The Bureau, a French spy drama that follows characters working in the DGSE, France’s equivalent of the CIA, is deservedly gaining a wide Anglophone audience. The show traces contemporary events in the world of intelligence—spanning Syria, Russia, Iran, and ISIS—and is in many ways the anti-Hollywood drama. Wholeheartedly committed to realism, it disdains sensationalist action scenes, regularly features failed missions, and wastes no time with political virtue-signalling.
But the show’s more profound achievement is how, in the finest tradition of French cinematic realism, it presents a moral tale. In the 1960s, French neorealist director Eric Rohmer made a series called Contes moraux (moral tales). Not to be mistaken for “morality tales” (i.e. “…and the moral of the story is…”), Rohmer’s stories were ethical studies. The characters reflected on their own thoughts and mental states through voice-overs, or in confidences with other characters, or even in examinations of conscience. The structure of each film was to follow a man of set principles who desires a woman, and who is tempted to put aside those principles. In the end, the man would find the fortitude to uphold his principles. While offering sympathetic portrayals of human weakness, the films vindicated the importance of principles for ethics and prodded viewers to consider their own.
In the moral tale of The Bureau, the principles guiding the characters are the rules of the DGSE. The DGSE has one great mission: gathering intelligence to protect the citizens of France. For an agent in the DGSE’s bureau des légendes, who assumes an alias and operates in foreign countries, the rules are very strict. Beyond keeping his work secret and maintaining a false identity, the agent is forbidden to form close human attachments. An agent must be able to forge seemingly real relationships with others and sever them when the mission demands, without hesitation or regret. Reassignment requires cutting off communication with former contacts and destroying the alias.
In the spy genre, such rules can often be the object of cynicism. John Le Carré has built his literary career by evoking amorality and great power villainy: his spies learn that the rules are arbitrary. For Jack Bauer of 24, the rules are rapidly adjusted to meet the calculus of ticking time-bomb scenarios; the rules are utilitarian. But in The Bureau, the spy is taught that the rules are there for his protection, as well as that of his contacts, colleagues, family, friends, the DGSE, and ultimately the Republic of France. This spy learns that the rules are for the common good.