Wednesday, March 19, 2008

"Blood Under the Bridge": A Review of The Company

“Blood Under the Bridge”: A Review of The Company
(Sony Home Video, 2007)

by Wesley Britton

Time Capsules

While his 1962 play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf had nothing to do with the Cold War, one phrase from Edward Albee’s award-winning script--“blood under the bridge”--can easily be used to describe the residue left behind from what the intelligence agencies of both East and West had inflicted on each other for over 40 years. In retrospect, there was considerable real and metaphorical “blood under the bridge” in the proxy wars, inter-agency turf wars, moles, traitors, defectors, and para-military operations from 1947 until the 1989 tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Bloodied remains include the reputations of the CIA and British Intelligence. There was the “blow back” and public failures of misbegotten adventures. Before the collapse of the U.S.S.R., there had been the Hollywood blacklists, civil rights violations during the 1960s, Congressional hearings into secret hanky-panky, and deaths of Western agents resulting from the betrayals of moles like Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen. Could all this blood be summarized in one book, one film, or—as in the case of TNT’s The Company, one miniseries?

Judging from Norman Mailer’s sprawling 1991 Harlot’s Ghost, Mailer didn’t think one 1,000 page opus would do it. The first part of his saga—from the creation of the CIA to 1963—was as far as Mailer went in Part One of his uncompleted exploration. However, in 2002 Robert Littell's best-selling The Company: A Novel of the CIA dramatized events from the formation of the agency after World War II to the foiled 1991 coup to oust Soviet leader Mikail Gorbochov by tracing the professional and private lives of three generations of agents on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Choosing watershed moments from each decade, Litell brought the careers of actual operatives and directors from Allen Dulles, James Jesus Angleton, Richard Helms, and William Casey into his dramatization of the covert world. Litell's own fictional characters were given creditability by the author's use of historic details from vacuum tube radios to watches that needed winding before the advent of new technologies. Readers saw the history of defectors and moles in Berlin, failed covert activities in Hungary in 1956 and Cuba in 1961, and the political jousting between elected policy makers and the intelligence community in the 1970s and 1980s. Graphic scenes of torture and assassinations, office debates over ends and means, and battlefield love affairs exhibited past behaviors while pointing to the future in scenes in Afghanistan and dead-drop exchanges between Robert Hanssen and his Russian handlers. In each section, the torch was passed from generation to generation, and with each change of characters a sense of purpose, history, and destiny made it clear the novelist saw the CIA as a force to be proud of and necessary in the ongoing battles between the good guys and those with less honorable intent. (note 1)

The year before, director Tony Scott had offered a much tighter retelling of the agency’s history in his Spy Game, a feature film starring Robert Redford as Nathan D. Muir and Brad Pitt as Muir’s younger protégée, Tom Bishop. Centering on their father-son relationship, Scott showed how two generations of spies engaged in the “Great Game” in flashbacks filmed to look like the movie styles of the period in which they were set. Spy Game dramatized espionage in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and ironically concluded with the climactic moment of a suicide bomber bringing down a building in Beirut. (note 2) That incident signaled the coming shift in geopolitical conflicts, leaving behind the East vs. West duels to look ahead to the new War on Terror. “The Great Game” had had its beginning, middle, and end, so it would be new blood to take on a very different enemy. Still, in Spy Game, Harlot’s Ghost, and The Company, questions remained about the past. What had been the meaning of it all? Had the good guys won or left standing mainly by default?

As it happened, Tony Scott returned to these questions four years later through his brother, fellow filmmaker Ridley Scott. With screen writer Ken Nolan, Ridley had worked on Black Hawk Down (2001) and the two were reunited when producer John Calley began exploring the idea of making Littell’s The Company into a feature film. The Scott brothers and their collaborators determined a two-hour project wouldn’t be sufficient. They began expanding the project into a three-part, six-hour mini-series with director Mikael Salomon who’d helmed the 2004 TNT mini-series, The Grid. As he’d grown up in Berlin in the 1960s, he could bring a dimension of realism to the first segment when the producers considered using several directors for each part. Then, it was decided to use Salomon for all three parts for continuity even though each film would have very different elements. (note 3)


Broadcast on TNT from Aug. 5—Aug. 19, 2007, Nolan’s considerably streamlined script focused on three idealistic Yale graduates (class of 1950) and their evolution. Jack McAuliffe (Chris O'Donnell) and Leo Kritzky (Alessandro Nivola) were recruited into the newly created CIA. Russian-born Yevgeny Tsipin (Rory Cochrane), who likes Americans but hates what the country stands for, is recruited into the KGB by Starik (Ulrich Thomsen), a spymaster planning to destroy America’s economy. (As they younger characters would have to age over forty years in the series, the actors were asked to shave their heads so different wigs could be used.)

Setting up a relationship akin to that of Redford and Pitt in Spy Game, the first episode had McAuliffe and his mentor, Harvey Torriti, known as “The Sorcerer" (Alfred Molina) distressed to have their missions blown in Berlin in 1954. Torriti became certain there was a mole inside British intelligence leaking information and began setting traps to uncover him. At the same time, McAuliffe meets Lili, his principal informant and love interest (Alexandra Maria Lara) who’s feeding the CIA dis-information. Despite the disbelief of actual CIA counter-intelligence director James Jesus Angleton (Michael Keaton), Torriti’s scheme revealed MI-5 veteran Adrian “Kim” Philby (Tom Hollander) had been a KGB spy since the 1930s. Because Angleton had not seen through Philby’s “elegant artifice,” however, Philby was able to escape along with other members of his “Cambridge Spy Ring.” McAuliffe then tried to help Lili defect to the west before the KGB can take revenge for her mission being blown. Too late to save her, McAuliffe suspected her dis-information operation was one of the traps Torriti arranged to uncover Philby. He is correct, but Torriti denied the charge as the two toasted their mixed victory.

In the more action-oriented second episode, McAuliffe was involved in both the 1956 Hungarian revolution (filmed in Budapest) and the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco (shot in Puerto Rico). In Hungary (a setting that hadn’t been included in the first feature film script), the secret police captured McAuliffe when he tried to encourage local resistance to the Communist government. To get him out, Torriti let the Russians know if anything happened to the CIA agent, dead KGB operatives would be the result. After he is freed, McAuliffe learns he’d been captured due to a leak in the agency by a Soviet mole code-named “Sasha.” But he becomes resentful when the Hungarian revolution, spurred on by his labors and Western radio broadcasts, was crushed by Russian tanks as the American government refused to support their own propaganda with military power.

This circumstance repeats when McAuliffe is sent to work with Cuban rebels being trained to invade their home country while Toritti sets up failed plots to kill Castro. McAuliffe is in Cuba during the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion and is angered when his government, again, failed to back up its own rhetoric with military support. We see the consequences in two very different conversations. On the Cuban beach, Roberto Escalona (Raoul Bova), a Cuban-born resistance fighter, tells McAuliffe he must leave despite his team being massacred as no American body should be found to discredit the invasion as being anything but true patriots seeking to take back their country. Back in Washington, Senator J. William Fulbright (Richard Blackburn) argues with CIA director Allen Dulles (Cedric Smith), saying the U.S. can’t complain about Russian involvement in other nations when the CIA was doing the same.

The first hour of the much praised third part focused on Michael Keaton’s portrayal as chain-smoking James Jesus Angleton and his obsession to uncover “Sasha.” The second half dealt with the revelations that brought the careers of Jack McAuliffe, Leo Kritzky, and Yevgeny Tsipin to their various climaxes. In a long, tense interrogation, Angleton grills Leo Kritzky as all the signs point to his guilt, but he is seemingly vindicated and freed. Then, mirroring the friendship of Angleton and Philby, McAuliffe learns his old friend Kritsky was indeed the traitor responsible for all his failed missions. By the series end, McAuliffe has become a lonely, childless veteran uncertain what he has accomplished. Yevgeny Tsipin learns his mission had been so ill-considered—that of bankrupting the U.S. economy—that his life’s work had only resulted in only one bad day for Wall Street. In the final moments, as the Cold War winds down, McAuliffe and Toritti discuss the meaning of their careers—despite the failures, the good guys won in the end. Or did they?

Evaluating the Series

The distinguished international cast featured actors able to mimic the mannerisms of historical personages, notably Tom Hollander who recreated Kim Philby’s famous stutter. (In 2003, Hollander had played another member of Philby’s ring, Guy Burgess, in the mini-series, The Cambridge Spies.) As with the 2006 film The Good Shepherd, which dealt with some of the same time period and themes, most critics recognized the series was more drama than history. In The Company, for example, Kim Philby’s cover was blown in 1954—in fact, he wasn’t discovered until 1963. While the producers said the film didn’t affirm the CIA but rather conveyed their respect for the lives of its agents, some reviewers noted the look back at the Cold War revealed that the duels between the CIA and KGB did not end with any clear-cut victors.

In Oct. 2007, the well-regarded miniseries was released by Sony Home Pictures on DVD and became available for download. Are the six-hours worthy of three evenings of your life?

Absolutely. As many have noted, the tone and pace of each episode is quite different, and each part can be viewed as stand-alone episodes or, better, in sequence. Some have complained the second film, with half set in Hungary, the second in Cuba, doesn’t have much character development. (note 4) Perhaps not, but each half of this film mirrors and reinforces the themes of the other—that while successive administrations were willing to give the CIA various marching orders to stir the Cold War pot, U.S. presidents weren’t willing to go to the brink of nuclear war. But Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy had few qualms about inciting revolutions that left behind “blood under the bridge” in European streets and on tropical beaches. This, after all, is what kept the Cold War from becoming hot—contained battles that never led to a full scale holocaust.

True enough, the miniseries can’t match the complexity of the novel and the book remains one of the classics of all spy literature. But whether or not the events retold here are remembered history for older viewers or a Cliff’s Notes overview for younger watchers, the mini-series is heads above most other made-for-TV espionage productions. I’d deem it far superior to The Good Shepherd in terms of both character development and complexity. Highly recommended.


1. See Britton, Wesley. Beyond Bond: Spies in Film and Fiction (Praeger Pub., 2005). P. 209.

2. A review of Spy Game is included in my “THE INDISPENSIBLES: THE BEST 30 SPY FILMS OF ALL TIME” posted at this website.

3. Many details used here came from the interviews included on the 2007 DVD extras.

4. Useful, and informative reviews of the series include:

Eliason, Marcus. “TNT's `The Company' an ambitious effort.” Aug. 2, 2007. Accessed: Feb. 12, 2008.

Elber, Lynn. “Alfred Molina turns spy in `The Company.'” AP News. July 25, 2007. Accessed. Feb. 12, 2008.

For more reviews, interviews, essays, and explorations into literary, film, and TV spies, check out the other files posted at

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