Television review

‘Assets’ miniseries a gripping retelling of Aldrich Ames spy case


San Francisco Chronicle

No one misses the Cold War except perhaps Hollywood creative types, and it’s easy to see why they feel nostalgia. Protracted tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union provided inspiration for countless TV shows and movies.

Now that relations between the United States and Russia are chilling again, it’s the perfect time to recall the cold old days of spies vs. 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, premiering Thursday.

Aldrich Ames was a 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 an account of Ames’ nefarious career by Sandy Grimes and Jeanne Vertefuille, 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 case was infamous in part because Ames (Paul Rhys, Being Human) was the last person you’d expect to be a spy. 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.

Grimes (Jodie Whittaker) and the rest of her division at the Agency are desperate to find out who’s been leaking secret info to the Soviets, and think they’ve finally got an opening 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 that knowledge heightens our interest. When will the net drop and how will Grimes and Vertefuille (Harriet Walter, Downton Abbey) corner him?

Rhys and Whittaker are 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 Broadchurch, is instantly convincing as a CIA officer whose professionalism is balanced with human concerns about the safety of agency assets in the Soviet Union.

Speaking of assets, the story’s credibility is enhanced by muted cinematography and art direction, emphasizing that catching spies is done by nondescript men and women who lead seemingly normal lives. If this is the opposite of what we expect in a show about spies, that’s the point.

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