in effect, to betray his country. He initially contacts the Americans but since US/Soviet relations have been strained by the Francis Gary Powers U2 spy plane incident, the CIA reaches out to Britain’s MI6 to manage the new asset. British spymaster Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) has a position on Britain’s Board of Trade and believes that the best contact for Penkovsky is someone nobody would ever suspect – a British businessman eager for profits and disinterested in politics. Greville Wynne, in fact. When Franks and CIA agent Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) reach out to Wynne, he has a decision to make that has the power to change his life…and maybe save millions of others.
Set against the backdrop of the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, this adaptation of a true story makes for riveting cinema. That doesn’t mean it’s exciting: The Courier is an espionage drama and not a spy thriller. The story moves slowly, focusing on the characters of Penkovsky and especially on Wynne. With little in the way of shoot-em-ups, this movie spends its time examining what leads a patriot to betray his country and what motivates an ordinary, fearful man to become a courageous risk-taker. Although the film drags occasionally, it does a fine job of both illuminating its characters and steadily building tension. This is one of those movies that will have you sitting on the edge of your seat with a knot in your gut.
As far as spy dramas go, The Courier is a fine example of the genre. The writing is tight and the acting is good, despite the mildly stereotyped brash Americans and foppish Brits. Merab Ninidze gives a particularly nuanced performance and Benedict Cumberbatch (who had to lose a significant amount of weight for the second half of the film) is very convincing as the ambitious, nervous, and not overbright Wynne.
If you’re wondering about watching The Courier at home, you should know that the PG-13 rating is fair. There are frequent scenes of alcohol use, with main characters becoming intoxicated. War and violent acts are frequently mentioned and there are scenes of police brutality in the USSR. There are also a couple of scenes in a non-sexual context where a man is shown nude either from behind or with his hands covering his genitals. Whether or not you consider this as suitable viewing for your teens depends on your values.
On the bright side, this film carries compelling messages about courage and loyalty. Wynne’s decision to become involved despite his justified fear is inspiring as is Penkovsky’s choice to put the fate of the world over his personal safety. Their ability to overcome the gulf of suspicion between their countries and to develop real friendship and loyalty gives us hope that the fractures that divide today’s world can be bridged by people of good will. Perhaps we too can step back from the abyss.Directed by Dominic Cooke. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel Brosnahan, and Jessie Buckley. Running time: 111 minutes. Theatrical release March 19, 2021. Updated March 31, 2023
Watch the trailer for The Courier
Rating & Content Info
Why is The Courier rated PG-13? The Courier is rated PG-13 by the MPAA for violence, partial nudity, brief strong language, and smoking throughout.
Violence: A Soviet traitor is shot in the head on screen; no blood is shown. There are frequent discussions of nuclear war and preparation for nuclear attacks. We see black and white photos of nuclear explosions. A man yells at his child. A man collapses from illness. A man is arrested and punched in the abdomen; his head is covered in a hood. A man is shaved without consent. A man is shoved and thrown by a prison guard. A man bangs on his prison door with furniture and throws his slop pail through it. He is beaten by prison guards: blood is visible on the walls. A main character is poisoned.
Sexual Content: A husband and wife kiss; subsequent sexual activity is implied. A man is described as “energetic” in bed. Prison guards demand that a man strip. A man is rectally penetrated by something by a prison official; it’s unclear if this is a medical procedure or assault. A main character is seen naked; his genitals are covered by his hands. A naked man is seen from behind in the shower.
Profanity: There are fewer than a dozen profanities in the film, primarily terms of deity and minor curses. There is a single scatological curse and an anatomical term.
Alcohol / Drug Use: Main characters smoke frequently. Main characters drink alcohol with meals and get intoxicated in a social situation. A man drinks alcohol alone to cope with stress.
Page last updated March 31, 2023
The Courier Parents' Guide
Why does Penkovsky betray his country? Do you think his betrayal ultimately wound up helping the Soviet Union? Do you think he should be seen as a traitor or a patriot?
Why did Greville Wynne decide to work with MI6? Would you have been willing to do what he did? What price did he pay for his actions? Do you think it was worth it?
For more information about the people and events mentioned in the film, check these links:
Smithsonian: The True Story Behind “The Courier”
Wikipedia: Greville Wynne
History.com: Cuban Missile Crisis
Loved this movie? Try these books…
Greville Wynne wrote two books based on his experiences: The Man from Moscow and The Man from Odessa. Both contain historical fact mixed with fictionalized details.
Oleg Penkovsky is the topic of several books, including The Spy Who Saved the World by Jerrold L Schecter and Dead Drop by Jeremy Duns.
Related home video titles:
The Cuban Missile Crisis, the outcome of which was strongly affected by Penkovsky’s leaked information, is the subject of Thirteen Days.
Another civilian gets sucked into the vortex of the Cold War in Bridge of Spies. In this story, Tom Hanks plays a lawyer who defends an accused Russian spy in the USA. A few years later, he is asked to negotiate a spy swap between the US and the Soviet Union.
A Soviet submarine captain plans to defect to the West but first he has to evade his own navy in Hunt for Red October