“THE COMPANY” (2007) Review

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“THE COMPANY” (2007) Review

Within the past decade, there have been a few television and movie productions about the history of espionage during the pre-World War II era and the Cold War. One of those productions turned out to be the 2007, three-part miniseries about the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) called “THE COMPANY”.

Based upon Robert Littell’s 2002 novel, “THE COMPANY” focused upon the history of not only the C.I.A., but also the Soviet Union’s K.G.B. during the Cold War, between the mid-1950s and the fall of the Soviet Union during the beginning of the 1990s. The novel focused upon the lives of three men, who had been close friends at Yale University, who graduated in 1950. Jack McAuliffe was a Rowing athlete and naive true believer, who had been recruited by his crew coach. The same coach also recruited one of Jack’s closest friend, Leo Krinsky, the son of an Eastern European immigrant who works at the agency’s counterintelligence division. Jack and Leo have another close friend at Yale – the son of a Soviet diplomat named Yevgeny Tsipin. While attending his mother’s funeral in Moscow, Yevgeny is recruited as a Soviet spy by KBG spymaster, Starik Zhilov.

While Yevgeny serves as an undercover K.G.B. agent in Washington D.C., Jack becomes a field agent in East Berlin and Leo works for the Agency’s counterintelligence unit in Washington. Of the three friends, two of them suffer setbacks in their love lives. During his basic training for the K.G.B., Yevgeny falls for a young woman named Azalia Ivanova. But Starik forces him to choose between the K.G.B. and Azalia; and Yevgeny leaves for his assignment in the United States. While on assignment in East Berlin, Jack falls for his source, a beautiful East German ballerina named Lili, who provides information from a figure known as The Professor, an important scientist in the East German hierarchy. Unfortunately, Lili is betrayed to the Stasi, which eventually leads her to commit suicide before she can be officially arrested. Only Leo is lucky enough to sustain a long relationship and marriage to the woman he loves – Adelle Swett, who comes from a wealthy Washington family and whose father is a personal friend of President Eisenhower.

However, the story’s main narrative centered around the efforts of the C.I.A. to find a mole who has caused a great deal of damage to its many agendas. The failure of Jack McAuliffe and his mentor, Harvey Torriti (aka “The Sorcerer) to help a defector escape from East Germany led to Torriti’s discovery of a mole with access to the Agency – namely MI-6 operative, Adrian “Kim” Philby, who happens to be a close friend of the Agency’s counterintelligence chief, James Jesus Angleton. As revealed in a scene between Philby and Yevgeny, the K.G.B. has another mole within the ranks of the C.I.A. – someone who goes by the code name, “Sascha”. It was “Sascha’ who had exposed Lili and the Professor to the East Germans. It was “Sascha” who had exposed Jack as an American agent to the Hungarian Secret Police, on the eve of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. And it was “Sascha” who had revealed the Agency’s plans for an invasion of Cuba – an act that nearly endangered Jack’s life. Between the exposure of “Kim” Philby as a Soviet mole and the series of political and intelligence disasters not only led to Angleton’s paranoid determination to find “Sascha”, but also his big mole hunt in the mid 1970s.

Actor Chris O’Donnell had stated in a featurette that “THE COMPANY” could be divided into three genres. Episode One could be described as an espionage thriller, Episode Two as an big-scare adventure story (in which two of them are featured – the Hungarian Revolution and the Bay of Pigs), and Episode Three as a psychological thriller that involved a mole hunt. This is probably why I found “THE COMPANY” so thrilling to watch. It was able to explore the many sub-genres of the spy story and stick to the one main narrative, at the same time. All the facets of the miniseries – spy thriller, adventure story and psychological thriller – centered around the impact of “Sascha’s” betrayals and the lives of the three protagonists.

The ironic thing is that one of the characters – Yevgeny Tsipin – is obviously a K.G.B. agent that served as a deep undercover agent in Washington D.C. for three decades. Yet, his character is portrayed as a protagonist, instead of a supporting or major villain. Although the Agency is portrayed as the good guy out to destroy the “evil” K.G.B., “THE COMPANY” did not hesitate to portray some of its darker aspects – whether it was Angleton and other officials’ cool betrayal of the anti-Communist Hungarians, during their revolution against the Soviets; or their misguided determination to continue with their plans for a Cuban invasion. One of the series’ more darker segments appeared in Angleton’s mole hunt in Episode Three. The Agency official began to suspect Leo Krinsky of being “Sascha”, the Soviet mole. What Krinsky endured during his interrogation had me squirming in my seat with sheer discomfort. Ken Nolan did an excellent job, as far as I am concerned, with adapting Litell’s novel.

Ridley Scott became one of the miniseries’ producers (along with John Calley) and had planned to direct. But he realized that he may not have been up to directing a production that was over four hours long. So, he and Calley hired Danish filmmaker Mikael Salomon to direct at least one episode. Salomon, who had directed two episodes of 2001’s “BAND OF BROTHERS”, directed all of the episodes of this miniseries. And he did an exceptional job. I was especially impressed by his direction of segments that included Jack McAuliffe’s adventures in East Berlin, the Hungarian Revolution, the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the travails that Leo endured, while being suspected for being a mole. He also did exceptional work with the large cast that proved to be very talented.

I noticed that many critics seemed to be very impressed by the older cast members – especially Alfred Molina’s splashy portrayal of Jack’s mentor, the gregarious Harvey Torriti; and Michael Keaton’s mannered performance as the paranoid James Jesus Angleton. And both actors were great. I also have to commend Ulrich Thomsen’s subtle portrayal of the secretive and manipulative spymaster Starik Zhilov, and Tom Hollander for giving a charming performance as MI-6 operative-turned-K.G.B. mole, Adrian Philby. And there were other performances that impressed me. Both Ted Atherton as C.I.A. official Frank Wisner and Natascha McElhone as a British woman caught up in the Hungarian uprising gave passionate performances. And I was also impressed by Alexandra Maria Lara and Erika Marozsán as the women in Jack and Yevgeny’s lives. But for me, the actors portraying the three Yale buddies, whose lives were swept into the world of espionage, seemed to be the emotional center of this tale.

Alessandro Nivola’ portrayal of Leo Kritsky barely seemed to catch my interest – at least in the first two episodes. He seemed to be around, mainly as support for the emotionally besieged Jack. But the actor really came into his own in Episode Three, as the miniseries focused on the trauma Leo suffered as a victim of Angleton’s mole hunt. Rory Cochrane gave one of his most subtle and complex performances as K.G.B. operative, Yevgeny Tsipin. He really made the audience care for his well being, despite his activities against the U.S. government, during his years in Washington D.C. But it was Chris O’Donnell who really carried the miniseries in his portrayal of Cold War true believer, Jack McCauliffe. Thanks to his superb performance, he did an excellent job of developing Jack’s character from a naive, yet patriotic C.I.A. recruit and newbie, to the middle-aged man, whose experiences had not only worn him out, but led him to finally question the necessity of the Cold War.

All I can say is that “THE COMPANY” was a well-made adaptation of Robert Littell’s novel about the C.I.A.’s history during the Cold War. And it was all due to Mikael Salomon’s excellent and well-paced direction, Ken Nolan’s script and a superb cast led by Chris O’Donnell.

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“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Ten “Points” Commentary

 

“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Ten “Points” Commentary

”BAND OF BROTHERS” finally came to an end in this tenth episode that featured Easy Company’s experiences as part of the U.S. Army of occupation, following Germany’s surrender in Europe. This marked the third episode that featured Richard Winters as the central character and the second with his narration. 

Told in flashback via Winters’ narration, ”Points” opened in July 1945, with Dick Winters (Damian Lewis) enjoying a morning swim in an Austrian lake, while being watched by his best friend, Lewis Nixon (Ron Livingston). After the two friends spend a few minutes looking at regimental photos, Winters recalls the experiences of Easy Company during the last days of the war in Europe and their role as part of an occupational force. Two months earlier, the company manages to capture Eagle’s Nest, Adolf Hitler’s high mountain chalet in Berchtesgaden. Following Easy Company’s capture of Berchtesgaden, they receive news of Germany’s surrender to the Allied Forces. Easy’s remaining stay in Germany does not last long. They, and the rest of 2nd Battalion, are sent to Austria as part of the U.S. Army’s occupational force. Easy Company battled boredom, various departures, the death of Private John Janovec (Tom Hardy) in a jeep accident, the shooting of Sergeant Chuck Grant (Nolan Hemmings) by a drunken American soldier, and a mixture of anticipation and anxiety over the possibility of being shipped to the Pacific. The miniseries ended with a visit by a recovered Lynn “Buck” Compton (Neal McDonough) and the revelations of the men’s post-war lives.

”Points” proved to be a mildly interesting episode about what it was like for World War II veterans to serve as part of an occupational force in Europe, following Germany’s defeat. Many of the incidents featured in the last paragraph certainly prevented the episode from becoming dull. And thanks to Erik Jendresen and Erik Bork’s screenplay, along with Mikael Salomon’s direction; ”Points” provided other interesting scenes. One featured a tense scene that saw Joe Liebgott (Ross McCall), David Webster (Eion Bailey) and Wayne A. “Skinny” Sisk (Philip Barrantini) assigned to capture a Nazi war criminal. Private Janovec’s conversation with a German veteran at a road checkpoint provided a good deal of subtle humor for me. Another humorous scene featured Winters and Nixon’s encounter with a still resentful Herbert Sobel (David Schwimmer), who proved to be very reluctant to salute the now higher ranked Winters. One scene that really grabbed my attention featured most of the 506th regimental officers watching a newsreel about the fierce Battle of Okinawa in Japan. Not only did that scene remind viewers the fate that Easy Company had managed to evade with the surrender of Japan, it also proved to be an unintentional foreshadow to Spielberg and Hanks’ World War II follow-up, ”THE PACIFIC”.

Once again, Damian Lewis gave a subtle, yet exceptional performance as the miniseries’ leading character, Richard Winters. But I was also impressed by Matthew Settle’s fierce portrayal of a frustrated and somewhat tense Ronald Spiers, who struggled to keep Easy Company together, despite their travails as part of an occupying force. And I was pleasantly surprised by Peter Youngblood Hills’ poignant performance in a scene that featured Darrell C. “Shifty” Powers’ private farewell to Winters.

I do have one major complaint about ”Points”. I did not care for the fact that miniseries did not reveal the post-war fates of “all” of the surviving members of Easy Company. The only characters whose lives we learned about were most of those seen in Austria, at the end of the episode . . . but not all. The episode never revealed what happened to Edward “Babe” Heffron or Donald Malarkey, who were also in Austria, by the end of the miniseries. And viewers never learned of the post-war fates of veterans such as William “Bill” Guarnere, Walter “Smokey” Gordon, Joe Toye, Roy Cobb, Les Hashley, Antonio Garcia, and yes . . . even Herbert Sobel.

Despite my major disappointment over how the episode ended, I still enjoyed ”Points”. I would never consider it to be one of my favorite episodes of ”BAND OF BROTHERS”. But it did not put me to sleep. However, it still managed to be a satisfying end to the saga.

“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Three “Carentan” Commentary

“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Three “Carentan” Commentary

This third episode, ”Carentan” picked up one day after where ”Day of Days” left off – Easy Company in Northern France for the Normandy invasion. ”Carentan” mainly centered around the experiences of Private Albert Blithe, portrayed by actor Marc Warren during Easy Company’s attempt take the town of Carentan. 

Easy Company’s nighttime jump into Normandy seemed to have left Private Blithe in semi-shock. He barely acknowledged the comments of his fellow paratroopers. During the company’s assault upon Carentan, he suffered from temporary blindness. Conversations with officers like Easy’s Harry Welch and Dog Company’s Ronald Spiers failed to help Blithe ease his anxiety regarding the horrors of combat. Winters is finally able to spur Blithe into action, during a German counterattack, a day or two later. But Blithe’s triumph is short-lived when he is wounded by an enemy sniper after volunteering to lead a scout patrol. Also during this episode, the legend of Ronald Spiers continues when Donald Malarkey and his friends – Warren “Skip” Muck, Alex Pankala and Alton More – discuss Spiers’ alleged connection to the deaths of a group of German prisoners-of-war and a sergeant in Dog Company. Winters endured a mild wound and Sergeant Carwood Lipton endures a more serious one during the battle for Carentan.

”Carentan” became the second episode in ”BAND OF BROTHERS” with a running time longer than one hour. ”Currahee” was the first. But I must admit that I enjoyed ”Carentan” a lot more. The longer running time and broadening effects from the horrors of war gave the series’ portrayal of the Normandy campaign more of an epic feel than ”Day of Days’. It featured two harrowing combat sequences – Easy Company’s attack upon Carentan and the Germans’ counterattack that nearly left the company in a vulnerable state. And it is the first episode that featured an aspect of ”BAND OF BROTHERS” that I truly enjoy – namely casual conversation between the men of Easy between combat situations. Conversations such as the one about Spiers between Marlarkey, More, Muck and Penkala turned out to be bright spots that prevented the miniseries from sinking into the cliché of a typical World War II combat drama.

The main storyline for ”Carentan” happened to be about Albert Blithe’s anxieties in dealing with combat for the first time. Writer E. Max Frye did a solid job regarding the Blithe character and his troubles with hysterical blindness. But I do have a few problems with his work. One, his take on the whole ”soldier traumatized by combat” did not strike me as original. Watching Blithe’s travails on the screen left me with a feeling that I have seen numerous war dramas with similar storylines. And two, Frye got a good deal of his information wrong about Blithe. The end of the episode revealed that Blithe never recovered from his wound in the neck and died four years later in 1948. As it turned out, Blithe did recover from the wound . . . eventually. He remained in the Army, served in the 82nd Airborne during the Korean War and died in 1967. Either Fyre made this mistake intentionally . . . or had made a major blooper. There was another mistake regarding Blithe, but I will reveal it later.

One last complaint I had was the episode’s last fifteen or twenty minutes, which featured Easy Company’s return to England. Aside from the ham-fisted scene in which Malarkey found himself picking up the laundry of some of those who had been killed or wounded in Normandy, most of those scenes should have been featured in the beginning of the following episode. And they should have deleted the scene in which Lipton announced that they would be returning to France. One, he had not been announced as Easy Company’s new First Sergeant and two, they never did return to France.

The performances in ”Carentan” were solid, but a few did stand out for me. Matthew Settle continued his excellent introduction of Lieutenant Ronald Spiers in a very memorable and slightly tense scene in which he tries to give Blithe some advice on how to mentally deal with combat. Another first-rate performance came from Rick Warden, who portrayed one of Easy Company’s platoon leader and close friend of Richard Winters and Lewis Nixon – Harry Welch. I rather enjoyed Warden’s charming take on the easy-going and sardonic Welch. And finally, there was Marc Warren, whose portrayal of Blithe pretty much carried this episode. He did a very good job of conveying Blithe’s journey from a shell-shocked trooper to the more confident warrior, whose experience with Easy Company ended with a wound in the neck. My only complaint with Warren’s performance is that he portrayed Blithe with a generic Southern accent. And the real Blithe was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Why Spielberg, Hanks and director Mikael Salomon had him used a Southern accent for the character is beyond me.

”Carentan” is not my favorite episode of ”BAND OF BROTHERS”. I found the on the whole ”soldier traumatized by combat”storyline for the Albert Blithe character to be slightly unoriginal. The character also spoke with the wrong regional accent and the information about his post-Easy Company years was historically inaccurate. And I could have done without the scenes with Easy Company back in England near the end of the episode. On the other hand, I do consider ”Carentan” to be one of the miniseries’ better episodes. Easy Company’s experiences in taking Carentan and enduring a German counterattack gave the episode more of an epic feel than the events featured in the last episode, ”Day of Days”. And despite portraying Blithe with the wrong accent, Marc Warren did give an exceptionally good performance.