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Published: Saturday, 8/4/2007

TNT miniseries on the CIA is both complex and satisfying

Playing college friends in The Company are, from left, Chris ODonnell as Jack McAuliffe, Alessandro Nivola as Leo Kritzky, and Rory Cochrane as Yevgeny Tsipin. Playing college friends in The Company are, from left, Chris ODonnell as Jack McAuliffe, Alessandro Nivola as Leo Kritzky, and Rory Cochrane as Yevgeny Tsipin.

In most popular fiction, including the kind normally seen on television, it s not too hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys.

The former s motives are pure, their methods aboveboard, and their vision steadfast. Their foes, by contrast, are treacherous, conniving, and ruthless. They probably stiff their waitresses, too.

But of course things aren t always that simple or clear-cut in the real world or in fiction that s based largely on historical fact.

That s very much the case with an engrossing three-part miniseries on TNT that begins at 8 p.m. tomorrow. Called The Company, it tells the story of the Cold War its beginnings in the early 1950s, through the Hungarian Revolution in the mid- 50s and the Bay of Pigs fiasco in the 60s, to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 all from the perspectives of the war s primary foot soldiers: the spies of the CIA and their counterparts in the KGB.

And judged solely by their actions, it s sometimes hard to tell who the good guys are even with a scorecard. Moral ambiguity reigns.

The sprawling story, which covers four decades, unwinds in two-hour installments over three consecutive Sundays. It s based on a massive doorstop of a novel (nearly 900 pages) by Robert Littell, a best-seller in 2002 that had some breathless reviewers calling it the definitive story of the CIA, even though it s a work of fiction.

The TV serialization of The Company was produced by some of Hollywood s heaviest hitters, including Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down) and John Calley (The DaVinci Code), and it was directed by Mikael Salomon (Band of Brothers). Its sizeable cast includes Chris O Donnell, Michael Keaton, Alfred Molina, and Rory Cochrane.

History books provide a relatively glossed-over version of the Cold War, but it turns out that it was actually pretty hot for many of those involved. While political leaders mostly Americans, British, and Soviets were dueling with words, the men and women on the front lines were using bullets, knives, and bombs.

Oh, and trickery, too. Lots of trickery.

Among the chief participants in the global power struggle depicted in The Company are three Yale graduates, friends whose lives take very different paths over the years. Jack McAuliffe (O Donnell) and Leo Kritzky (Alessandro Nivola) are recruited by the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency. Yevgeny Tsipin (Cochrane), a Russian-born doctoral student, is recruited, too, but not by the CIA. His employer is the KGB, which intends to plant him as a deep undercover agent

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