A New TV Spy Drama Worthy of LeCarré
Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends has a dazzling US debut this Sunday
A Spy Among Friends, a much anticipated six-part series debuting Sunday, March 12, is the brilliant, if sometimes embellished tale of the famed double agent and KGB mole, Kim Philby, and his defection to the Soviet Union in 1963, despite the efforts of his friend and fellow MI6 officer, Nicholas Elliott, to coax him back to Britain.
Watching the five hours plus of this complex but engaging drama, I was reminded of the old saying by Mark Twain: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” And that goes in spades for A Spy Among Friends, based on the terrific book by the same name by the prolific, and extraordinarily deft, espionage writer Ben Macintyre.
“This is a work of imagination,” the series advises at the start of each episode. And well it should. But in the hands of director Nick Murphy, its appropriately nuanced plotting and dark, dramatic tension, driven by great performances from Guy Pearce (as Philby) and Damian Lewis (as his close friend Nicholas Elliott) combine to make this spy thriller an instant masterwork. The story is compelling whether or not the viewer is steeped in spy lore, or the novice who might not have heard of, arguably, the most prominent KGB mole of the 20th Century. At its heart, it’s a story of trust and betrayal among Britain's upper classes—perfect for a PBS audience—but you’ll find it on the subscription based MGM plus streaming service (free trial reachable through Amazon Prime).
With his ruggedly royal good looks, clever tongue and a Cambridge degree that greased his entry into London’s social clubs, Philby was already a committed communist by the time he launched his career as a journalist, eventually covering the Spanish Civil War for the Times of London from Franco’s fascist headquarters, during which he enlisted as a Soviet agent. Back in London in 1940 after the fall of France, he was recruited by MI6’s Section D, a covert branch dedicated to sabotage and paramilitary operations on the continent, all the while helping the KGB recruit other agents in the British foreign service. In a covert career spanning the next two decades, he likely contributed to the discovery and murder of many British and American agents, particularly when he alerted Moscow to a U.S.-U.K. plot to overthrow Albania’s communist regime. In his legacy, he would gain infamy as the key actor in the group of traitors that became known as the “Cambridge Five,” KGB spies all of them.
Counter to expectations, Philby is not the main focus of this six-part drama. It is Nick Elliott, Philby’s longtime friend and fellow MI6 agent, who is given the mission of retrieving Philby, who had narrowly escaped accusations of treachery a decade earlier, from Beirut—or even, if necessary, kill him to prevent his escape to the Soviet Union. It is a moment of peak tension: Will Elliott, Philby’s partner in many a drunken upper class spy-boys revelry in London’s private clubs, carry out the execution if need be? We’re already wondering about his resolve—and loyalties—from a previous scene in which he vociferously demanded MI5’s counterintelligence bloodhounds be kept out of it.
The great Damian Lewis (Homeland, Band of Brothers) executes the scene with an assassin’s exactitude, playing Elliott with the quiet confidence and subtlety that evokes Sir Alec Guinness’s cunning George Smiley in the 1979 BBC production of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Every gesture, every purse of the lip, says volumes of the man’s capacity for deception, despair and disdain. Likewise, his prey Philby is played to perfection by Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential and so much more), stumbling through the story with all the self-loathing and drunken charm a double agent acquires. So good are Lewis and Pearce that one can easily imagine that they would do equally well if they had been chosen to reverse roles.
The principal hinge for the film is the addition of a fictional MI5 investigator, Lily Thomas, who is assigned to find out why Elliott insisted on retrieving Philby alone from Beirut—and then failed to prevent his escape on a Russian freighter. Did help his old friend out of nostalgia? Or were they secret KGB comrades?
The relentless Thomas is portrayed with understated grace by Anna Maxwell Martin, perhaps known best in the United States for the TV versions of Bleak House and Bletchley Park. Purists might say that it is unacceptable to add a character to a nonfiction story who is really an amalgam of others. Others, including me, would insist that she adds a necessary dramatic engine to the story. Through her role as interrogator, we learn more about the workings and rivalries between MI5’s domestic security agency and MI6, the foreign espionage service, basically the analogs of the FBI and the CIA—not to mention Britain’s class bound system of the time.
Another central character that emerges is James Jesus Angleton, the CIA’s frightening chief of counterintelligence from 1954 until his downfall in 1974 from a paranoia that was destroying the agency’s Soviet operations. Despite his almost folkloric status in the history of American mole hunts, Angleton has a blind spot for Philby and for years refused to believe that his friend was a double agent. He is portrayed with all due befuddlement by Stephen Kunken, known especially for his roles in Billions and The Handmaid’s Tale. Angleton likely first encountered Philby in 1943, when the Brit was training members of X-2, the counterintelligence branch of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS). X-2 was created to infiltrate, neutralize and recruit agents of the Abwehr, Nazi military intelligence. After the war, when Philby was assigned to Washington as the MI6 station chief, he and Angleton resumed their friendship, often over long liquid lunches at Harvey’s, a dark downtown power restaurant, which of course was instrumental to Philby’s primary mission of passing American secrets to Moscow.
The story is told through swift venue changes and flashbacks that trace and explain Philby’s rapid and cunning rise through the MI6 ranks. And that makes A Spy Among Friends as much a story about pre- and postwar Britain as much as it is about espionage and betrayals.
Yet spycraft and subterfuge are ever present in the drama, as it weaves a portrait of a British espionage bureaucracy that often inhibits, sometimes even destroys MI6’s ability to conduct a successful mission. Its relentlessly dark, shadowy tones sometimes make us want to reach for a flashlight (or torch, as the Brits would have it) to light up the action. But it’s clear that Murphy’s intent is to keep us in the dark as much as Philby’s superiors and colleagues were: nothing is clear, and the portrait of Philby remains as hazy and obscure as what we see on the screen. With that, the artistic license gives us enough prompts to ask our own questions: Why would Philby do what he did? How could he have evaded discovery for so long? MacIntyre and Murphy have teamed up to offer a drama that is all the more compelling for the questions that remain unanswered.
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Just started reading the book, ironically. Looking forward to both.