Near the end of “The Company,” TNT’s epic spy miniseries that debuts tonight, two battle-scarred old CIA men are pondering whether it was all worth it. “Something like the Cold War has to have a moral,” says one. “Otherwise, what was it all about?” Replies the other with dead certainty: “It was about the good guys beating the bad guys.”
As bold in its moral assurance as it is in its historic sweep, “The Company” is a gripping requiem for the Cold War and the men who fought it. It’s the “Saving Private Ryan” of a struggle that took place not on beaches between uniformed armies but in border-town back alleys and jungle clearings, where standoffs often counted as victories and the greatest triumph was snatching compromise from the jaws of defeat.
Adapted from Robert Littell’s 2002 novel, “The Company” tells its story through the lives of three young men from the Yale class of 1950 who become spies: two for the CIA, one for the KGB. Their espionage careers carry them through some of the bleakest chapters of Cold War history: the deadly cat-and-mouse games in the divided Berlin, the bloodily suppressed Hungarian uprising against Soviet troops in 1956, the Bay of Pigs, the fall of Saigon.
The three spies, though engagingly played by Chris O’Donnell, Allesandro Nivola of “Jurassic Park III” and Rory Cochrane of “CSI: Miami,” are all fictional—but in “The Company,” truth is not only stranger but more mesmerizing than fiction. The notional characters are almost completely upstaged by the real-life CIA cold warriors whose stories intertwine with theirs in “The Company.”
Men like the inquisitorial mole-hunter James Angleton, troubled spymaster Frank Wisner and the hard-drinking assassin-in-chief Bill Harvey (thinly fictionalized under the name of Harvey Torriti), spring from historical footnotes to colorful and full-blown life in this miniseries.
From Harvey’s gruff sense of humor (“Can’t you Yale guys take a joke?” he grumbles to his young charges’ appalled stares after he blithely suggests murdering a German housewife in order to plant a bug in her apartment) to Angleton’s glacial rage at discovering he’s been outwitted by a Soviet spy, the real CIA men glow with an incandescent ardor for their anticommunist mission.
None of these figures have fared well among historians, who have almost uniformly dismissed them as loons and lushes. But in “The Company,” the dysfunctions that eventually enveloped and ended their careers—Angleton’s paranoia, Harvey’s drunkenness, and Wisner’s tragic madness that ended in suicide—are treated as the consequences of their spying rather than its motivation.
Living lives shrouded in secret and framed by the ruthless cost-benefit calculations of espionage, “The Company” makes clear, took a high personal toll, costing careers, lovers, wives, even countries. Kim Philby (cannily played by Tom Hollinger of “Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”), the wily Soviet mole inside British intelligence, is wounded and angry when his superiors in Moscow tell him he’s been unmasked and must return home. “England is my home,” he insists fruitlessly.
The price paid by Wisner, the CIA director who futilely begged the Eisenhower White House to support the Hungarian resistance fighters that it first encouraged, then abandoned to the tender mercies of Soviet tanks, was even higher; we see his sanity literally dissolve in a remarkable performance by Ted Atherton (“Sue Thomas, F.B. Eye”).
Like the Hungarian uprising, the controversy at the heart of “The Company” (which airs in two-hour episodes for three consecutive Sundays) is drawn from history: the bitter hunt for a Soviet mole that wracked the CIA for two decades starting in the mid-1950s and nearly consumed the agency.
After Philby and his team of Soviet spies were discovered inside British intelligence (where they also had access to the CIA’s secrets, which were freely shared with the Brits), Angleton became convinced that Washington, too, had been infiltrated. With only a couple of clues to go on (the mole’s last name started with the letter K, and he was a Russian speaker) Angleton turned the CIA upside down searching for the traitor.
It’s hard to imagine a less likely subject for a spy thriller. Mole hunts aren’t built from car chases or gunfights but deductive reasoning based on long, repetitive interrogations. As a KGB officer puts it in “The Company,” “This war is one of icebergs moving slowly in seas of deception.” Watch Robert De Niro’s soporific “The Good Shepherd,” which was also based on Angleton’s pursuit of the mole, to see just how dull it can look on film.
“The Company” fares much better. In part that’s due to a remarkable performance by Michael Keaton, who completely disappears into the role of Angleton, rendering him as cold, clear and hard as a diamond. Perhaps even more important is the deft script by Ken Nolan, which pares the novel’s 900 pages down to six sinewy hours and turns what might have been a dusty intellectual exercise into a suspenseful, even riveting mystery.
A potential defector hems and haws as he tells his story to CIA interrogators. Is that because it’s phony? Or should we be suspicious instead of stories that sound perfect—perhaps a sign that they’ve been carefully rehearsed?
And if the defector is a fake, a Soviet mole, should he be arrested—or used to play back disinformation to his masters in Moscow? “There are two, three, five, seven different ways to interpret any given set of facts,” explains Angleton. No wonder he called the spy business “a wilderness of mirrors.”
“The Company” captures perfectly the maddening ambiguities of the intelligence trade and the men who plied it during the Cold War. But it never loses sight of the bottom line, that there were good guys and bad guys. If you don’t believe it, just ask the Vietnamese boat people or the Cuban rafters.