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Originally published Monday, January 6, 2014 at 5:30 AM

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‘The Assets’: Hot on the trail of a Cold War spy within the CIA

A review of the eight-part miniseries “The Assets,” about the real-life CIA officers who tracked down Aldrich Ames, a spy within their ranks. It airs at 10 p.m. Thursdays on ABC and stars Paul Rhys (“Being Human”) and Jodie Whittaker (“Broadchurch”).


San Francisco Chronicle

On TV

‘The Assets’

10 p.m. Thursdays, ABC.

Tonight in Prime Time

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Review

No one misses the Cold War except maybe Vladimir Putin and Hollywood film and TV creators, but it’s easy to see why the second group feels nostalgia. Protracted tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union provided a rich vein of inspiration for countless TV shows and movies for decades.

Then they had to go ruin it all with that whole glasnost thing, the demolition of the Berlin Wall, and Gorbachev and Reagan getting all palsy-walsy. But now that relations between the U.S. and Russia are chilling again, it’s the perfect time to recall the cold old days of spies versus spies.

FX is already there with the fictional series “The Americans,” returning Feb. 26, and now ABC dramatizes a real-life spy case in the eight-episode miniseries “The Assets.” It premiered Jan. 2 and fills the time slot usually occupied by “Scandal,” currently on midseason hiatus.

Aldrich Ames was a real CIA counterintelligence analyst whose career as a spy lasted so long he was able to betray the U.S. not only with the Soviet Union but with the Russian Republic as well. He’s still around, although cooling his heels with a life term in a federal penitentiary.

“The Assets” is based on a nonfiction account of Aldrich’s nefarious career by Sandy Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille, who were members of the team looking into the especially high number of U.S. agents being “compromised” by leaks of secret information to the Soviets.

The series wastes no time letting us know that Ames (Paul Rhys, “Being Human”) is the mole, nor should it: The case was infamous, in part because it resulted in so many compromised agents, but also because Ames was the last person you’d expect to be a spy.

Instead of the Hollywoodized shaken-not-stirred picture of cool control in a bespoke tux, with Ames, we get a pasty-faced little man constantly shaking with fear. A bespectacled nerd with a tiny mustache, he divorced his first wife to marry Colombian national Maria del Rosario (Catalina Denis, “The Tunnel”). He’s the kind of spy John Le Carre would create, not Ian Fleming, so of course, no one suspects he’s the mole at first.

Sandy Grimes (Jodie Whittaker, “Broadchurch”) can’t tell her understanding husband, Gary (Julian Ovendon, new on Season 4 of “Downton Abbey”), anything about her job, but he knows she works for the Agency and gives her wide berth as he keeps the home fires burning.

Sandy and the rest of her division are desperate to find out who’s been leaking secret info to the Soviets and think they’ve finally got an opening into the case when a top KGB agent named Vitaly Yurchenko (John Lynch, “The Fall”) defects to the U.S.

Ames, of all people, is assigned to debrief Yurchenko, who says he can identify the mole at the CIA.

The two episodes sent to critics are fairly gripping. We know Ames is the bad guy and we know he’ll get caught, but instead of being a spoiler, that knowledge heightens our interest. When will the net drop and how will Grimes and Vertefeuille (Harriet Walter, also new on Season 4 of “Downton Abbey”) corner him?

Rhys and Whittaker are terrific and the two big reasons to watch the series. Rhys carefully constructs a characterization that peels away the self-delusion that would prompt such a gray little man to engage in international espionage.

Whittaker, so memorable as the grieving mother in BBC America’s first season of “Broadchurch,” is instantly convincing as a CIA officer whose professionalism is balanced with very human concerns about the safety of agency assets in the Soviet Union.

Peter Guiness is quite moving as Dmitri Polyakov, a former Soviet military-intelligence expert compromised by Ames’ revelations. Lynch, though, is a little too Boris and Natasha as Yurchenko.

Speaking of assets, credibility of the story is nicely enhanced by muted cinematography and art direction, emphasizing that catching spies is done by nondescript men and women who lead seemingly normal lives and work in under-decorated offices deciphering codes and other information. If this is so much the opposite of what we expect in a movie or TV show about spies, that’s the whole point.




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