By Christopher Sharrett.
The Courier has some touching moments…. but we should keep in mind that there is much more to this story.”
As the Soviet Union crumbled in the late 1980s, some U.S. politicians talked about a “peace dividend,” that is, the possibility that money, for years thrown at an ever-increasing arms build-up, could now go to public programs. But as people like George H. W. Bush (and later his son) spoke of a “kinder, gentler” political-economic system, the Cold War mentality was refashioned to respond to enemies in the Middle East and the rise of “terrorism,” both dramatically underscored by 9/11, the attacks on New York and Washington of September 11, 2001. We found ourselves in a new face-off, a physical war in the Middle East and Central Asia that has gone on for decades and perhaps will drag on for decades more (although, at this writing, President Joe Biden is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan). We might say that the Cold War has become a metaphor for a frightened nation easily persuaded to see other countries solely as potential or actual threats – if America has interest in viewing these nations at all, since their everyday events, and the elements that might prove them simply collections of other human beings, are of no interest whatsoever.
The new film The Courier (2020) revisits the Cold War “Spy vs. Spy” mentality (remember the comic strip in the great, now defunct Mad magazine?), as it revisits the story of Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a military intelligence office in the Soviet Union during the postwar period. In the early 1960s, Penkovsky provided information to the British MI6 agent Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) that we are told became crucial to the U.S. at the time of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world came extremely close to all-out nuclear destruction. The story became the basis of the popular (to espionage aficionados) 1966 paperback book The Penkovsky Papers, said by some to be a bunch a nonsense designed to give the British a starring role in an espionage victory after the colossal embarrassment of the exposure of the Guy Burgess/Kim Philby double-agent spy ring.
Directed by Dominic Cooke, The Courier is among the more watchable films released to theaters as COVID-19 vaccines become available and restrictions loosened. But it has nothing like the tension, anxiety, and very bleak world view of masterpieces like Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), simply because contemporary spy adventures refuse to partake of something like Ritt’s intelligent cynicism, and conviction that the human race is on a downward spiral, even as corporate Hollywood trades in all manner of apocalypticism for the fun of it.
The Courier needs to be approached with some caution. It may be viewed by some as a history lesson, since those with minimal education will recognize the Soviet vs. Britain/America theme, and JFK’s face is seen often on period television screens. But as so often happens when movies deal with history and “our” interests, the story of The Courier could be greatly fleshed out. The film presents Wynne as a noble naïf, a slightly bloated businessman, nervous but all too willing suddenly to go behind the Iron Curtain for God and Country to do business with an increasingly alienated Penkovsky. All this happens very quickly when Wynne is petitioned by an Oxbridge MI6 officer, and his female CIA counterpart (were there any top female CIA types in 1960? And, predictably, she’s pretty pushy). According to Wynne’s autobiography, he was groomed by MI5 over many years eventually to encounter a top-flight Soviet traitor and become able to sell out his commissars at a moment that might score a major hit for the team. Wynne’s true origins are a small matter compared to what the film has to say about its major topic, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
According to the film, Penkovsky is willing to give away secrets about the Soviet’s placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba and the specifics about how they would be used against the U.S. Since the U.S. had long been using high-flying U-2 spy planes to assess nuclear capabilities of the Soviets, why was the Penkovsky information even needed? This itself is a small point compared to what the film doesn’t say about the origins of the Missile Crisis.
The U.S. was hostile to the Cuban Revolution long before its victory, since the dictator Fulgencio Batista, not the revolutionary Fidel Castro, was the preferred American proxy maintaining control of resources and labor in Cuba. Immediately after the Revolution’s amazing victory in 1959, bringing into the international spotlight its dashing and take-no-nonsense heroes like Che Guevara and Fidel himself, the reception with more than frosty, with President Dwight Eisenhower cutting off diplomatic relations with Cuba before Eisenhower’s successor, John F. Kennedy, was inaugurated. At that moment, Fidel attempted to maintain friendly relations with the U.S., the Revolution not yet pro-Soviet, in fact not even very pro-left. The infamous gambling casinos remained open, and many of the industries in foreign hands. The U.S. was having none of it. Eisenhower put together, with CIA head Allen Dulles (a long-term corporate attorney), a plan to invade Cuba and destroy the Revolution in what was to be known as the Bay of Pigs operation (in Cuba, Playa Giron).
The plan was to establish a beachhead using a small army of anti-Castro emigres and CIA-backed mercenaries; these men would somehow provoke an uprising within Cuba of pro-U.S. forces. How this would happen within a country that had embraced Fidel Castro as a near-messiah (one evening, during one of Fidel’s long speeches, a white pigeon landed and sat on his right shoulder, a dove, so it seemed, anointing the leader as the prince of peace – the crowd went wild) is hard to imagine. But the real point was this: the U.S. was ready to back up the invasion with full-on military support.
Kennedy was skeptical about the Bay of Pigs, and recognized that its only chance of success was its support with U.S. air cover, which he would not provide, fearing a portrayal of the U.S. as not only a neocolonial power but an invader. The Bay of Pigs failed; Kennedy made Dulles resign and caused a row within the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But Kennedy, a fan of James Bond and covert operations, wasn’t done trying. With legendary spooks Edward Lansdale and William Harvey (JFK thought of both as “our James Bond”), Kennedy launched Operation Mongoose, an extended attempt to destroy the Cuban Revolution through industrial sabotage, crop burning, counterfeited currency, livestock destruction, and assassination attempts against Castro, none of which accomplished anything beyond galvanizing the Cuban people against Kennedy and the U.S. as U.S. authorities used propaganda to make Castro the bad guy (a popular phrase of the day was “castrate Castro”). This period should be examined carefully, especially by those convinced that JFK was a peacenik ready to end the Cold War outright. Kennedy, in fact, ran on a platform claiming there was a “missile gap” between the U.S. and the Soviets, with the U.S. on the losing side, the U.S.S.R. having amassed (even with a fractured industrial plant) a monumental nuclear arsenal in the postwar period. Kennedy was a Cold Warrior.
Having said this, Kennedy was one of the more sober and moderate of the postwar politicians; his assassination in November 22, 1963 – not long after the U.S. assassination of South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem – must be taken seriously, especially since the Congress, in 1979, through its House Select Committee on Assassinations, said so. You don’t have to be the messiah to be knocked off by the state. After the Bay of Pigs, the Pentagon put together its own plan for a war with Cuba called Operation Northwoods, a ham-handed scenario for an invasion of the island country which JFK and his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara nixed as too flagrantly a U.S. provocation. But Mongoose continued.
The attempt to destroy Cuba was a cynical operation that provided a rationale for the Soviets to place missiles in the Western Hemisphere, itself a cynical move, but as a KGB officer tells a captured Wynne in The Courier, the U.S, long before the Missile Crisis, had already virtually surrounded the Soviet Union with much of its nuclear arsenal. And instead of the world being saved by gallant superspies, its saving may be attributed to a gallant KGB intelligence officer who told an armed-and-ready Soviet nuclear submarine to stand down at a hair-trigger moment – or maybe not. The “real” story of how the world survived the Missile Crisis may never be known, since the telling depends, it has seemed over the years, on the ideology of the teller. For one thing, The Courier returns Nikita Khrushchev to his Cold War image as bull-headed, vulgar fat slob, after being rehabilitated for many years as the man who promoted the post-Stalin “thaw” and who wanted further peace talks with Kennedy, short-circuited by the assassination. Khrushchev was removed in 1964 for too much thawing.
The Courier has some touching moments, like the deep-chiaroscuro meeting in a KGB prison of Wynne (a skeleton due to mistreatment by his jailers) and Penkovsky, each looking affectionately at the other for the last time. It is a triumph-of-the-human-spirit moment that is all well and good, but we should keep in mind that there is much more to this story, and it could well be that everything on the screen is total balderdash.
Christopher Sharrett is a Professor Emeritus of Film Studies at Seton Hall University, and a Contributing Editor at Film International.