The Company (2007) dir. Mikael Salomon
Starring: Chris O’Donnell, Alfred Molina, Michael Keaton, Alessandro Nivolo
“The Company” is a 3-part TV mini-series which aired on TNT this summer. It’s a shame it only aired on the lower-tier cable channel and not a prestige-caster like HBO or Showtime, because with some heavy hitters behind the film (Ridley and Tony Scott) we are guaranteed an exciting, suspenseful epic event. Indeed, it’s arguably the definitive film about the CIA – everything “The Good Shepherd” wasn’t.
The film is divided into three clearly-defined chapters spanning 1945 – 1992. Part 1 introduces three key figures – Jack McAuliffe, our hero (Chris O’Donnell), Leo Kritsky (Alessandro Nivolo) and Yevgeny Tsipin (Rory Cochrane). They are all friends and grads from Yale, which, as we know from history books and films was the recruiting ground for the Company (the CIA’s nickname). Jack and Leo get recruited, and Yevgeny moves back to Russia, where he is courted into the KGB. The first mission for Jack is bringing back a Communist defector from East Berlin. Jack is taught the ropes by old school mentor ‘The Sorcerer’ Harvey Torritti (another fine Alfred Molina performance). When the defection is compromised it exposes a mole with the upper ranks of the Company. Throughout the series, this mole will become central in all of Jack’s dealings.
In Part 2, Jack is abroad participating in the foreign affairs missions in Hungary, Guatemala and Cuba and we get to see played out the Hungarian Revolution, and the Bay of Pigs invasion. In Part 3, the mole comes back into the picture when another defector teases Jack with some tempting information. Michael Keaton, who plays director James Angleton, a supremely analytical agent, goes after the mole with needle and thread precision. But when the mole is revealed to be someone close to Jack, hearts and minds come into conflict. The film finishes off with the fall of Communism, when the “great game” as everyone describes it comes to an end. We are also given a revelatory piece of information about a Soviet connection to a near disastrous event in 1987. I’ll let you watch to discover this clever real-life connection.
It must have been fun and frustrating to be a CIA agent - highly intelligent people going head-to-head in a game of global chess. Nothing is ever as it seems, and if the agents get to a piece of information too easily it’s usually dismissed as disinformation. This is the main battle for Jack and Torritti, determined disinformation from real information. It’s a conundrum that can rarely be solved, because facts, evidence and information can so easily be planted and manipulated.
Writer Ken Logan (“Blackhawk Down”) manages to dramatize these complex mind games with clarity. He keeps the characters to a minimum, and so rarely are we confused. He also gives us peaks and valleys in the narrative – which “The Good Shepherd” lacked. Part 2 is essentially an action film with Chris O’Donnell driving tanks in Hungary and firing guns in Cuba. Logan is all business as well, leaving out any and all relationship plotlines. Excised are the requisite scenes of domestic life and internal family conflict. And there’s no miscasting of Angelina Jolie as an innocent housewife either. As mentioned, it’s the “24” model of espionage - A to B to C storytelling with very little fat.
The series is directed by Mikael Salomon – known for his DOP work in the 80’s and 90’s but his superb directorial work on “Band of Brothers”. He manages to get some surprisingly large-scale production value within television’s usual low budget. Having cut his teeth with lower budget action on “Band of Brothers” Salomon provides the same level of tense action here. And in the Bay of Pigs sequences, he actually pulls off a surprising epic landing sequence complete with wide establishing shots of the beaches with planes flying overhead, battleships in the water and hundreds of men on the beach. It was a pleasant surprise to see this escalation in storytelling after the largely low-key whispering of Part 1.
The film is on DVD, and believe me, it’s a must see. For those of you who really wanted to like “The Good Shepherd” but could only sleep through it’s pedantic pace, the real film about the CIA has finally arrived. Enjoy.
Buy it here: The Company