Down the Rabbit Hole

Company men (Photo by Nigel Parry)

The dirty art of personal betrayal is what drives the best espionage fiction. That’s why John le Carré’s George Smiley novels — character studies in cold logic and loneliness — are so much more rewarding than his recent work, dull op-ed-style screeds about our global mess in threadbare cloak-and-dagger disguise. A melancholy churner like Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation, which dug patiently into its wiretapping subject’s head, echoed its paranoid era much more successfully than last year’s ponderous CIA-soldier tragedy The Good Shepherd did for our war-bitten times.

On the surface, TNT’s new six-hour adaptation of Robert Littell’s massive CIA novel The Company — the book covers four decades — is a fairly colorful array of Cold War spy games that has grand ambitions as a saga of institutionalized untrustworthiness. It’s at its best when it sweats the small stuff of things like “barium meals” (purposefully fake directives designed to smoke out double agents) and the moves and countermoves of smart men trying to outwit each other. It hops from occupied Berlin to communist Hungary to the Bay of Pigs — with frequent interludes at American headquarters and inside Russia — stitching together a series of Western intelligence failures to a semifictionalized hunt for Soviet agents inside the CIA. (One of the story’s Russian operatives comes from the history books; the other was invented by Littell.)

To heighten the scope of the enterprise, director Mikael Salomon and adapter Ken Nolan give each of the three two-hour installments a different style, as if they didn’t want to leave any spy-genre element untouched. Part one, which I’ll call “European Shadows Night,” introduces us to Company newbie Jack McAuliffe (Chris O’Donnell), stationed under blustery CIA legend the Sorcerer (Alfred Molina) in trench-coat-friendly ’50s Berlin. Jack’s been assigned to a ballerina spy named Lili (Alexandra Maria Lara), who is passing info to the Americans. Of course, the pair court danger by falling in love; at the same time, inklings of a mole well ensconced in the upper echelons of the organization spur the Sorcerer to risk increasingly dangerous moves to uncover the traitor.

Part two could be called “Battle Night,” in which Jack goes to Hungary to assist rebels in rising up against the communists, only to be stranded when the American military sits back while Soviet tanks crush the opposition. Next is the Bay of Pigs, and there’s Jack — the “Where’s Waldo?” of CIA fuckups — facilitating a rebel army against Castro only to discover once again how uninterested his nation is in supporting its intelligence arm’s intrusions into other countries’ affairs. By this time, infighting in the CIA over the identity of the mole — now blamed for the botched missions in Hungary and Cuba — has created a rift between obsessed counterintelligence head James Jesus Angleton (Michael Keaton) and nearly everyone else.

It’s here where The Company starts to feel like an internecine acting battle between O’Donnell and Keaton — a face-off Keaton was destined to win. O’Donnell is in a strange period of his career. His chiseled-wasp handsomeness is too aged to suggest youthful naivete in the Berlin scenes (much less the Edenic flashbacks to his character’s sculling days at Yale), while his limited range as an actor — every emotion seems a variation of smirky frat boy — lends no gravitas to the supposedly experienced, jaded spook of the final installment. But by the miniseries’ final two hours — “Le Carré Night” sounds appropriate — when the focus is on ferreting out the mole, Keaton’s Angleton has thankfully taken over the story. Finally, the choppy, clichéd melodrama — at one point in the first part O’Donnell literally enters a carnival hall of mirrors to elude some bad guys — now begins to generate genuine suspense. Angleton, nicknamed the Kingfisher, was an iconic figure in the Company’s history. He was generally seen in real life as an alternatively brilliant and harmful spy leader: great with details, quick to accuse others of duplicity, and eventually crippling when it came to internal morale. In The Company, he’s seen as a beleaguered, unsung desk-bound warrior of sorts — as opposed to the Shakespearean paranoid that inspired the Matt Damon character in The Good Shepherd — so Keaton masterfully plays him like the prickliest of enigmatic nerd heroes, the smoke from his ever-present cigarette forming a hazy mask for his stoic features. His soft-spoken, long discourses on demystifying the enemy’s rabbit holes — a source of ridicule to his colleagues — even have a way of seeming like one actor’s deliberate efforts to bring a breakneck historical saga to a chess player’s pace, and for this fan of the spy genre’s less histrionic tendencies, they were welcome indeed.

Of course, the Cold War — like our current foreign struggles — was played out against a blanket fear of nuclear holocaust. But for all the worry about what might happen in a worst-case scenario, it’s easy to forget that there’s a group of people who can explain just what it’s like to survive such an occurrence. They are the ones who lived through Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and their personal experiences — before, during and after the Enola Gay’s world-changing payload reached its targets — make up documentarian Steven Okazaki’s White Light/Black Rain, airing Monday on HBO, which is the 62nd anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. (Nagasaki was hit on August 9.)

Okazaki met with more than 100 survivors before settling on 14 for his testimony-laden film. Most of them were children at the time — including a woman who was the only one in her school of 620 to survive — but some were just starting their adult lives when devastation intervened. Naturally, accounts of the day and its immediate aftermath are the most grueling, from the violent impact of the explosion itself to the throngs of people with eyes hanging out and skin dripping from their frames. People jumped into rivers filled with dead bodies. A military doctor, 20 at the time, makes a point of countering the common visual metaphor of a mushroom cloud — admittedly the safe-distance descriptor — by saying that from his ground-zero vantage, the sky looked like nothing less than a “pillar of fire.”

Okazaki occasionally augments his subjects’ voices with their own artistic renderings of their recollections, and whether childlike or crudely impressionistic, they have a stinging impact as well. We’re shown U.S. Army footage of the survivors being treated too, which has a kind of clinical, ravages-of-war hypnotism: catatonic figures displaying burns that resemble maps of hell.

All in all, the remembrances are sobering and disturbing but told without sourness, which begins to have an odd effect, especially in relation to President Truman’s regrettably chaste newsreel description of the country’s new weapons as “a harnessing of the basic power of the universe.” Perhaps the titanic resilience of the survivors — from the enduring physical agony to the loss of loved ones to the discrimination they felt while Japan tried to rebuild and forget its warring past — is in its own way an incredible harnessing of mysterious power, albeit an internal, unscientific one very few of us can comprehend. As one survivor nobly puts it, “All this pain we carry in our hearts and our bodies, it must end with us.”

THE COMPANY | TNT | Premieres Sun., Aug. 5, 8 p.m.

WHITE LIGHT/BLACK RAIN | HBO | Debuts Mon., Aug. 6, 7:30 p.m.

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