What The Good Shepherd (2006) packed into a single movie, The Company (2007) rolled out in six, would-be one-hour episodes for TNT (you never get a real hour on American television). That’s how it should be done. Don’t get me wrong, The Good Sheperd is terrific (on the second viewing), but the Cold War is so complicated and interesting that it deserves as much time as you can give to it. Was The Company completely thorough? No, but it was a solid effort.
The Company is an amalgamation of CIA personnel and history to drive a central story of the CIA (the Company) based upon the book by Robert Littell. Jack McAuliffe (Chris O’Donnell) is an all-American Yale grad that joins the CIA in 1950 with his bestie Leo Kritzky (Alessandro Nivola). First, in 1954, he’s sent to Berlin under the tutelage of Sorcerer (Alfred Molina). Then, in 1956, he’s sent to Budapest, Hungary to deal with the rebellion brewing there. In 1961, he goes to Cuba to help with the Bay of Pigs invasion.
On the other side, we have Yevgeny (Rory Cochrane) who, unbeknownst to him, was raised to become a KGB agent—went to high school in New York, college at Yale, and came home to be recruited formally by the head of the KGB. He’s sent back to the United States to be the point of contact for the KGB’s spies. I guess that makes him the top guy in the US, but it looks a lot like grunt work to me.
All the while, there are moles in the US/UK intelligence agencies to deal with. Counterintelligence head, James Angleton (Michael Keaton), is the symbol of that search.
Jack, as America, is consistently disappointed by how things turn out. Often, it’s the government of the day (Eisenhower and then Kennedy) who fail to support anti-Soviet rebellions. One has to wonder if the United States had supported either or both the Hungarians and the Cubans (and Czechs), would war have been as inevitable as it seemed? It’s a cruel irony that all of the places where the United States did draw the squiggly line in the sand were in terrible third-world countries led by the corrupt or tyrannical. So the US doesn’t look too great.
A weakness with the series is that, despite having two central characters as KGB agents (the second, a KGB General, Starik, played by Ulrich Thomsen), it is very one-sided. This is presented from a doubter-but-believer perspective that uses hard-liners to distinguish the American side and just takes the Soviet side for granted. They must believe in their system like we do. That’s a hard sell, but they don’t really even try anything beyond a superficial statement by our KGB folks.
There’s a good reason for that. How could they, the Soviet populace, possibly be patriotic (rather than purely jingoistic)? The show brings that point out time and time again with Americans stating it bluntly and Russians whispering it in moments of clarity. Decadence, foolish, whatever, but at least we don’t live in constant fear of our own government or secret police. As difficult as it is to understand, The Company doesn’t really try to figure it out.
They give a line to Kim Philby– that’s funny, Tom Hollander played Burgess in Cambridge Spies (2003) and plays Philby in this– that was a particularly disingenuous attempt at explanation: “I did love to play the Great Game.” I’m pretty sure he was a true-believer communist and not just a thrill-seeker. Still, when the moles come back to Moscow, how could they possibly think anything other than, “What was I thinking?” Maybe I give them too much credit.
What the show does have, and the reason I bought it and would recommend it to anyone, is a look at the historical events of the Cold War from start(ish) to finish. It doesn’t show it all, sadly, but it does present a history lesson for many (I suspect most) who are all too ignorant of the recent past.
The great thing about it is that they have blended real-life characters that you need to know to be literate in the subject while also blending the grunts on the ground into just a couple of characters. It’s the perfect balance of entertainment and documentary that makes it very watchable. It’s basically the same thing they did in Rome (2005-06) but with a far greater investment. That’s HBO, this is TNT.
With this sense of entertainment comes a significant cost. The regular problem of the show is that it engages in shameless sentimentality during these central historical moments (Berlin, Hungary, and Cuba). In two, Jack gets a girlfriend and in the other he connects with an anti-Castro Cuban rebel. The dialogue gets a little stilted at these times and tips the balance away from the historical ethos it had been building up. The last episode is the biggest culprit in this. The writer got incredibly lazy. Jack running operations in the field (a) inside the United States, which is illegal, and (b) when he’s in his 60’s pushes things past the boundary of common suspension of disbelief.
It also undermines the idea that they couldn’t extend the series into the Czech revolt, Poland, Angola, Vietnam and all the rest. If you’ve got an audience in the mood for history and espionage, why not do the whole thing? Vietnam’s been done, sure, but the others haven’t. Vietnam is rarely seen from the side of macro foreign policy rather than military operations. I haven’t read the book, so maybe it isn’t there or it was an issue with budget or maybe those documents haven’t been declassified.
On production, this is a pretty high-end miniseries. The reality is that you don’t need much to sell a spy thriller—just watch Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)—but they definitely spend the money to make it happen here. The downside is that the production has such a high gloss that its failures are more evident than they would be with a grittier approach. Still, outside ad breaks, this is movie-quality production in all fields. They do have the tendency to overplay the people-in-shadows metaphor, but it’s effective. Jeff Beal puts in some good music. Sometimes it’s hokey and maudlin, but you’ve got to match music to the scene.
A lot of the hoke and maudle has to be credited to the actors as well as the writers. They deliver the material with much self-important panache, overwrought on occasion. Keaton, who you’d expect to shine, takes it a little too far in the small-mouth talking department. O’Donnell is the all-American boy, so he gets a pass.
Cochrane, though, as the young-to-old KGB spy, he was seriously JV. His performance was so thoughtful and sensitive it was difficult to watch. This wasn’t a character drama, it was a historical one. The dialogue isn’t nuanced enough to allow anyone to act like they have inner thoughts outside of mere suspicion.
Molina was great. Easily the best. He seems to know that what he’s saying is brutish and vulgar while the others seem to think they’re men of men.
The show ends with a post-Cold War wrap-up with Jack and the Sorcerer wondering what it all meant. It’s a representative sample of the show. Superficial, pro-American, and lacking in originality of perspective. But it’s a killer subject matter and you could do worse and still have a worthwhile show on your hands. I wish there was more of it. Doesn’t that say it all?