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" They should have sent a poet "
— Jodie Foster, Contact

MRQE Top Critic

Creed II

It's all about the importance of character and the ability to face life's challenges. —Matt Anderson (review...)

Creed II

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The Courier delivers an important, timely message: “this is how things change.”

Fallout Shelters

Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Emily Donavan (Rachel Brosnahan)
Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Emily Donavan (Rachel Brosnahan)

It’s the 1960s and the Cold War is heating up in this tale of spies and counter spies as the U.S., Britain and Russia collide on the diplomatic front. The threat of all-out nuclear war and human annihilation is imminent.

Enter an unassuming British salesman, Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Mauritanian). He’s at best in average shape, middle-aged, married, has a son and a steady income. And he’s about to embark on an historic mission in which 5,000 top secret documents are smuggled out of Russia and into the hands of MI6.

Greville’s is a true story, by the way.

Think of it as a companion piece to Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. Both work well as stories of civilians caught up in the machinations of politics and diplomacy with the fate of the world on the line. In this case, the headline newsmakers are Nikita Khrushchev (Vladimir Chuprikov) and John F. Kennedy (via vintage TV footage).

With Khrushchev reportedly pushing for conflict and Cuba emerging in geopolitical strategies, Greville is recruited to collaborate with Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze, Jupiter’s Moon), a Soviet officer who’d like to defect. As CIA operative Emily Donavan (Rachel Brosnahan, Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) explains it, Greville’s mission is low risk. The bigger danger for Greville, she says, is in not helping. She goes on to describe the shaky nature of the fallout shelters upon which Greville would be reliant in the event he doesn’t take action and the Russians succeed in launching nuclear missiles on Western adversaries.

U-2 over Cuba

Under the direction of Dominic Cooke (BBC’s The Hollow Crown), the story finds an agreeable pace that flies below the radar of the typical James Bond adventure. With the story grounded in reality, all of the details of 1960s life create an immersive sense of time and place. It’s when the Berlin Wall begins to rise. Newspaper headlines distressingly read, “One Step from Nuclear War.”

Cumberbatch, an A-lister who’s always reliable, goes all in as Greville’s efforts take a bad turn. Held captive in a Soviet Gulag for 18 months, it’s a shocker when his wife, Sheila (Jessie Buckley, HBO’s Chernobyl), visits him in prison and finds him to be a mere shadow of his former self; sickly and dangerously skinny. That’s after Sheila’s been told of her husband’s covert activities and their own personal domestic conflicts are set aside, immediately inconsequential in comparison. While he couldn’t keep a love affair secret, he was doing a much better job of keeping his fate-of-the-free-world efforts hush-hush.

As history reveals itself, Greville ultimately gained freedom. It’s wryly noted MI6 can’t trade a Soviet officer for a run-of-the-mill civilian; that’d send the wrong message. But, in the end, Greville was exchanged for Konon Molody, a Russian spy of certain notoriety who lived among the British as Gordon Lonsdale. Unfortunately, Oleg faced a darker, more abrupt fate.

The Secrets We Keep

Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze)
Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze)

In some respects, it sounds like a fantasy, but the parallels of what happened in the 1960s to what’s going on today are a little scary.

Screenwriter Tom O’Connor — who takes a nice turn away from the disappointment that was The Hitman’s Bodyguard — crafted the original screenplay by researching the subject on his own. The catalyst? Curiosity stemming from all the accusations thrown around regarding Russian tampering with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

That incessant story — which plagued the entire run of the Trump administration — does come to mind while watching The Courier. How much have things changed compared to the political climate of the 1960s? Visiting Russia today echoes the same sentiments from decades ago: the people like Americans, it’s the politicians that hate each other.

Greville enters a world where he truly should trust absolutely no one. He’s told to assume everybody he meets is a member of the KGB. Every Russian is potentially an eye of the State. Even at dinner, nearby patrons might very well be lip readers taking in his every word from a distance. On the flip side, he should expect everyone he meets to see him as nothing more than a greedy capitalist, and most certainly not somebody to be trusted.

Extrapolating from that decades-old scenario and taking this even deeper, where and when will the madness end? Where’s the line that separates free speech from controlled thought? Outrageous conduct is one thing, but should people lose their jobs (such as Gina Carano) because they expressed an opinion? Maybe the way the opinion was expressed was offensive, but as it stands the pendulum between freedom and control keeps swinging. Decade after decade, regardless of the country and its history, the pendulum is still unable to find a steady state of reasoned balance.

The grand promise of social media was the democratization of information and ideas. But it didn’t take long before sites stopped supporting comments because anonymous trolls wrecked the experience. Now those trolls have come out of the shadows and turned social media into the next pathetic iteration of the KGB and Gestapo; it’s becoming socialist media in which vitriol is the natural response to an opposing view. That is not progress and that is not how things change for the common good. It causes the pendulum to swing even harder.

How will things change? As demonstrated in The Courier, positive change starts by building trust, not by controlling thought. It’s not an easy process. Then again, very little that’s of true value comes with ease.