Our screens are so over-saturated with superheroes these days that we’re in danger of forgetting what real heroes look like. Superpowers are exciting — but they’re also shortcuts. They show us what we might dream of becoming. But let me put it this way: I lost interest in Captain America as soon as Steve Rogers got Stay-Puffed on steroids… that is to say, before he became Captain America. Anyway, the point: It takes so much more courage to put your life at risk for the Greater Good when you have the same limitations as everybody else.

Such people do exist, though. I’ll make a pitch for one a little later, one who has been punished for bravery. But first, I want to draw your attention to a movie. I’ve just seen a feature film that, much to my surprise, doesn’t exaggerate or embellish what’s required for the role of hero, nor does it exaggerate the likely costs of courage. Even more impressive, the astonishing story it tells is true.

It’s been several years since our last big-screen lesson on the Cuban Missile Crisis, so here comes The Courier to squeeze another suspenseful drama out of what was perhaps the most terrifying moment in American history, and easily one of the most dangerous for the planet. The film follows salesman Greville Wynne — his name is so perfect that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t invented by John Le Carré — as he is recruited by MI6 and the CIA to become the titular errand boy, dodging the KGB and smuggling intelligence from Moscow to London in the days before the Internet offered easier options.

Played by Benedict Cumberbatch with a dumbfounded “I’m a salesman, not a spy!” case of nerves, Wynne is utterly forgettable. And  that’s why he’s the Chosen One. The hopes of America and the West against Russian aggression rest on somebody moving back and forth across borders without being noticed. This is a case of what’s-good-for-espionage being what’s-difficult-for-entertainment. And it’s to Cumberbatch’s credit that he sticks to this rule and avoids big Oscar-clip moments almost entirely. (Things take a brutal turn in the third act that requires the kind of extreme emotion that contest campaigns are built on.)

By contrast, the man he’s sent to meet is made of stronger stuff: Soviet officer Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) has decided to gamble everything — his future, his family, his life — on his conscience, which tells him that he had better act fast and save the world from a nuclear holocaust.

This is where The Courier most resembles another Oscar-baiting spy movie: Spielberg’s was engaging, driven by two memorable performances — although the reliable headliner Tom Hanks surrendered the movie to an outstanding turn from Mark Rylance. Similarly here, while Cumberbatch’s role is more demanding and more dramatic, it’s Ninidze who makes the strongest impression, the burden of his life-and-death gamble increasing until he looks like he might crumble. The movie is better when he’s onscreen.

Bridge of Spies was the more satisfying film — and with Spielberg in charge, of course it was. The Courier is directed by Dominic Cooke, whose only big-screen feature before this was On Chesil Beach (reviews persuaded me to skip it); it’s rather obvious that he’s more of a TV guy, as this movie ends up feeling like two episodes of the kind of BBC series I might have watched during a week of dinners in the ’90s. He doesn’t have many interesting ideas here; he just puts his camera up close to actors who deserve better and says “Action!” … which is ironic, since all he has them do is talk, drink, and smoke. I spent the whole movie dreaming of another Gary-Oldman-as-Smiley movie.

But I stayed in my seat because the supporting cast kicks up just enough sparks to make me care about more than just the story’s historicity; they treat it like a movie, and that saves it from its lack of visual imagination. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s Rachel Brosnahan snaps some life into it as CIA agent Emily Donovan, even if her job amounts to little more than sticking up for Wynne when it becomes clear that the CIA might not take his safety as seriously as he does. By contrast, the best that can be said about Angus Wright, as MI6’s Dickie Franks, is that he looks the part and delivers his lines. Jessie Buckley nobly shoulders the burden of playing Wynne’s wife, who initially suspects him of infidelity when his stories don’t add up, but somehow the film is a lesser thing for making us watch one of the best big-screen actresses alive today shoved into such a familiar, uninteresting role. I can’t even remember the character’s name. [Checks notes: Shirley.]

I’ll avoid spoilers regarding the film’s final act, but if you know the true story, you know where we’re headed. And you’d be right in thinking that it’s very difficult to make such a turn dramatically interesting — not because it lacks drama, but because we’ve seen it so many times before. (Even Terrence Malick had trouble finding distinctive moments in such dark and troubling circumstances as those that eventually afflict poor Wynne.) Yes, sure, the trailers and the positive reviews are right on one thing: The Courier delivers “a fascinating tale of deceit.” But it’s the true story that’s really remarkable. In better hands, this might have become a memorably suspenseful film as well.

And this is, for me, a clear case of G.K. Chesterton’s observation that “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” The Courier isn’t a bad movie. I wish it would have been better. Right now, we need stories about heroes who risk everything to save democracies from foreign threats. We need reminders that the planet is in peril when unstable and hot-headed leaders have nuclear weapons within their reach.

But then, such matters have been weighing heavily on my mind lately. I remember living in a country that took Russian threats seriously. Now I live in a country where we don’t celebrate the heroes who risk their lives to preserve our democracy from Russian attacks. We need look no further than the case of Reality Winner to see that Americans are, today, doing the Russians’ work for them: We’re jailing patriotic, conscience-driven heroes who risked everything to bring us the truth about attacks in progress.

So, by all means, go see The Courier. Cheer for a brave man and for the country that honors his sacrifice. Then, pray for Reality Winner and help me keep her name from being forgotten.