Following the introduction of James Bond to movies in the 1960s, the spy genre has slowly polarized itself into two camps: the over-the-top thrill ride with the gadgets and the dashing hero, and the gritty, realistic approach with an eye for detail (Bond never got too close to the latter, but the current run of Daniel Craig movies are certainly attempting to have their cake and eat it too). To this pile, we can now add "The Bureau", a decent French spy series that never exactly catches fire but delivers some well-orchestrated thrills.
The series is comprised of three central threads. The primary storyline is about agent Guillaume Debailly (Mathieu Kassovitz), codenamed Malotru, who has just returned from a six-year undercover information gathering mission in Damascus. His mission seems to have gone smoothly, but his cover included a major wrinkle: within his alias, Paul Lefebvre, he fell for a woman in Damascus, Nadia el Mansour (Zineb Triki), and upon his return to Paris, he breaks the rules by contacting her. The second thread involves the disappearance of an agent in Algiers, codenamed Cyclone, who is last seen being taken into a police station following a drunk driving incident. Finally,
there is the training and first mission of a new agent, Marina Loiseau (Sara Giraudeau). Debailly is assigned to show her the ropes, and before long she is given the mission to get picked for a program that would send her to Iran as a seismology expert, where she would investigate Iran's nuclear weapons.
One of the more interesting aspects about the first few episodes of "The Bureau" is its focus on the day-to-day minutia of spy work. When Debailly returns to Paris and sheds his cover identity from Damascus (well, most of it), there are scenes of him deleting that identity from the world, including returning various passports and identification provided by the organization, the Directorate-General for External Security, or DGSE. In a later episode, Debailly talks about how one withdraws from a public persona, responding to fewer and fewer emails and phone calls until an identity's presence is forgotten by the people whose lives they were briefly part of. There is also some great insight in Debailly's tidbits of advice for Marina, including a scene where he instructs her to get the names, numbers, and professions of some people in a bar, and when she is successful, points out the flaw in her methods. While the agency is trying to locate Cyclone, another agent is seen monitoring patterns of cell phone signals, and there is an explanation of the patterns he is trying to observe and what each one might indicate happened to him.
Although not all of these details come into play, they help flesh out a complicated web of relationships between action and reaction that help fuel the sense of panic when evidence surfaces that Cyclone may have been a double agent for the Algerians, and that any or all of the operations Cyclone was privy to as one of only nine spies working for the Bureau may have been compromised. Debailly and his superior, Duflot (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) end up having to interrogate a colleague under the guise of the enemy, in order to confirm Cyclone hasn't corrupted him. Duflot, meanwhile, makes a phone call that compromises relationships with another country, causing a series of dominoes to fall. There is also the introduction, in the second episode, of the notion that the series is unfolding in flashback, with Debailly explaining his actions to someone off-screen, while hooked up to a polygraph. Meanwhile, Marina walks a tightrope trying to convince the head of the Iranian program to pick her over a number of other seismology experts, who don't have to learn and memorize the details of their field minutes before presenting themselves as experts.
At the heart of the story is Debailly's relationship with Nadia, which becomes doubly complicated as Debailly begins to find holes in Nadia's reasons for being in Paris, and quickly learns that his relationship with her may be putting her life in danger. Unfortunately, while the romance angle is never quite a drag, there isn't much sexual chemistry between Kassovitz and Triki. Kassovitz's interpretation of Debailly is methodical and straightforward, and he is convincing enough in that meticulousness that it's hard to believe he would risk everything for Nadia. Without spoiling too much of the series' surprises, the truth of Debailly's job in relation to Nadia's reasons for being in Paris present a conflict of loyalty between her country and her love, and it's just not compelling enough to function the way it's clearly meant to.
From a filmmaking standpoint, the show is reserved and low on flair or anything resembling action, but there are tensely orchestrated sequences that keep a number of balls in the air with relative ease. Visually, the show isn't much to look at, with most of the action taking place inside DGSE's offices, and the cinematography has a straightforward appearance. Those with the patience for a handsome but basic thriller will likely come away feeling positive overall, but "The Bureau" is a modest success, not an explosive one.
Kino Lorber gives "The Bureau" a package that matches the tone and style of the program itself: straightforward. A basic promo image of Kassovitz looking up from a table full of documents adorns the front, a handful of photographs and a plot summary take up the back, and the 3-disc set is housed in an eco-friendly Amaray case (no holes, but uses less plastic),
with a two-disc tray. The entire thing is covered by a matte cardboard slipcover featuring the same image.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with French Dolby Digital 5.1 audio tracks and English subtitles,
the presentation leaves something to be desired. Perhaps a four-disc set would've been better in order to allow the series' 10 hour-long episodes to breathe more, as the image here is on the murky side. Maybe it's the series' digital photography, but aside from close-ups, there is rarely much fine detail to speak of, and any sort of medium or long shot had a distinctly soft and smeary quality to it. Colors appear fine, but the resolution or compression of the image leaves quite a bit to be desired. Sound fares better,
although there's not much going on beyond the dialogue, which is presented cleanly and clearly, with the occasional bit of background music seeping in.
"The Bureau" isn't bad, nor is it particularly special.
There are touches of uniqueness here and there, but as the series gets away from the generalities of the job and more into its specific story, those quirks fall to the wayside. With a stronger romance at the center of the show, it might have been a little gem, but as it is, it's more of a rental.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.