"Don't get lost in the wilderness of mirrors," Kim Philby, the English archmole, warns his CIA colleague in TNT's "The Company," a six-hour, three-part docudrama about the CIA, the KGB and the Cold War.
The phrase defines the deceptions and treachery of espionage, but viewers wanting to separate the docu- from the -drama, and the real spies from the invented ones, may find themselves in an altogether different wilderness of mirrors. A reliable CIA history could be handy over the next three Sundays (8 p.m. EDT).
Or you could just forget about the history books and enjoy the thrills, mysteries, pathos and international cast offered by this ambitious production, complete with a limit on commercial breaks during the first episode.
Based on Robert Littell's novel "The Company," the miniseries is anchored in the lives of three idealistic Yalies. Two of them — Jack McAuliffe (Chris O'Donnell) and Leo Kritzky (Alessandro Nivola) — are recruited into the recently created CIA while the third, Yevgeny Tsipin (Rory Cochrane), returns to his native Soviet Union, only to be sent back to Washington as a secret agent.
Episode 1 pitches Jack and his mentor, Harvey Torriti (Alfred Molina) aka "The Sorcerer," into early Cold War skirmishes and thwarted romance in bombed-out Berlin, while back in Washington, the CIA has been penetrated at the highest level by Philby.
The Philby affair is, of course, entirely true, as are the events that dominate the action-packed second episode — the Hungarian revolution of 1956 (filmed in Budapest) and the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco (with Puerto Rico standing in for Cuba).
Episode 3 changes gears abruptly to focus on James Jesus Angleton, the CIA's legendary mole hunter, and his long, obsessive search for the other Soviet agent he's convinced is hidden inside the CIA and, managing, as did Philby, to foil the CIA's every move.
It's here that fact-checking may be called for, but whatever the result, the third episode is by far the most absorbing, dragging us deep into the mind of Angleton as he struggles through the wilderness of mirrors while the KGB works with devilish ingenuity to throw him off the scent. The betrayals become devastating, and the interrogation in a secret prison gives off echoes of today's headlines.
Accomplished international cast
"The Company" brings together an accomplished international cast — Germany's Alexandra Maria Lara, Hitler's secretary in "Downfall"; Ulrich Thomsen of Denmark, recently seen in the Crusader epic "Kingdom of Heaven," as the Soviet spymaster; Englishman Tom Hollander, repeat villain in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" series, playing Philby complete with stutter. Two British stage greats, Simon Callow and Anthony Sher, have cameos.
Several characters have to age 40 years — no easy feat for the ever-boyish O'Donnell, but it's that boyishness that makes him persuasive as the idealist dodging Russian bullets and Cuban warplanes to uphold the American Way.
But two characters truly stand out.
Michael Keaton, playing the true-life Angleton among the fictional Tsipin, McAuliffe and Torriti, is astonishing. Gone are the edge and attitude that made him such a hit in "Beetlejuice" and "Batman." Here he's the chain-smoking gray ghost of the Beltway, hunting moles as painstakingly as he nurtures the orchids in his hothouse, his voice restrained sometimes to a whisper, buried in dark suit and shadows, yet dominating his every scene.
As for Rory Cochrane, those who remember him as Detective Speedle in "CSI: Miami" will find him a revelation as Tsipin, the KGB agent.
Tsipin is the saddest character of the story — a waiflike figure skulking around pay phones, deciphering coded messages in his room late at night, riding the Washington subway alone. When he finally goes home, it's to a Russia where the ideology he served is dead and the woman he loved has spent years in the gulag.
Lost cause, lost love, a wasted life — it all pours out of this actor's haunted, desperate eyes in the miniseries' climactic moment.
In the end, we are left with one big question: If the CIA was such a serial bungler, so vulnerable to Soviet infiltration, how could the Soviet Union lose?
Torriti's answer is simple: The Americans were the good guys, holding back "the Goths at the gate."
McAuliffe is less sure, and his final exchange with his mentor ends "The Company" on an ambiguous note:
"There were good guys and there were bad guys."
"Which side were we again, Harvey?"
"We won, didn't we?"