The Company is a spy story set in the 1950s, starring the CIA, their friends and their enemies. Half the characters are double crossing the other half, mostly in shadows, darkened rooms and gloomy alleyways.
This is probably to let us know that secret things are going on, but it also makes it difficult to follow the plot.
The characters speak in metaphors a lot, perhaps in an attempt to show the CIA’s poetic side.
Early in the first episode, an older CIA man earnestly says to new recruit and main goodie, Jack, “It’s a delicate game. To be a player you have to cross over into the wilderness of mirrors.”
Jack replies, earnestly, of course, “But what if I don’t want to?”
I may be wrong but I imagine that new CIA recruits who say that sort of thing get weeded out fairly early on.
Instead Jack goes to Berlin, to get top secret information from a beautiful, mysterious ballerina. Predictable things happen, mostly in dark rooms.
Meanwhile Jack’s best mate Leo, who has also joined the CIA, is being recruited to the KGB.
An old KGB general makes him a speech about the “genius and generosity of the human spirit”, which makes spying sound a lot more fun than the equivalent CIA recruitment speech a couple of scenes earlier.
So Leo becomes a double agent. So far, so spy film. There is no attempt to make either side look appealing, and I can’t imagine anyone really caring what happens to the characters.
Possibly we’re meant to sympathise with their loneliness and divided loyalties. But then, they did join the CIA, so what did they expect?
The second episode is more interesting because it’s set during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.
Jack meets a woman in Budapest whose husband was tortured to death by the AVH secret police. She gets involved with the uprising, and we get to see some of the revolution.
The problem is there is nothing to suggest ordinary Hungarians were involved in the revolution except as passive crowds following leaders.
There’s a bizarre political rally scene where Arpad, the lead dissident, standing alone on a stage in front of a silent, admiring audience, makes a speech about freedom, reads poetry, and gets them to chant lines back to him occasionally. Then they all cheer.
No disorder, no debates, little involvement. Although the next time we see the crowd they’re burning cars and shooting AVH men, so maybe I’m underestimating the power of poetry.
Arpad also looks exactly like the stereotypically romantic revolutionary that, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to exist in real life.
There are some slightly more realistic bits. At one point Jack has to try and convince the poets to postpone the revolution for a year because “America doesn’t want to be drawn into a war”.
They point out they can’t because they don’t control it. Except that the very next scene is the rally that makes it look like they do.
You could come away with the impression that the revolution was a mistake made by well-meaning naïve intellectuals, and that it might have been OK if the US had got involved.
This is reinforced by scenes of rows back in Washington between the “good CIA”, who are lovely, humanitarian and want to intervene, and the bad, who want to leave them all to die.
It also skips straight from the start of the uprising to it being crushed by the Soviet Union. This misses out the weeks where Hungarian people held power, formed workers’ committees, took control of their lives and inspired people around the world.
That might have been interesting – the story of what a CIA man would do faced with a situation that no secret service of either side could control.
Instead we only see the scenes of defeat, not improved by Jack looking noble and gloomy in the foreground.
The Company is more interesting than a lot of stuff on TV and at least shows some of the CIA as cynical and murderous. But prepare to be irritated by it.
The Company begins on BBC2 on Saturday 24 November