You'd think that after four hours of a taut spy thriller, Judge Ryan Keefer would be happy. But no, he wanted to see more of Easy Reader and less of Chris O'Donnell.
Our review of The Company, published December 13th, 2004, is also available.
Friend. Enemy. Hero. Traitor.
Take one part Batman (Michael Keaton), one part Robin (Chris O'Donnell) and one part Doctor Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), add in an accomplished feature film director (Ridley Scott) as a producer and what do you get? You get a spy saga set during the Cold War, that's what. If it sounds like the recent film The Good Shepherd, you wouldn't be mistaken, however this is twice as long and originally aired as a miniseries on the TNT cable network. Is it twice as good?
Facts of the Case
Ken Nolan (Black Hawk Down) adapted the book from Robert Littell, and the entire miniseries was directed by Mikael Salomon (Hard Rain). The miniseries spans approximately thirty years, starting with the college days of Jack McCauliffe (O'Donnell), Leo Kritzky (Alessandro Nivola, Face/Off) and Yevgeny Tsipin (Rory Cochrane, Empire Records). Jack and Leo are recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency, while Yevgeny is brought into the fold of the Soviet KGB by a man named Starik (Ulrich Thomsen, Kingdom of Heaven). Leo spends much of his time in Washington while Jack spends his time in Europe, under the tutelage of grizzled espionage veteran Harvey Torriti, a.k.a The Sorcerer (Molina). Jack witnesses many things firsthand, including the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, to name a few. All the while Jack and others learn of a highly placed mole in the CIA and try to find out who he is on their front, while in Washington, James Angleton (Keaton) attempts to find out who this agent-cryptically named "Sasha"-might be.
The Company is similar to The Good Shepherd in the sense that both productions are set in the Cold War, and feature characters who age over the course of several decades, however that's where the comparisons end, as this miniseries sets the tone from the beginning that there is always someone (or something) around the corner and it must be avoided. In fact, it's done fairly early on which helps set an effective mood. Scott states in the bonus material on the disc that he was thinking about directing this, but Salomon, a longtime cinematographer, manages to capture the eras and various environments effectively.
A great compliment you can pay a film is that even though you can see how the fates of the main characters might play out, how they meet their fates still manages to be suspenseful, either due to the acting or storytelling, and I think The Company accomplishes both of these. As Yevgeny, Cochrane embodies the Russian very well. He might sound a hell of a lot like Kiefer Sutherland, but he's a man that was wooed into the life of spying and abandons a lot of personal happiness as a result. Two other performances that are praise worthy are Molina's, who is the older spy with a lot of connections both friend and foe and is a joy to watch on screen. But Keaton's is the real surprise here. He plays a polar opposite of his bombastic personality, as Angleton is soft-spoken, sports a slight accent and is rarely caught without a cigarette in his hand. He seems to be channeling a mild Truman Capote or something, but he is a man who doesn't speak up, but spends a lot of time doing research into the small details that many others would have missed. He loves spending his time in the shadows and is very cold and detached, something that Matt Damon did in Shepherd. However Keaton plays the role in a much more compelling manner and deserves an award if for nothing else because of his drastic change in mannerisms.
Equally impressive is how the stories are told. They are firmly entrenched in the intelligence/counterintelligence of the period, and because there is a romantic notion to the "cloak and dagger" genre that the story is faithful to, some of the other suppositions that the story makes provides the viewer with a chance to wonder if that's how it happened, even if the book and the miniseries are both purely fiction. Did Harvey ask a doctor to come up with a pill to poison and kill Castro? Who knows, but in between the spying in The Company and the very real assassination attempts on Castro in the past, it could have happened. Did the CIA give the Jewish intelligence community information on the whereabouts of Klaus Barbie in exchange for the location of a Russian defector who went back to Moscow? Probably not, but again, with the way the story is so engrossing, it could have happened. Despite the fact that the miniseries is comprised of three parts, running at about an hour and a half each, they are all very involved, much as the spy novels I used to read when I was a kid. The Company recalls the time when Robert Ludlum books were spy thrillers with less emphasis on action, and that's a good thing.
Technically, Sony presents The Company in its widescreen broadcast version using the AVC MPEG-4 codec. The blacks are consistently sharp and with the film's material virtually living in the dark, so get used to it. When it does get a chance to show off some color, it's vivid without any bleeding. The PCM soundtrack is an upgrade from the broadcast, as the sound is crystal clear, providing a lot of chances for the subwoofer to get some time in during the numerous battle sequences. Dialogue was crisp and clear (I didn't have to max my volume out to listen to Keaton's muted tones) and panning was evident when needed. All in all it was a nice ride.
Extras wise, there's not a lot of material here, even with something that did have participation by Scott and was produced by DVD collaborator Charles de Lauzirika. There are two featurettes that look at the miniseries. The first is titled "Declassified," runs for about fifteen minutes, and shares the cast and crew's thoughts on the project. There is ample interview footage with Scott and Nolan, and everyone discusses the benefits the project has as a miniseries, and the cast shares their thoughts on their roles. "The Hidden Hand" focuses on the demands of the production and is a little more crew intensive, discussing the locations and what was used, along with the "aging process" for the actors. I say there are cast interviews, but they are fairly scarce, and Keaton does not appear at all.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
O'Donnell loses some believability when the story and his character get into the later years. Sure, he's got a wig and has age spots painted on as well, but the guy always looks and sounds like he's 19, even when he's supposed to be 55. Someone get this guy a pack of cigarettes and a single malt scotch, stat! Besides, with all the stuff Jack is supposed to have seen, you'd think there would have been a detached cynicism to his worldview, but it always seems to be localized within his small perspective. Otherwise, in terms of big picture stuff, the very English Natascha McElhone (Solaris) playing a Hungarian woman with very little goulash was annoying.
Simply put, The Company was what The Good Shepherd should have been—suspenseful, filled with characters you care about, with a fair amount of believability in their actions. The performances were fairly good and even at a miniseries' pacing, it was pleasant and easy to follow without being too cryptic. Both projects might have been entrenched in fiction, but if I see both DVDs sitting next to each other at the rental store, I'm going for this one both on quantity and quality.
The court will rule Not Guilty and tell you where the current agent nicknamed "Pinnacle" is currently residing, if the court can bring in their wife for her protection.
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Scales of Justice
• Featurette: "The Origins of The Company"
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