Spy stories are such an overspoofed, overexposed genre on TV that you'd think they wouldn't work anymore.
Either they pale in comparison with British-made TV versions of John le Carre's "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and "Smiley's People," or are demeaned by association with the lighthearted likes of "Scarecrow and Mrs. King" on CBS.
There's nothing pastel, trivial or even James Bondish, though, about "Yuri Nosenko, KGB." Nor will you find Kate Jackson and Bruce Boxleitner in this 90-minute depiction of a true case from the 1960s and 1970s, one that pitted the Soviet KGB against the CIA and FBI and also the two American agencies seemingly against each other.
"Yuri Nosenko, KGB" premieres at 10 p.m. Sunday on HBO pay cable and will be repeated throughout the month.
It is simply fascinating, an eyeful, mindful and spyful, a meticulously staged, superbly written, directed and acted British production with a mostly American cast that keeps you on edge and in the dark about a case that one CIA man aptly labels "a wilderness of mirrors." Many, many mirrors, some remaining to this day.
The setting is Geneva in 1964, not long after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Steve Daley (a pseudonym), a rising young officer in the CIA's Soviet Bloc section, is approached by a man purporting to be a high-ranking KGB staff officer named Yuri Ivanovich Nosenko. He seeks political asylum in the United States, promising the Americans top secret information about Soviet infiltration of the CIA and a KGB tie to Lee Harvey Oswald.
This encounter will trigger an odyssey lasting at least 14 years, during which Daley the insider (Tommy Lee Jones) and Nosenko the alien (Oleg Rudnik), curiously, will exchange roles.
After initially buying Nosenko's story, Daley comes to ardently believe that he's a KGB plant, an obsession that will make the American a CIA outcast and ruin his career. After three years of solitary confinement and brutal interrogation, though, Nosenko is certified a bona-fide defector, hired as a CIA consultant and later given a new identity.
A BBC production in association with Primetime Television Limited, this is HBO's best original drama since "Sakharov."
Jones is first-rate as Daley, underplaying, always under control, the Yuppie intelligence officer who becomes a casualty of agency scapegoating. Rudnik (a Soviet actor/director before emigrating to the U.S. in 1976) is your vision of Nosenko, opportunistic, mystifying, a poseur with many loose ends. The supporting cast is also excellent, especially Josef Sommer as Daley's superior, James Angleton.
Directed by Mick Jackson and written by Stephen Davis, "Yuri Nosenko, KGB" is at once suspenseful and grimy, giving intelligence work an unglamorous Le Carre-esque tint.
The good guys and bad guys are almost interchangeable. Some of the best scenes involve agency infighting, as the CIA and FBI initially clash over Nosenko's authenticity, each apparently having a separate self-serving agenda.
Nosenko's long-term grilling is carried out in a specially built concrete building that's cold and gray and as efficient as the portrayals of CIA men trying to break the alleged defector.
He never admits being a plant. Yet, despite critical flaws and inconsistencies in his multiple stories, he survives and Daley and some of his superiors fall. It's all very baffling, and meant to be.
Nosenko reportedly now still lives in America, somewhere in the East. "I think he's still on the CIA's payroll," said scriptwriter Stephen Davis in a telephone interview from London. "I tried to contact him, but the agency was not cooperative."
Davis did speak with the pivotal character identified in the story as Daley, who is retired from the CIA and living in Europe.
"Yuri Nosenko, KGB" is captive viewing, a terrific way to spend 90 minutes. You just can't leave it. But the old question about docudrama arises: Is it true?
"There is no fantasy in it anywhere," Davis replied. "It's truth is proven. It's absolutely historical." Some of the details of private conversations have been fudged, he added, "but even those are based on careful research, best guesses and insights."
Davis, 36, spent six months interviewing participants in the case, researching from public records and then writing the script. "It was dizzifying, frustrating, disorienting and exhilarating," he said.
"Not being a journalist helped me. And I think being an outsider helped me. People were less defensive. Your atmosphere on secret intelligence is far less inhibited than in the UK, where no one is allowed to acknowledge the existance of secret intelligence. But still, many doors were slammed in my face. I had to be extremely persistent."
The TV account ends as enigmatically as it begins. Was Nosenko a KGB plant?
"My own estimate--which is no better or worse than anyone else's--is that he was a disinformation agent being used to mislead the CIA," Davis said. "I think his job was to be dangled in front of the CIA in Europe, but that he was not supposed to defect.
"My best guess is that he decided to defect on his own accord and that he tried to stick to his story, perhaps believing that if he confessed to being of no great importance, he would be sent back. The central mystery is why the CIA went to such extraordinary lengths to rehabilitate Nosenko, as if he had been trustworthy. I think the case is unresolvable."