Wednesday, August 08, 2007


Yes, we all know that the CIA's history is anything but respectable and noble, and that they and the US government have done a lot a lot to cover up that disresputable history, but that does not cease to make it interesting. TNT's The Company, adapted from Robert Littell's mammoth 900 page semi-fictional account of the shadowy agency is a convoluted ride through the world of double agents, secret societies, Cold War intrigue, femme fatales, and stories that were haphazardly given the touch of historical importance on the fly. The account focuses on three "Yalies", including a character played by Chris O'Donnell. Three friends, with two similar and yet very different destinies. Three idealistic all-rounders from Yale (whose very motto seems to include the manufacturing of secret CIA agents and US presidents, including all the disreputable ones), steeped in the canoeing rivalry with Harvard. One of them turns out to be a Russian who grew up in the US, whose working philosophy is not Marxist or Leninist, but as he claims, "Tolstoyist". Incidentally, his parents are still the USSR, and when he goes back to attend the funeral of his mother who dies, is given a nice recruiting pep talk by a senior retired KGB official who had mentored his father.

The young Russian's perceptions of America and his readiness to join the KGB are revealing, and probably emblematic of those millions of basically decent Russians of the time who thought communism was truly a way towards "equality". Yes, America is a decent country, and I like Americans, he says, but there is much inequality and I would like to contribute in remedying it. It's one of the great tragedies of history that all these idealistic communists very easily got sucked into the trappings of that expansive armchair philosophy, and became more than ready to trade freedom for "equality" and to throttle the very existence of thousands to preserve their notions of doing a decent deed in their life. Most of them such as Che Guevara, began with the honest aim of alleviating inequality, and ended up not just reinforcing it by brutal means but cherishing it. What began as simply a desire to do good became an obssesive quest to preserve the means for their own sake, and in the process these dreamers lost their decency. Yevgeny was not much different, although his transformation would have to to await the end of the series.

On the other side of the world, the other two Yalies, Jack and Leo, are quickly enamoured by the frankly equally idealistic rhetoric heaped on them by the CIA recruiters and join the agency. Characters in the series are a mixture of fictional and real. Probably the most fascinating character is Jesus James Angleton (played appropriately by Michael Keaton), head of the CIA's counterintelligence unit at the time. A brilliant strategist, Angleton could separate the wheat from the chaff and get to the heart of the problem, sniffing and rooting out conspiracies and spies. Yet he fails to see the true colours of his friend in the British MI6, Kim Philby. Philby, a real character, was a part of the Cambridge spy ring, one of the most famous and involved spy rings in history, which seems to have all the ingredients of a riveting novel imbibed in it. Four brilliant British students at Cambridge, well-versed in languages, literature and history, most either homosexual or bisexual, all recruited by the KGB, later attaining key and decisive positions in the British Foreign Service and other government quarters in the US and the UK, and all highly placed to transmit secrets of the highest importance, including atomic secrets. Angleton's failure to identify his close colleague finally led him to paranoia, and he began seeing communist conspirators everywhere.

Jack and Homer each pursue their own careers. Jack is much better as a field agent in Germany. There he befriends a German female agent who transmits information to him. In the end, like all espionage romantic stories in the offing, this one turns out to have tragic consequences. Such are always the burdens of the spy's life. His boss in Germany, played by Alfred Molina, is a hard hitting brusque agent, who would not mind taking a bullet- and firing more than one- for information about spies. On the other side of the Atlantic, Leo is more at ease as Angleton's collaborator, shuffling around in the secret-ridden recessess of the CIA in Washington.

As mentioned earlier, the CIA is surely not the noblest government agency in the world. But at least to some reasonable extent, during the Cold War, because of the utter unfeasibility of the other side's ideals, it turned out to be on the side of the "good" guys. The CIA during the Cold War had a few heroes, a few villains, but most people were in between. No matter how its agents operated and what its modus operandi, the balance of power including nuclear power in the Cold War has made its story into a fascinating episode of history.

The Company airs on TNT on Sunday at 8.00 p.m., with two more 2-hour episodes to go. It reminds me of The Good Shepherd, which even though it received mixed reviews, I thought was a fine movie. This episode which was the first dwelt on the early period of the Cold War, until the late 1950s. Next time, we find about the more shameful and embarrassing history of the agency in Cuba and Southeast Asia, and then finally about its even more ignominious deeds in Central and South America. To be frank, now I cannot wait to read the book again, which I have really only browsed before.



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