Binge-r #104: The Bureau + Jack Ryan
THE BUREAU S1
Streaming Service: SBS on Demand
Availability: All 10 episodes now streaming (plus S2 + S3)
Early on in The Bureau, a remarkably tense French espionage thriller, a psychiatrist seconded to France’s intelligence services, Dr Laurene Balmes (Lea Drucker), unofficially evaluates Guillaume Debailly (Mathieu Kassovitz), an operative who has just returned to Paris and his true identity after six years undercover in Syria. She notes that the circumspect spy has “acute hypervigilance” – he is constantly on the lookout for a possibly threatening change of circumstances. Watch a little of this series and you’ll start to feel the same way. Predicated on intimate exchanges and the deception required to reveal the truth, The Bureau makes you as much an analyst as part of the audience. It recruits you.
One of the selling points of Eric Rochant’s drama, which debuted in April 2015 and is initially set in September 2014, is its accuracy derived from the input of former members of France’s DGSE. With its focus on the section that trains, inserts and maintains deep cover agents, the show eschews the whiz-bang excess of the CIA; at one meeting a proposed mission to scare an Algerian asset acting suspiciously is evaluated not only for its possible effectiveness but also the cost of 30,000 Euros. Techs sneak into computer systems instead of taking them over, while operations are depicted with detailed tradecraft and intricate calculation. You will have to watch a good many episodes to see a handgun brandished.
The underlying focus is on identity. A young agent, Marina Loiseau (Sara Giraudeau), is being prepared to serve in Iran as a visiting seismologist, a process that is deeply illustrative in how working undercover begins to alter your understanding of yourself. Guillaume, by contrast, can’t shake his life in Damascus as teacher Paul Lefebvre, particularly when his lover, Syrian academic Nadia Al Mansour (Zeneb Triki), arrives in Paris. The two are drawn to each other, but Guillaume returns to being Paul for her even as he grows uncertain about Nadia’s motives. There’s a constant testing of the truth, of trying to prove what is real and what is not, which only serves to draw to the surface the flaws of those involved.
Spy thrillers normally amp up the violent resolution of terrorist plots or government schemes, but intelligence work in The Bureau is accretive and nuanced, and when the ramifications do start to take hold it feels like a fitting outcome to all that has preceded it. The more people add to their cover stories, the less that remains underneath that is real, and the performances are very good at capturing the flickers of emotion that serve as tells. This might be too quiet for some viewers, but to me it plays as a terrific Gallic update to John Le Carre’s labyrinthine 1970s London. The change is gradual, but stark. “People you really like,” a handler calmly counsels Marina, “must be destroyed.”
In Brief: Jack Ryan S1 (Amazon): Tom Clancy’s Cold War paperback hero, a CIA analyst perpetually thrown into the field, arrives on the small screen with a big budget and frustratingly loose intentions. John Krasinski, the fifth actor to play Jack Ryan, brings a boyish dedication to the role, but too often this eight part espionage thriller ticks off intriguing concepts without exploring them. Ryan, for example, is uneasy at what might be happening at a CIA black prison in Yemen, but is side-tracked. It’s the same with his CIA department boss, James Greer (The Wire veteran Wendell Pierce), who has converted to Islam while serving in Pakistan. Many possibilities, none pursued. The pair’s globetrotting hunt for a terror cell starts off fast, but without notable action set-pieces the third and fourth episodes sag badly, with clumsy side stories and wonky logic (the comparisons to The Bureau aren’t helpful). There’s an attempt to give context to the jihadi leader, Suleiman (Ali Suliman), including the fracturing of his own family, but the depiction of circumstances in both Syria and France has the distinct whiff of American storytellers winging it. There’s not a bold choice on offer here.
New on Netflix: Amy Adams is at her entrancing best in Nocturnal Animals (2016, 116 minutes), but designer turned director Tom Ford gets caught up in hillbilly noir and revenge fantasies with co-stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon; the best of the franchise’s three recent entries, Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013, 133 minutes) has J.J. Abrams directing Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, and Benedict Cumberbatch in a galactic thriller.
New on SBS on Demand: “Police shot the right man, but the wrong man exploded.” Four Lions (2010, 97 minutes) is masterful British satirist Chris Morris taking on the irrationality that defines the Age of Terror; a French romantic comedy that profits from being sweet and silly, Heartbreaker (2010, 105 minutes) stars Romain Duris as a break-up artist who meets his match in Vanessa Paradis.
New on Stan: Spring Breakers (2012, 93 minutes) lets the ever unpredictable Harmony Korine go all in visually and thematically on the American dream, with four female college students revelling in crime and fantasy with punctuation from James Franco’s hip-hop crime boss; a sprawling contemporary satire spiked with surreal corrections, Ruben Ostlund’s The Square (2017, 151 minutes) dissects a world where understanding can never be pinned down.
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