The Courier and Six Minutes to Midnight
How good were the “Good, old days”?
By Marc Glassman
Dominick Cooke, director
Tom O’Connor, script
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch (Greville Wynne), Merab Ninidze (Oleg Penkovsky), Rachel Brosnahan (Emily Donovan, CIA), Jessie Buckley (Sheila Wynne), Angus Wright (Dickie Franks MI6), Kirill Pirogov (Gribanov, KGB)
Six Minutes to Midnight
Andy Goddard, director & co-script w/Eddie Izzard and Celyn Jones
Starring: Eddie Izzard (Thomas Miller), Judi Dench (Miss Rocholl), Jim Broadbent (Charlie), Carla Juri (Ilse Keller) James D’Arcy (Captain Drey), Celyn Jones (Corporal Willis), Tijan Marei (Gretel)
Most Zoomers will recall the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. For most of us—and, of course, I am a Boomer/Zoomer—it was the first time that a world shattering event took place. The “duck and cover” films of kids crawling under their school tables with hands over eyes were taken then. I recall the absurdity of it—imagine that hiding under a table might save you from a nuclear holocaust—but also the fear that I might never see my parents or brother and sister again.
My dad explained it to me one night. Seems the Russians under Khrushchev had placed nuclear bombs in Castro’s newly Communist Cuba and JFK was calling him on it. It was terrifying: the biggest confrontation during the Cold War and, ultimately, it came down to which macho leader would blink first. In the event, it turned out to be Khrushchev and most of us Zoomers were allowed to grow old together.
Although several films came out about the threat of nuclear annihilation after the Crisis—the scariest was Fail Safe and the funniest was Dr. Strangelove—none was ever made about how Kennedy and the Western Allies actually found out about the bombs in Cuba. Until now. Coming out nearly 50 years after the sabre rattling fall of 1962, The Courier can hardly count on hordes of youthful streamers eagerly awaiting its wide online release. But Zoomers will be interested and so should audiences that enjoy Le Carré-style espionage thrillers.
Though the spies in The Courier are buttoned-down bureaucratic types, that doesn’t mean that the consequences of their actions aren’t quite real. Indeed, Oleg Penkovsky, a high ranking intelligence officer, was taking the greatest of risks—being branded a traitor and executed—by letting the West’s spy network know that he was willing to send Soviet military secrets to them. The response by the CIA and MI6 was to recruit someone naïve to be their courier, leaving the matter low-key and without any apparent espionage activity from the West.
Their choice was a salesman involved with technology, Greville Wynne, a rather conventional man, without political opinions and no aptitude towards heroism. Played impeccably by Benedict Cumberbatch, it’s easy to understand him as he builds up a friendship with Penkovsy (played with skill by Georgian actor Merab Ninidze). Unfortunately, Wynne’s wife (an underused Jessie Buckley) begins to suspect that he’s having an affair, something he’s done before. Though there’s an attempt to equate the friendship of Wynne and Penkovsky as being homo-erotic, it simply doesn’t work and would have led the narrative into a dead-end, except that,
at just the right moment, the planting of bombs in Cuba is revealed to the CIA and MI6 by documents brought to them by their courier system.
And that would have been that—except that Penkovsky’s double-dealing became suspicious to the Soviets. Though he’s warned by MI6 not to go back to Moscow, a suddenly brave Wynne risks all to save his friend. Of course, I can’t reveal what happens, but let’s say that each suffers at the Soviet’s hands but the Westerner
far less so.
Director Dominic Cooke, who used to be the theatre director at London’s writerly Royal Court and made the film version of Ian McEwen’s On Chesil Beach, does well enough with his actors, though one might have expected better. Still, Cumberbatch is absolutely riveting. If it had been made in the Sixties with Michael
Caine as Wynne and Omar Sharif as Penkovsky, I bet we’d still be watching it now. As it is, The Courier is a worthy film based on a real and quite unique story.
Six Minutes to Midnight
The extraordinary genderfluid comic Eddie Izzard has many fascinations, one of the more benign being that an Anglo-German girl’s prep school flourished during the 1930s in East Sussex, where he lived as an adolescent. He often went to Bexhill-on-Sea’s museum and presumably speculated what it might have been like
to be a wealthy teenaged daughter of Nazis in south-west England during the period leading up to World War Two.
Six Minutes to Midnight is an Izzard dream project—one that doesn’t easily fit into his transgressive political and sexual agenda. He plays Thomas Miller, a British spy placed into the girls’ school as an English teacher, during late August 1939. Miller charms the German teenagers but finds it tougher to deal with the head of
the school, Miss Rocholl, played in her typically bluff, sensible style by Judi Dench and the gym teacher, llse, performed by Carla Juri in an undistinguished manner. (Juri may be the weakest link in the film.)
Events have to move briskly since war was declared on September 3, making the film’s title all-too-apt. Within two days of his arrival at the school, Miller’s military contact is killed by Ilse, leaving him to run away from the police, who suspect him of the shooting.
The middle of the film is mainly taken up by Izzard’s British agent running from all sorts of people: an angry member of a military band, a British police supervisor who is really a Nazi spy and, of course, more cops than you would have expected to see in the UK countryside. During all this running about, Jim Broadbent (playing
a local bus driver) has a couple of fine scenes—one comic, the other frightening— leaving one wishing he had been cast in a more significant role. And Izzard fans will know that he’s a famous marathon runner and must have enjoyed this part of the film.
Rushing to a denouement, Miller has to stop the German girls from escaping from the island. There are espionage secrets that Ilse has acquired, leading her to plan her sensational departure along with her students. Six Minutes to Midnight reaches a dramatic conclusion, one fully in keeping with the events of the fall of 1939. This film will likely be remembered as an Izzard personal project and, as such, should enjoy a small bit of British cinematic history. Should you watch it? Answer me this: do you love Eddie Izzard, mate? Judge accordingly.