'The Company' Puts the Chill Back In the Cold War

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 4, 2007

Hold everything; the Cold War isn't over quite yet. It has six more hours to go -- if, that is, you're inclined to relive it via a new cable miniseries. "The Company," premiering tomorrow night on TNT, is a doom-and-gloomy fictionalized history of the CIA and 40 years of secret meetings, coded messages, false identities, poisoned drinks and cloaks and daggers by the score.

The deluxe-looking docudrama, lavish and at times even semi-spectacular, airs over three consecutive Sundays with two repeats following each premiere the same night. Fortunately, there are big names behind the scenes, including executive producers John Calley, Ridley Scott and Tony Scott, plus a cast headed by Chris O'Donnell as upright CIA agent Jack McAuliffe and Alfred Molina as a CIA officer nicknamed, for reasons that become fairly obvious, the Sorcerer.

Nicknames were popular in those days: "The Company" itself is a nickname for the CIA, of course. In addition, agents in the show go by such murky monikers as Sniper, Rainbow and Sasha, the last a mole from the Soviet KGB who has successfully infiltrated the CIA. But then the CIA has managed to get a mole into the KGB, too, so it basically evens out.

No one can be sure of anything or anyone. When a Soviet citizen makes it known he wants to defect, the possibility has to be considered that he's defecting only so he can be a more effectively ensconced spy. The Sorcerer philosophizes, "Even if we know the defector is a double agent, we play the game as if we don't know," feeding him a steady diet of disinformation, once a common part of the Cold War vocabulary.

For all the brutality and skulduggery depicted -- the ongoing rivalry and subterranean combat between the CIA and the KGB and the continuing confrontation of nuclear-armed superpowers -- the age seems somehow civilized compared with the time of terror(ism) in which we live now, a time in which there are no politely observed traditions. We seem to have gone from anxiety to horror. Espionage is still in the hands of professionals, perhaps, but anarchy has replaced the curious rules that were once in place and served as a kind of mutual protection.

The world grows curiouser and curiouser -- to quote a phrase from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," the satirical novel that is mentioned in each chapter of "The Company," perhaps as a comment on the absurdity of the nuclear age and on such policies as mutually assured destruction.

Some of the spymanship depicted is grotesquely comical and perhaps apocryphal -- as when, in Part 2, the action moves to communist Cuba and an attempt is made on Fidel Castro's life by poisoning the favorite milkshake he supposedly drank every day. Unfortunately, Cuba's own secret police get wind of it and the waiter who poisoned the milkshake is forced to drink it himself. It proves anything but tasty.

In addition to O'Donnell and Molina, the drama stars Michael Keaton as a high-ranking intelligence expert at the CIA, a man whose advice everyone seems to heed even though Keaton, as usual, mumbles some of his lines and thus it's a wonder anyone knows what the advice is. His appearances also tend to be few and fleeting. Could he be the KGB mole? Almost anyone could be. The secret is kept throughout most of the six hours.

According to TNT, each night of the drama -- which spans 40 years of 20th-century mayhem -- has "a unique tone." Night 1 is "a taut espionage thriller," Night 2 is "an action thriller," and Night 3 is "a complex psychological thriller." Oh, whatever. The first night is arguably the slowest, as we follow young Jack McAuliffe and friends from Yale to the CIA, where they believe they'll fight the good fight for freedom. One member of the group, however, Yevgeny Tsipin (Rory Cochrane) returns to his native Russia and signs up with the KGB.

Obviously their paths will cross once or twice in the coming years.

Most of Part 1 takes place in the dark, shadowy streets of East Berlin, and scenes there seem to be sepia-toned, with gray, black and brown the dominant colors. The commies never did have a good eye for design. The drama opens in 1954, then jumps back four years, when CIA recruits are told that "Western civilization is under attack." Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev is told by aides that "the Cold War will be won without a shot."

Of course, he assumes it's the Soviets who will win it, heh, heh, heh.

"The Company" is by no means a chronicle of CIA triumphs. Part 2 includes a painful reenactment of the heroic but doomed attempt by the Hungarian people to overthrow their communist government and take back their country. People there "live in fear of their own government," one freedom fighter says. (Though that doesn't sound like such a unique situation. Everyone should live in fear of government; a defensive posture may be the best protection.)

Unfortunately, support from the United States never comes through, and the Hungarian revolution is crushed. Not that many years later, the CIA suffers another humiliating defeat at the Bay of Pigs, where an abortive invasion of Castro's Cuba became a colossal fiasco. The Sorcerer enlists the help of the Cosa Nostra in assassinating Castro; that's apparently where the poisoned milkshake comes from.

Although the filmmakers depict the Hungarians as heroic, they appear poorly schooled in the techniques of guerrilla warfare. Once a Molotov cocktail is lighted, the best idea is to throw it -- preferably at a tank but anywhere else if none is available. But twice we see the freedom fighters fumbling with the flaming bottles, which blow up far short of their targets.

Here and there, "The Company" is so evocatively dark and creepy it approaches the artistry of a John le Carré thriller, at least as adapted for TV back in the '80s and '90s. Among the cast, which includes a love interest for O'Donnell during each major crisis, Molina is the standout, strikingly furtive. One KGB official calls the agency's work "a project of epic design," but that works better as a description for TNT's dry but ambitious -- and fitfully gripping -- thriller.

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