The Company [TNT, the next three Sundays, 8/7C] is a cleverly constructed mini-series that uses the lives of three college friends to tell the story of the CIA from the early fifties through the fall of the Berlin Wall. Adapted from Robert Little’s novel, it concentrates on three major historical events: the Hungarian Uprising of 1956; the debacle of The Bay of Pigs, and the fall of Soviet Russia. The three week/six-hour mini-series begins with the recruiting of three college friends into the sadly inglorious world of spying…
Jack McAuliffe [Chris O’Donnell], Leo Kritzky [Alessandro Nivola] and Yevgeny Tsipin [Rory Cochrane] are just finished college when Jack and Leo are recruited by the CIA. Yevgeny returns to Russia where he’s recruited for the KGB. Jack finds himself in the field, working with Harvey Torriti who wastes little time initiating him into the realities of espionage. Yevgeny finds himself being trained to work undercover in America.
When Harvey and Jack have some assignments go horribly wrong, they determine that there must be a mole in the CIA [Night One]. Enter James Jesus Angleton [Michael Keaton]; a man who seems to have a knack for finding important patterns amongst the voluminous information The Company accumulates. At the same time, Jack is given his first "asset" to run - a young ballerina named Lili [Alexandra Marie Lara].
The Company is a remarkably atmospheric piece. The use of various palettes in lighting and design contribute greatly to the tension that the solid script [by Ken Nolan] generates through the meticulous directing of Mikael Salomon. Character, situation, lighting, palette and score all contribute to building tension - and burst of violence both punctuate the storytelling and release the accumulated tension.
As the mini-series progresses through the Hungarian Uprising and The Bay of Pigs [Night Two] and on into the fall of Soviet Russia and the discovery of a mole in the CIA, the entire cast delivers a collective performance to rival anything seen on television in the last decade.
It's especially heart-rending to watch the naïve Jack realize that the life of a spy is mostly boredom and minutiae punctuated with bursts of action - and always, there are consequences. Leo, on the other hand, works at home, in the office, and manages to successfully woo the daughter of a highly placed government official - who gives him some grief about being Jewish, but eventually gives their marriage his blessing.
For Yevgeny, his trip home to Russia results in his being recruited by a fervent KGB official called Starik [Ullrich Thomsen]. Starik's pitch is as idealized as the rowing coach who recruits Jack and Leo for The Company. The young and idealistic Yevgeny buys it - hook, line and sinker. Cochrane makes it completely believable as his character undergoes training in everything from social gatherings to hand-to-hand combat - and falls in love with a nice Jewish girl...
Although the three friends are the centerpiece for the mini-series to make its way through history, it's Michael Keaton's performance as Angleton that really causes chills. Angleton is as cold a fish as you'll ever find. He's analytical, and very, very efficient. Once he finds a pattern in the midst of the tons of information that pass through his office, he worries at it like a dog with a juicy bone. When he's sure of his position, he's oblivious to other opinions - a trait that gets him into a spot of bother at one early point, but that results in major breakthroughs later on. Keaton makes this guy utterly real - maybe too uncomfortably real.
The Company works on a level that puts it in the company of such great mini-series as The Winds of War, and Shogun. It's a deftly told tale that balances multiple character and story arcs with seeming ease - and manages to gain maximum impact from each and everyone of them. It challenges the viewer with its audacity and intelligence, making one of the summer's must-see events.
Final Grade: A