At times, it seems two different movies are trapped inside TNT's ambitious CIA-based miniseries The Company.
One is a taut period piece, focused on the evolution of the Central Intelligence Agency throughout the Cold War, stocked with film vets such as Alfred Molina and Michael Keaton.
Lushly produced, with an eye toward 1950s-era film noir, this tale uses the CIA's search for a double agent within its ranks as a fulcrum to propel the viewer through the aftermath of World War II, Soviet defections through East Germany, a failed U.S.-inspired revolution in Hungary and the Bay of Pigs fiasco, among other highlights. Think of it as The Good Shepherd: The Miniseries.
Then there's whatever Chris O'Donnell is starring in.
Presented as a stalwart hero and love magnet, O'Donnell becomes a vessel for most every cliche that drags down The Company's narrative, from an inexplicable romance with a defecting Soviet citizen to his unexplained attachment to the Cuban exiles eventually ground up by Fidel Castro when they attempted to retake the country in a CIA-supported strike.
The order of the day in espionage stories is realism. We prefer Jason Bourne's backpack-wearing simplicity to James Bond's high-flying romanticism. So the insistence of O'Donnell's Jack McAuliffe in leading with his heart, growing emotionally attached to every person in every major operation he supervises, feels as fake as a $3 bill.
We know the CIA's success is built on ruthlessness, deception and intrigue. So why is McAuliffe, supposedly one of the Company's up-and-comers, such an earnest, gullible romantic?
As this three-episode, six-hour miniseries opens, O'Donnell's McAuliffe is graduating Yale in the early '50s, part of a trio of college pals who would all take their place in the Great Game of global espionage. While McAuliffe and his longtime friend Leo Kritsky (Alessandro Nivola) join the Company, one of their buddies returns home to Russia to train as a spy for his homeland.
Molina is at his charismatic and scene-stealing best as McAuliffe's mentor, Harvey Torriti, code-named Sorcerer, a tough-talking, hard-drinking realist who unearths a mole in British intelligence while schooling O'Donnell's character on the finer points of cultivating Soviet spies in '50s-era East Germany.
As a character, Keaton's CIA analyst James "Mother" Angleton is all tics: a clipped speaking style, an obsessive manner and a jones for chain smoking. Conned into helping the double agent exposed by Sorcerer, Angleton turns his obsession to exposing a suspected Soviet mole in America, decimating the CIA's Soviet branch in the process.
It all adds up to a lush, inviting stew for fans of Cold War intrigue that is ruined every time O'Donnell shows his face.
Which is too bad, because this project has some serious lineage. Producers/brothers Ridley and Tony Scott have blockbusters such as Alien, Gladiator and Top Gun among their credits. Screenwriter Ken Nolan penned Black Hawk Down. And the whole sprawling epic is based on a bestselling historical novel by Robert Littell.
By the time we get to the conclusion - a mad rush to uncover the mole before the Soviets complete a dastardly plan to decimate the U.S. economy - viewers are left wondering if this film really knows what it wants to be. Is it a clear-eyed, realistic take on the CIA's Cold War shenanigans or a gussied-up, Ludlum-esque spy thriller?
That we're stuck asking these questions even as the credits roll is the surest sign this Company could have used a little more restructuring before its debut.
Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or email@example.com. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.
Watch it: The miniseries airs at 8 tonight, Aug. 12 and Aug. 19 on TNT - Grade: B+ - Ratings: TV-14