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Chris O'Donnell
Chris O'Donnell (right) plays Jack McAuliffe, a Yalie recruited by the CIA to fight communism, in the three-part miniseries. (Erik Heinila/TNT)
Television Review

Cold War tale never heats up

There's something inescapably Boy Scoutish about Chris O'Donnell. Kurt Russell long ago graduated from the Disney teen-hero persona of his youth, his face stone-washed by the years, his hair just a little bit rock 'n' roll. But O'Donnell, now in his late 30s, still carries the Ivory soap air of a brave young man who'll ford the stream and fold the flag. He's likable, if stiff, and I'd trust him with my stocks, my annual checkup, and even my dog.

But ain't no way he's a convincing Cold War spy, sneaking through the dark alleys of 1950s Berlin. In TNT's three-part miniseries "The Company," O'Donnell plays CIA Boy Wonder Jack McAuliffe, a Yale crew jock recruited to fight communism and other cool stuff. While "The Company" evokes occasional glimmers of Cold War intrigue, O'Donnell never blends in. When his Jack is tortured in Budapest and he mutters, "My name is -- go to hell," he's something out of a DC Comics frame. His hair grays as "The Company" moves forward to the 1980s, but he just can't hide that baby-soft face.

The miniseries, executive-produced by Ridley and Tony Scott and based on a novel by Robert Littell, is peppered with CIA facts and world history, but it nonetheless comes off as a Cold War fairy tale. With its Old World set design, noble freedom fighters in the streets, and gentleman spies, "The Company" even brings a sense of nostalgia to the US-USSR superpower struggle. They just don't fight 'em like that anymore. And there is romance afloat, too. O'Donnell's Jack falls sweetly in love with the women he's protecting, including a German dancer with come-hither eyes. He has a raging rescue fantasy, although he'd look more appropriate saving Lassie from a culvert.

In other words, "The Company" delivers no real chills, just a quaint Cold War amusement park ride. In its shape, the miniseries is a little like Martin Scorsese's "The Departed," a little like Robert De Niro's "The Good Shepherd." A clique of Yale buddies grow up to be on varying sides of a few pivotal Cold War episodes, including the Hungarian Revolution and the Bay of Pigs. After graduation, Alessandro Nivola's Leo Kritzky becomes action-hero O'Donnell's more cerebral counterpart at the CIA in Washington, and Rory Cochrane's Yevgeny Tsipin signs up with the KGB and serves as a spy in America. Rowing, it seems, was the fast track to espionage in the 1950s.

What kept me going through the six hours of "The Company" -- that's two hours for the next three Sunday nights -- were two meaty (more specifically, hammy) performances, by Alfred Molina and Michael Keaton. Molina plays an old-school spy named Harvey Torriti, whose code name is the Sorcerer. He should more aptly be called the Souserer, since he's always slugging back booze. But he's sharp, and he works the spy biz like a puppeteer, flushing out a mole as if with a few able hand movements.

And Keaton goes over the top as the legendary James Angleton, a real CIA counter-intelligence specialist who became paranoid about uncovering moles after a close associate was exposed. Keaton plays Angleton as a chain-smoking obsessive who is self-righteous about his finely tuned deductive skills. He's so caught up in undoing codes, he has no psychic energy left for people skills. Behind oversize glasses, Keaton pushes the strange-meter into the red, particularly when we see Angleton in his orchid greenhouse, tending to his fine flowers with a perverse intensity on his face.

Part three of the miniseries is the best chunk, as pursuit of a CIA mole leads to some engaging psychological suspense. The action-based sequences in "The Company" are the least successful, particularly in part two, where the uprising in Budapest seems too stage-set-ish. When Jack finally leads the crowds out of a cornered building to safety, you have to wonder why he waited until after people were killed to do so. The logic, like so much of "The Company," is not worth observing very closely.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

'Related'

The Company

Starring: Chris O'Donnell, Alfred Molina, Michael Keaton, Alessandro Nivola, Natascha McElhone, Rory Cochrane, Alexandra Maria Lara

On: TNT

Time: Sunday, 8-10 p.m.

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