Ah, the Cold War! Those carefree Boris and Natasha days, when life was as simple as a drop drill and all we were made to worry about was the prospect of total world annihilation. Return to them now (or visit for the first time) in "The Company," TNT's three-part, six-hour adaptation of Robert Littell's fact-ish novel about the CIA from its early postwar days to the fall of the Wall and the raising of the Iron Curtain.
Some of it is very enjoyable, some of it is silly but still enjoyable, some of it is too silly to be enjoyable, some of it is not silly enough to be enjoyable, and some of it is neither here nor there.
The best parts have been top-loaded into Sunday night's zippy opener, a colorful riff on movies of old, with honor if not specific homage paid to Alfred Hitchcock and Carol Reed. (There is also a rooftop chase that visually recalls nothing so much as "Mary Poppins.") It takes place largely in Berlin, where our hero, young-pup agent Jack (Chris O'Donnell), fresh out of -- where else? -- Yale, is breaking in under the boozy tutelage of Harvey Torriti (Alfred Molina), a raucous operative nicknamed "The Sorcerer," who bears a distinct resemblance to historical Berlin station chief William Harvey.
Back in Washington, Michael Keaton impersonates actual CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton (who also provided the basis for the character played by Matt Damon in "The Good Shepherd"). Angleton fights communism with index cards, grows orchids and smokes a lot. Keaton plays him as a sort of ascetic aesthete, a poet-intellectual. Although Angleton remains a controversial character -- he developed a paranoid obsession with "moles" after being completely taken in by his friend, the British double agent Kim Philby (the always delightful Tom Hollander) -- here he gets to be right in the end, even if it's only about a character the author made up.
Also in D.C. are Jack's old school chums Leo (Alessandro Nivola), a CIA desk jockey, and Yevgeny (Rory Cochrane in a soulful performance), a Russian exchange student who has joined the KGB and returned to America as a kind of delivery boy disguised as . . . a delivery boy.
Episode 2 (the following Sunday) fares less well, as Jack, like Mr. Peabody or Forrest Gump or the guys on "Time Tunnel," finds himself at the dead center of famous world events: the 1956 Hungarian Revolution (with Natascha McElhone as a fetching freedom fighter), the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Episode 3 recovers somewhat, as he witnesses firsthand the collapse of the Soviet Union, old scores are settled and truths revealed. Everyone is made up to look old.
Executive-produced by the Scott brothers, Ridley and Tony, along with John Calley ("The Da Vinci Code"), directed by Mikael Salomon ("Band of Brothers") and adapted by Ken Nolan ("Black Hawk Down"), "The Company" is not surprisingly a handsome thing and uses its three stars to better advantage than the talking pictures usually do. O'Donnell has just the right sort of unformed good looks Hitchcock used to like; Keaton, making himself as dry and drawn as an old stick, sits right inside Angleton; Molina gets to say things like "Keep yer yarmulke on, I'm just checkin' all the angles" and "I'm as serious as a five-dollar whore" and seems to be having as much fun as a person could possibly be allowed.
Given the juvenile nature of much of what constitutes espionage (playing hide-and-seek, passing notes, playing with gadgets, dressing up), "The Company" is most effective when it works as a kind of romp rather than as a vehicle for insight into either international relations or interpersonal ones. (It does somewhat better on the second account.) In spite of an occasional bit of soul-searching by Jack, "The Company" is not specifically a critique of the agency itself -- though as pictured here, it seems a marvelously ineffectual organization, occupied primarily with getting its own agents out of trouble until the Soviet Union finally falls apart of its own accord.
In terms of personal time management, you could do worse than to watch Episode 1, skip Episode 2, and come back for the last half-hour of Episode 3 to see how it turns out for everyone. Or you could just check out after the opener and put up with not knowing. Or just crack this simple code: Uif npmf xbt Mfp. You will have guessed anyway.
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14, with advisories for coarse language and violence)