Men Behaving Blandly

Illustration by Henry JansonPhoto: Nigel Parry/Courtesy of TNT

In his late-life science-fiction novel, The Ark Sakura, the Japanese writer Kobo Abe introduced us to the “clockbug”—a perpetual-motion insect that thrives on a diet of its own feces, eating as it eliminates, circling always to face the sun. It seems to me that the CIA’s James Jesus Angleton—as he is impersonated, incorporated, and maybe even transubstantiated by Michael Keaton in TNT’s six-hour mini-series The Company—is just such a clockbug, consuming and eliminating cigarettes, alcohol, orchids, and paranoid scenarios. One difference, though, is that Langley’s chief of counterintelligence stayed always in the spooky dark. After British agent and best buddy Kim Philby turned out to be a Soviet spy, Angleton would never again trust anybody.

As The Company lurches from decade to clandestine decade—from the earliest days of the Cold War to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, with time out for the Hungarian Revolution and the Bay of Pigs fiasco—actors with recognizable names play parts that, while sometimes historical, are more often fictitious. Alfred Molina, although clearly based on William K. Harvey, the agency’s hard-drinking, gun-toting Berlin station chief, is mysteriously identified as “Harvey Torriti.” In thin disguise, Simon Callow and Antony Sher represent British and Israeli intelligence. Cedric Smith sucks on an Allen Dulles pipe. More obviously make-believe are Chris O’Donnell as Jack McAuliffe, our square-jawed true-blue super-spook, who warmed up for Russian tanks on the streets of Budapest and bloody water in the Bay of Pigs by rowing crew at Yale, and Rory Cochrane as Yevgeny Tsipin, the puffy-faced KGB agent who, before ferrying secrets from an agency mole to his Kremlin masters, also went to Yale. We will not speak of the women—Alexandra Maria Lara as a German ballerina, Erika Marozsán as a Russian Jew, Natascha McElhone as a Hungarian freedom fighter—who must suffer the wet-dream rescue fantasies of these undercover derring-doers.

But we go on watching because of Keaton, whose clockbug Angleton seems practically deliquescent, as if his ego boundaries have dissolved in booze and grandiosity, and he can no longer find himself in his own “wilderness of mirrors,” among modernist literary tropes of moles and doubles and covers and codes, of unreliable narrators and disinformations, of underground men and secret sharers. Otherwise, executive-produced by Ridley and Tony Scott, directed by Mikael Salomon, and based on a novel by Robert Littell, The Company is both surprisingly slow and remarkably tendentious. I suppose that for Jack to keep his Boy Scout idealism intact for 40 years, agency activities in the Congo, the Philippines, Guatemala, Indonesia, Chile, and Tibet have to be ignored, as well as assassination plots, LSD experiments, opening first-class American mail, and any questions about the competence of an intelligence-gathering outfit that managed to miss the advent of Sputnik, the fall of the Shah of Iran, the collapse of the nonprofit police states of Eastern Europe, and the Hindu hydrogen bomb. And then, in its very last half-hour, The Company has the flabbergasting, counterintelligent gall to rehabilitate Angleton. As he coughs himself to death, he was right all along. And I am the King of Bavaria.

About Damages, the frantic new FX series in which Glenn Close hires Rose Byrne right out of law school to try to bring down corporate beastie boy Ted Danson in a class-action suit that turns into a holy war, I find it difficult to tell you much without disclosing spoilers in a plot-heavy first two hours. I will say that, tired as I am of series that put their own principal characters at lethal risk we can’t take seriously, I am shocked at one that begins with such speciousness. I also hoped for a program that might appreciate criminal-defense attorneys, after more than a decade of television contemptuous of the presumption of innocence. This hope was in vain.

The Company
TNT. Premieres August 5 at 8 p.m.

FX. Tuesdays at 10 p.m. Premieres July 24.

Men Behaving Blandly