Why is this interesting? - Le Bureau des Légendes edition

On drama, human intelligence, and how fiction can help you understand reality

Colin here. There’s a particular feeling that comes with wrapping up a television series that you’ve spent a long time with. The melancholy of finishing a nuanced, heartbreaking show like The Wire, or being left hanging in the ether by The Sopranos, is quite unique. I had this same feeling recently when finishing Season 5 of Le Bureau des Légendes, a spectacular French political and espionage thriller created by Éric Rochant. While there’s speculation of whether there will be another season, this certainly felt like a finale par excellence.

For those unfamiliar, “Le Bureau” is a drama that unfolds within the French intelligence agency DGSE, specifically the division that sends agents into harm’s way under non-official cover; the type of cover that is divorced from any diplomatic protection and means the stakes are much higher (think torture, interrogations, prison) if things go wrong. Predictably, these agents go into non-permissive environments—Russia, Iran, Yemen, ISIS-controlled areas—to gather information relevant to French strategic interests. The show differs from what we would expect from US Jason Bourne-style spy thrillers in that there’s seldom a shootout, few explosions, and none of the fast-cut action. The Economist recently described it nicely: “...this smart, unhurried Gallic take on a spy thriller features no special effects and few stunts. Rather it relies on psychological complexity, intricate geopolitics and a form of slow-burn realism said to have met with approval even among French intelligence officers.” 

What I particularly liked is that it focuses on the human side of intelligence gathering, and the emotional consequences. As true with spying since the beginning of time, one party is trying to use multiple levers to get another to do what they want—often betraying their country in the process.

Why is this interesting?

I’m not going to dissect the show in and out here. I think you should just watch it. But what I do think is fascinating is that fiction is sometimes the most valuable place to see reality. It is clear that similar to Homeland, the show has good advice when it comes to writing and plot development, often from former members of the intelligence community. The way The Bureau handles hyper-modern political issues like the rise of ISIS, Russian intelligence, and advances in facial recognition and cyberwarfare, seem ripped from the headlines. But the storytelling goes beyond just vaguely pointing to the topic and helps you more deeply understand the situation. It is rooted in the actual reality of the world. 

This has precedent, both in France and elsewhere. For all of the sex, action, and machismo in his books, the French pulp spy novelist Gerard de Villiers was known for being so well-sourced in the intelligence world that he would sometimes predict the future, or call the smoking gun when no one else knew what happened. Because he wrote fiction, people who had inside knowledge would talk to him in ways they never would as a journalist. 

The Times profiled the now-deceased novelist several years back:

...de Villiers’s books are ahead of the news and sometimes even ahead of events themselves. Nearly a year ago he published a novel about the threat of Islamist groups in post-revolutionary Libya that focused on jihadis in Benghazi and on the role of the C.I.A. in fighting them. The novel, “Les Fous de Benghazi,” came out six months before the death of the American ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, and included descriptions of the C.I.A. command center in Benghazi (a closely held secret at that time), which was to become central in the controversy over Stevens’s death. Other de Villiers books have included even more striking auguries. In 1980, he wrote a novel in which militant Islamists murder the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, a year before the actual assassination took place. When I asked him about it, de Villiers responded with a Gallic shrug. “The Israelis knew it was going to happen,” he said, “and did nothing.”

He also had information on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri:

[The Book] “La Liste Hariri” provides detailed information about the elaborate plot, ordered by Syria and carried out by Hezbollah, to kill Hariri. This plot is one of the great mysteries of the Middle East, and I found specific information that no journalists, to my knowledge, knew at the time of the book’s publication, including a complete list of the members of the assassination team and a description of the systematic elimination of potential witnesses by Hezbollah and its Syrian allies. 

The big appeal of the Bureau was the show’s firm rooting in reality and its sense of pacing and restraint. It can be slow-burning and get in your head. It doesn’t play to the other cliffhanger tropes of other shows, which is why the final two episodes were such a trip. The show’s creator, Mr. Rochant, handed off the keys to another noted French director, Jacques Audiard. Through this transition, the resulting episodes felt like a detached, psychedelic fever dream; very unsettling, emotional, and oddly beautiful. I had a hard time falling asleep when I finished due to the gut-punch it rendered. 

The Times review of the show describes the approach from realism and pragmatism into how it ended.

His two episodes, written with his longtime collaborator Thomas Bidegain, split opinions in France. Many viewers took to social media to complain about the often dreamlike tone, or that certain characters had been neglected; others embraced Audiard’s audacity. Loiret-Caille compared Audiard’s ending to a Greek tragedy, calling it “rather beautiful.” On Twitter, Rochant called it “a bold artistic move that disrupts the narrative logic,” adding: “Time is on our side.” Audiard, who will not return next season, seemed to take a near-spiritual view: “I saw it as a requiem,” he said.

The show is available for download on iTunes and the streaming Sundance Now. Note the final season is coming out one episode per week until the conclusion. (CJN

Recommendation of the Day:

As I’ve mentioned, one of the very positive things I’ve taken up during this quarantine is running. With that has come some blisters. I tried a bunch of solutions until I found these new Band-Aids. They actually stay on your toes and even stay through showers. I’ve ordered something like 5 boxes in the last two months. Plus they led to a very funny conversation about what life would be like as a Band-Aid scientist. (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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