I'm not a huge fan of historical fiction. While I read a lot of nonfiction histories, I can never trust novels based on real events.
I'm always wondering if the lesser situations really happened, or if the
author wrote them in just because it made for a good yarn. Because
of that it's often hard to just sit back and enjoy the story. The
2007 TV miniseries The Company, which looks at people working for
the CIA from the 50's until the breakup of the Soviet Union, is almost
able to make me forget that. The show looks at some of the organizations
more public escapades through the eyes of three college buddies who all
end up working as spies, two for the US and one for the USSR.
McAuliffe (Chris O'Donnell) and Leo Kritzky (Alessandro Nivola) are buddies
at Yale, roommates and on the crew team together. As they get near
graduation, their crew coach tells then that he has an interesting proposition
for them: to go to work for the CIA. Appealing to their patriotism
and telling them that they can change the world for the better, the two
young men sign up.
At about the same time a college friend of theirs, Yevgeny Tsipin (Rory
Cochrane) returns to his home in Russia. There he's surprised to
learn that his father has been a KGB agent most of his life, and that the
spy agency wants him to join too. He's been educated in America,
knows their ways and speaks English flawlessly, and could do a great service
to his country. Patriotic and seeking adventure, he joins also and
is eventually sent to America. His mission is to pass messages to
Soviet double agents; first Kim Philby (a real-life spy who worked for
British intelligence) and then later for the mysterious Sasha, a mole hidden
in the CIA.
While Leo ends up flying a desk in DC, working under James Jesus Angleton
(another historical character played wonderfully by Michael Keaton) Jack
becomes a field agent. He's first sent to East Berlin where he is
trained by one of the old guard, Harvey Torriti a.k.a. the Sorcerer (Alfred
Molina). In Berlin Leo ends up acting as a go-between, passing information
from a lovely ballet dancer to his superiors.
few years later he's assigned to act as a liaison to freedom fighters in
Hungary. The CIA wants them to postpone their uprising because the
time isn't right. Of course Radio Free Europe has been telling them
to revolt for years, and the leaders are justifiably perplexed by this
development. They tell Jack that they can't stop it, anymore than
they could stop an avalanche once it's started.
Back in the US, one of Angleton's best friends and his counterpart for
Britain's MI6, Kim Philby, disappears suddenly and is found to be a Russian
spy. This wrecks Angelton. He's sure that if there was a spy
in MI6, there was one in the CIA too. He spends a decade and a half
looking for him, growing ever more paranoid.
There's a lot to like about this series. One of the most interesting
things is that the three episodes play like three two-hour movies.
The first installment is an espionage thriller, with people sneaking in
and out of Communist controlled Berlin and sending coded messages.
The second part is an action film that's filled with tanks plowing through
barricades, people being tortured, and a huge battle sequence at the Bay
of Pigs in Cuba. Finally the series wraps up with a psychological
thriller. Is there really a mole in the CIA, or has Angelton gone
off the deep end? If so, who is it, and how can it be proven?
show also walks that fine line between being too liberal and too conservative.
That won't stop people from both sides of the political spectrum from complaining,
since they show the good and the bad about the agency, but the show does
try to tell a story rather than promoting a political agenda. Yes,
the CIA does some not-so-nice things and makes mistakes, but the Communists
are painted in a much worse light. The people who work for the CIA
honestly believe that they are on the front lines of a war, and many of
them sacrifice much for their country.
The acting was solid throughout. Chris O'Donnell was fine in the
lead, but Michael Keaton was amazing. (It's only with superhuman
effort that I'm resisting making a Batman joke.) He played the paranoid
CIA agent perfectly, making his character both brilliant and more than
a little obsessed. The other standout performance was from Alfred
Molina. His no nonsense character was pragmatic while also being
a bit unsavory but sincere in his convictions. He created an oddly
likeable character and the show was always interesting while he was on
the series isn't perfect. While the show was very engaging, the ending
was pretty weak. There were events that took place that just didn't
ring true. When Jack realizes who the CIA mole and even figures out
when he was turned, this trained operative confronts the spy alone without
telling anyone where he's going. That was just stupid.
There are some historical discrepancies too. The show wasn't trying
to tell the story of a real CIA agent, but to create a fictional composite
to illustrate what agents might have gone through. That's fine, and
a good part of the reason I enjoyed the series as much as I did. The inclusion of real people and events means
that they are going to stay close to reality. It's when the author
makes up realistic sounding events out of thin air that I have a problem.
This show claims that the KGB were responsible for the stock market crash
of 1987, that Castro was warned about the Bay of Pigs invasion by a double
agent, and that Angelton's mole really did exist. There's no evidence
for any of these claims, and if the mole was real he was never caught.
This show goes a long way towards rewriting the history of Angelton.
He was forced to resign and is now generally though to have been a crackpot
in his later years. (He thought that Henry Kissinger, the British
Prime Minister, and the US ambassador to the Soviet Union were all KGB
agents.) In this series he's the only one to see the truth.
The Blu-ray Disc:
This three part six hour (when shown on TV with commercials) mini-series
is spread over two Blu-ray discs. Parts one and two are on the first
disc while the final chapter and the bonus material are located on the
The AVC MPEG-4 encoded program looks very good, especially for a TV
show. The director used color and lighting to create an atmosphere,
and that was reproduced faithfully. Communist Hungary is damp, colorless
and drab, while the Central American jungles where Cuban expatriates are
preparing for the Bay of Pigs invasion is lush and vivid. Black were
solid throughout without being crushed. The level of detail in excellent,
with the dirt and grime on the windows of the East Berlin safe house were
so clear I wanted to clean my screen. If anything the show looked
a bit too good. The make up on Keaton's face that was used to age
him wasn't terribly convincing and the crystal clear image was partly to
blame for that.
I was surprised to see some very minor aliasing in the image since Sony
spread this out over two discs and there should have been plenty of room.
There are a couple of times when the camera would pan over someone with
a jacket that had a very fine checkered pattern and the lines would vibrate
slightly. Another place this turned up was in the CIA conference
room in the last episode. The walls are decorated with closely spaced
wooden slats and as the camera moves the edges shimmer a bit. This
is very minor however and doesn't ruin the show's visual appeal.
The show comes with a PCM 5.1 lossless track as well as a DD 5.1 mix.
I screened the show with the former. For a TV show, the sound design
was excellent. I was impressed with the amount of panning and discrete
audio effects that the show had. The Bay of Pigs invasion was aurally
impressive with bullets audibly whizzing from left to right and front to
back. The few explosions were forceful too. When the Russian
tank fires in the second episode the sub produced a nice satisfying rumble
that shook the windows.
The only problem I really had was that at normal volumes the dialog
can be hard to make out in some places. There's a lot of whispering
going on, and sometimes what is being said isn't clear. The Hungarian
resistance meeting is a good example. Two people are talking quietly
to each other while a speech is going on and I missed some of the words
they were saying to each other. This is a flaw with the show itself
rather than the disc though.
On the second disc there are a couple of featurettes. The first
is Declassified: The Origins of The Company, a 15-minute promotional
piece that looks at the genesis of the project as well as the characters,
script and format. The second is The Hidden Hand: The
Making of the Company which runs about 23 minutes and looks at the production
side of things. Both of these were okay, but there wasn't much information
that was new or unusual. Everyone worked hard, they all respected
and admired each other, and the problems that popped up were overcome.
This is a good historical drama. It's engaging, thought provoking, and
an enjoyable way to spend some time. Though the ending stretches
believability a bit at the end and there are too many made-up events for
my liking I am glad I saw it. The acting was very good, and Micheal
Keaton did a superb job. It's worth watching just for the speech
he gives when he resigns. Recommended.
Note: The images in this review are not from the Blu-ray disc and do
not necessarily represent the image quality on the disc.