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Miniseries review: The Company (TNT)

Michael Keaton and Alfred Molina have pivotal roles in The Company.

Premiering: Sunday, Aug. 5 at 7 p.m. (central) on TNT. Repeated at 9 and 11 p.m.
Starring: Michael Keaton, Alfred Molina, Chris O'Donnell, Allesandro Nivula, Rory Cochrane
Produced by: Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, John Calley

A stellar summer for basic cable gets brighter still with a suitably dark miniseries about the CIA.

Beginning in 1954 and stretching to 1991,TNT's six-hour The Company has a phenomenal and revelatory performance by Michael Keaton as anal, taciturn James Jesus Angleton. His presence is most felt in the final two-hour chapter. Otherwise we keep longing for Angleton's re-emergence in a taut drama that also includes sharp work from Alfred Molina, Rory Cochrane and Alessandro Nivola.

This leaves Chris O'Donnell out, even though his jut-jawed character, agent Jack McAuliffe, has more screen time than any other. O'Donnell's performance is capable at best, although it does improve with age. He's not an overall detriment to The Company, which airs on three successive Sundays. But it sure would have been nice to see Matt Damon magically transported from The Good Shepherd to this similarly formative role of a CIA idealist turned realist.

In the least effective middle chapter, O'Donnell's McAuliffe is an action figure caught in both the Hungarian uprising against Soviet occupation and the bungled Bay of Pigs effort to overthrow Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. There are lots of explosions but little character development in these two hours. Still, by the end of two CIA shortfalls, we begin to see McAuliffe in the first throes of deep disillusionment.

"You're a true believer. You just can't help it," fellow agent and former college chum Leo Kritzky (Allesandro Nivula) tells him before he receives a medal. But no, it's not that simple anymore.

The Company begins in Berlin, 1954, with crusty, hard-drinking agent Harvey "The Sorcerer" Torriti (Molina) schooling kid McAuliffe in how to be an effective operative at the height of Cold War tensions.

"In order to be a player, you've got to cross over into the wilderness of mirrors," Harvey says.

"What if I don't want to?" McAuliffe replies.

"You already have."

The search for moles within the CIA is ongoing in all three episodes. Viewers will know all along who the so-called "cutout" go-between is. He's Yevgeny Tsipin (Rory Cochrane), a Russian schooled in the U.S. and well-versed in the English language.

Cochrane's character initially is torn between service to his country and the love of a woman he's fated to leave behind. Unlike McAuliffe's would-be romance, this one never seems hokey or contrived. Even though he's on the enemy side, Tsipin is The Company's most poignant character. His pain is palpable.

Keaton's chain-smoking Angleton, who painstakingly raises exotic flowers as a hobby, doesn't come to full flower himself until the climactic Chapter 3 (Sunday, Aug. 19). Boring in on a mole known as Sasha, he's still haunted by the past duplicity of a friend to whom he swore allegiance.

Keaton is simply remarkable in this role, whether coldly interrogating a suspect or offering a rambling, seemingly deluded critique of the CIA as a mere shadow of its once shadowy self.

The Company regularly overplays its mood music, and Molina's character sometimes comes off as, well, too much of a character. But this is an ambitious, accomplished and overall enthralling effort that saves its very best for those riveting closing hours.

Basic cable networks already have made summer an uncommonly invigorating TV season with the premieres of The Bronx Is Burning (ESPN), Damages (FX), Mad Men (AMC) and Saving Grace (TNT). Now comes The Company, a big ball of yarn that effectively recaptures the Cold War era and then asks whether either side had virtue, let alone competence, on its side.

"We screwed up a lot less than they did, which is why we won," Molina's "Sorcerer" says with no small degree of certainty.

Maybe he's right about that.

Grade: A-minus