The challenge of condensing Robert Littell’s nearly-900-page novel, combined with some unfortunate casting choices, ultimately defeats “The Company” — a handsome six-hour limited series that meticulously pores over the same spy-counterspy Cold War stones as recent feature “The Good Shepherd.” A historical fiction spanning 40 years, the narrative lurches through the first two hours, incorporates more action (without adding much enlightenment) in the second chapter and finally races to knot its loose ends in the finale. Credit TNT with a nice try, but this uninvolving CIA chronicle does little to merit such a prominent tour of duty.
There’s no nice way to state the obvious — that despite the creative stamp of producers Ridley Scott, Tony Scott and John Calley, stars Chris O’Donnell, Alfred Molina and Michael Keaton simply don’t work in their roles, obscuring the solid supporting work, especially by Tom Hollander.
Front and center as Jack McAuliffe, a Yale grad recruited right out of college into the CIA, O’Donnell looks too old at the outset and too young at the end. In between, he’s a rather passive, whiny witness to history — albeit one who keeps finding himself in the middle of major events, from the 1956 Hungarian uprising to the Bay of Pigs.
McAuliffe receives lessons about the spy game from the Sorcerer (Molina), who guides him through an assignment in postwar Berlin as the cat-and-mouse game with the KGB begins. Meanwhile, the Soviets place their own operative (Rory Cochrane) in the U.S., where he instructs an unseen mole within the Western agencies under the orders of the Russian spymaster Starik (Ulrich Thomsen).
Despite warnings about getting involved, McAuliffe does precisely that with a pretty ballerina (Alexandra Maria Lara) who leaks him information, while efforts to expose the mole are thwarted by the officious James Angleton, aka Mother (Keaton), who has close ties to an MI6 agent played by Hollander.
“You can woo her, you can screw her… but don’t fall in love with her,” the Sorcerer counsels McAuliffe, reflecting some of the clunkier dialogue.
In part two, McAuliffe is on hand as the Hungarians rebel against the Soviets — waiting for help from America that never comes — while bringing him into contact with another pretty local (Natascha McElhone) drawn into the conflict. The action then switches to efforts to topple Fidel Castro and the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs, leaping forward in the last night to identify the mole even as the Soviet Union begins unraveling.
Director Mikael Salomon (“Band of Brothers”) and writer Ken Nolan (“Black Hawk Down”) clearly try to hit the high points of Littell’s book. Still, the globetrotting plots — Berlin, Moscow, D.C., Tel Aviv — and bursts of bloody action in hours three and four don’t offset the sluggish pace in the early going.
Some of the Boris-and-Natasha accents are risible, but the real failings are at the forefront, from Molina’s distracting Nixonian makeup to Keaton’s overly mannered performance as the obsessive bureaucrat; he often sounds as if he’s channeling “Underdog’s” Simon Bar Sinister.
Lost in translation, meanwhile, is a guiding point of view, since the CIA’s screw-ups make it harder to grasp its role in the Soviet system’s implosion — a question addressed at best only obliquely at the end.
“The Company” does cast light on the ambiguity of espionage and the uncertainty of war when waged in the shadows. It is also, ultimately, a rather reassuring message for our present times, inasmuch as the “good guys,” for all their failings, somehow manage to emerge victorious.