Earlier this year ABC rolled out an eight-part mini series about the Aldrich Ames spy case called The Assets. It lasted just two episodes before it was yanked from the schedule because of historically low overnight ratings. ABC tried again in June to run the remainder of the series and after two more dismal outings finally buried the show on Sunday’s in late July and early August. And for the life of me I can’t figure out what went wrong other than the subject matter just didn’t grab anyone’s attention. Because I have to say I was thoroughly entertained by the show, which is now available for streaming on Netflix.
Looking ironically less like Ames and more like the real life legendary CIA counter intelligence chief James Jesus Angleton, Paul Rhys carries the production as the CIA officer who worked for the Russians from 1985 to 1994 before being arrested and ultimately sentence to life imprisonment in federal prison. The talented welsh actor has had a varied career in the theater, film and television turning up in such shows as Being Human, Luther and New Tricks and also starring in the movie Eliminate: Archie Cookson – which is a quirky spy thriller that is on my list of things I’d like to watch should it turn up on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon.
While espionage and such thrillers are generally my favorite kind of movie or show, I’ve always found the British spies, such as Kim Philby, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, more interesting than those that spy purely for financial reward. It’s pure semantics from a practical sense, but spying for some misguided and romanticized version of a world view rather than the run of the mill treachery for money of Aldrich, Robert Hanssen, John Walker and others, is much more fascinating. In the end of course it’s all the same, but still the journey of how they got there is often a curious one.
The Assets is based on the book Circle of Treason: A CIA Account of Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed by Sandra Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille. The two CIA officers, who initially did not get on, were involved in tracking down the source of the internal leak within the organization and are portrayed by Jodie Whittaker and Harriet Walter respectively. Whittaker appears to be a rising talent after a number of excellent performances including that of Beth Latimer in the well-received Broadchurch with the actress scheduled to return in the second season of that show. As Grimes she first raises the issue of the leaks within the CIA, tenaciously pushing and getting the attention of her colleagues and superiors.
Vertefeuille is brought in as an outside officer to run the investigation and not tainted by the Washington office. Apparently a stereotypical loaner, driven and focused in real life, Vertefeuille passed away at the end of 2012. Walter, one of the greats of English stage and screen, conveys this and the characters innate intelligence very well.
Told through numerous flashbacks as the main story unfolds, The Assets is at its best when it is dealing with all the chaos that Ames’ caused with his betrayal. It takes some poetic license with the sequence of events and some of the characters involved, but essentially tells the overall story well.
In addition to the principals John Lynch, most recently known for a useful turn in The Fall, has some scenery chewing scenes as defector Vitaly Yurchenko and Peter Guinness turns in his standard solid performance. That The Assets failed to find its audience is undeniable. So too is the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed this series.
– Wallace Poulter