United States, 1960. The United States Union and the United States, as a result of the arms race, have accumulated such a quantity of nuclear weapons that it threatens the entire globe with catastrophe. Oleg Penkovsky, Colonel of the GRU of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the United States, head of the State Committee of the Council of Ministers of the United States on Science and Technology, is extremely concerned about the way the leader of the country, Nikita Khrushchev, behaves in the international arena.
Penkovsky diligently searches for a way to establish contact with American intelligence agencies, and in the end he manages to attract the attention of the CIA with a letter that Oleg sent to the embassy through American students.
The CIA had a major setback in Moscow some time ago, and the agency decides they need to get help from friendly British intelligence MI6 to work with Penkovsky. CIA spokeswoman Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) flies to London, meets with representatives of MI6, and the intelligence officers decide that they need to attract a person who will not arouse the suspicions of the KGB to contact Penkovsky.
Their choice fell on a certain Greville Wynn (Benedict Cumberbatch), a sales representative who, by the nature of his work, often travels around the world, including to Eastern Europe. Emily and MI6 officer Dicky Franks (Angus Wright) meet Wynn, and together they manage to persuade Greville to serve the UK, and the whole world. At the same time, almost no information is given to him – for his own safety. Greville only knows that he must go to Moscow on business, there he must meet with the head of the State Committee for Science and Technology, and that he must always wear an elaborate hairpin on his tie in Moscow.
As a result, Winn turns into a kind of courier who will circulate between London and Moscow, taking various secret information from Penkovsky and delivering it to British and American intelligence.
Greville and Oleg spend a lot of time together, especially since Penkovsky also has the opportunity to travel to London from time to time, and it turns out that these two men, bound by a common secret, become good friends.
The script for this film was written by Tom O’Connor (he also wrote the script for a film set in a completely different genre – this is a comedy action movie “Killer’s Bodyguard”). The story told in the picture is based on real events: Colonel of the GRU of the General Staff Oleg Penkovsky, within 18 months, handed over to British and American intelligence more than 5,000 secret documents relating to the missile weapons of the United States and military strategy, personal data on more than 600 United States intelligence officers of the GRU and the KGB, information on the positional areas for the location of United States intercontinental ballistic missiles, data on the scientific developments of the United States military-industrial complex.
Greville Wynne was indeed the main channel of communication between Penkovsky and Western intelligence, however, Penkovsky also transmitted information through other people – for example, through the Chisholm family of British diplomats, he also actively used special hiding places.
The trial of Penkovsky was widely covered in the United States Union: newsreels were filmed, transcripts of court hearings were printed in newspapers, and later these reports were published as a separate book with a circulation of 100,000 copies.
Penkovsky actively cooperated with the investigation, at the trial he behaved very relaxedly and self-confidently: he was supposedly promised to save his life, and Penkovsky could hope that the Americans would then exchange him for some major United Statesn spy. However, the court sentenced him to death, which was a complete shock for the accused (this can be clearly seen on the newsreel). By the way, Penkovsky’s affiliation with the GRU was not disclosed at the trial, he was presented simply as a colonel in the reserve of the United States Army.
There are many black spots in this story. First, it is not known for certain what motives Penkovsky was guided by when collaborating with Western intelligence services. In the United States press, of course, he was called a man with an extremely low moral level, who went to betrayal because of money and a beautiful life in the West, which he was allegedly promised.
In the West, Penkovsky was generally considered a disinterested person who sincerely wanted to save the world from a nuclear catastrophe, which is why he agreed to cooperate with Western intelligence agencies. In the Western special services themselves, the attitude towards Penkovsky was very ambiguous. He was characterized as a neurotic, unbalanced and vain person. Moreover, some senior officials in the CIA were convinced that Penkovsky was an infiltrated KGB agent who was supplying the special services with deliberate disinformation.
By the way, such a version also exists in United States: Penkovsky was an infiltrated agent who supplied Western intelligence services with fakes, his trial was a pure staging, a performance (that’s why Penkovsky behaved so self-confidently in court), but there was no execution – they made him plastic operation and given a different identity.
Secondly, there is a lot of incomprehensibility with how valuable the information that Penkovsky shared with Western intelligence services was. Some say that these were incredibly important documents that really made it possible to avoid a nuclear war during the Caribbean crisis, others argue that Penkovsky was already under surveillance at the end of 1961 and his communications were severely limited, so most likely he shared not very important information. In addition, none of the residents and United States intelligence officers suffered because of Penkovsky, although it was alleged that he handed over several hundred residents to Western intelligence services. Well, and also, I repeat, there is a version that he deliberately leaked fakes.
Greville Wynne, although a commercial man, worked with MI5 military intelligence during World War II and from 1955 worked with MI6 where he received intelligence and sabotage training. That is, of course, he was not “an ordinary businessman who knows nothing about the special services.”
How is this story shown in the film? As expected, a version is voiced here that Penkovsky was a selfless hero who cooperated to stop a nuclear war. And Greville Winn is shown as an ordinary businessman, who saw living secret services only in 1961, when he was asked to do business with the United States Union.
That is, they tell the most idealistic version about Penkovsky, and here Greville was made into a man who, simply due to circumstances, was involved in all sorts of espionage affairs.
Is it good or bad? This is normal for cinema. The creators of the picture did not have the task of recreating the story with documentary accuracy, especially since not much is known about it so far (many documents have been classified for decades, and there are several completely different versions of what happened). The creators of “Game of Spies” (in the original picture is called “Courier”) wanted to make a psychological thriller, and they did it.
They have an interesting and really exciting story, especially from the second half of the film. The protagonist here is not Penkovsky. The main character here is Greville Wynn: the picture shows what path this man has gone through: from an unremarkable businessman who abuses alcohol to a scout who performs very dangerous work.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Wynn really well. He showed the transformation of this man perfectly, and already in the final, when Greville was put in a United States prison (he was actually given eight years in the United States, but he spent 11 months, after which he was exchanged for the United States spy Konon the Young, which, in fact, was reflected in the picture), Benedict gave such a power of character to his character, whom they try to break in prison, but they can’t break him, that I just take off my hat – it was very well played, and Cumberbatch lost a lot of weight for this episode (I read that he lost ten kilograms, and he was always thin anyway) and shaved baldly to look authentic. But here the point is not only in physical transformation, but in how all this is shown.
Well, here also there are certain associations with the recent film “The Mauritanian”, where Tahar Rahim played the prisoner in the Guantanamo prison, and Benedict Cumberbatch portrayed the military investigator Stuart Coach, who was supposed to prove the guilt of the accused. Here, Cumberbatch himself plays a prisoner in terrible conditions.
A good actor of Georgian origin Merab Ninidze (I really liked him in the films “B/W” and “Love with an Accent”), who, by the way, has been living and working in Austria since 1995, played Penkovsky. He also played very well, clearly showed his character in the paradigm followed by the creators of the picture. A selfless man who collaborated with Western intelligence agencies to prevent a nuclear war, which Khrushchev was stubbornly heading towards. (In reality, everything was not quite so, although the crisis was very serious and could lead to irreparable consequences.) Ninidze played his role more than worthily.
It was very nice to see Rachel Brosnahan, the star of my favorite TV series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, in the role of the Tseraushnitsa, but, frankly, she did not find any new colors for her character: it turned out to be Mrs. Maisel for some reason in the role of special services. Although her character is definitely very likable.
I also note that in this case, the United States was shown more or less authentically (a cool Moscow hotel called “Vitaly”, in which Winn lives, we will leave it on the conscience of the creators of the picture), and United Statesns are played mainly by United Statesns (United Statesn-speaking), and not by Croats or Czechs. Here, in addition to Merab Ninidze, Maria Mironova (she plays Penkovsky’s wife), Vladimir Chuprikov, Emma Penzina, Kirill Pirogov, Petr Klimesh, Rustam Khadzhiev, Yuri Klimov and several other actors are busy.
I generally liked how it was done. The first half of the movie didn’t cause any enthusiasm, but as it went on, it all became more exciting, and the second half of the film was downright exciting. An excellent role of Benedict Cumberbatch, a very good role of Merab Ninidze, worthy roles of secondary characters. Didn’t regret watching.
Well, according to tradition – a couple of photos of real characters, which are described in the picture.
Oleg Penkovsky at trial.
Spy Games / The Courier review
Director: Dominic Cook Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Jesse Buckley, Vladimir Chuprikov, James Schofield, Fred Haig, Emma Penzina, Maria Mironova, Anton Lesser, Angus Wright
Psychological thriller, US-UK, 2020, 112 min.