On Television

Taking on ISIS and Eichmann

Covering a French spy thriller, a documentary on Eichmann and a British government drama

Among television aficionados two series often vie for top place: The Wire and The Bureau. The Wire, a police drama set in Baltimore, launched more than 20 years ago, but has not dated. The Bureau, a spy series available on Amazon Prime, dates from the mid-2010s.

Set in the DGSE, the French foreign intelligence service, it also ran for five seasons, roaming from the Parisian corridors of power through Damascus, Tehran, Russia, Iraq and more. Each episode — apart from some of Season Five which went a bit AWOL — felt informed and realistic. The storylines were complex, peopled with nuanced, subtle characters.

The same immersive viewing pleasure can be found in Dark Hearts, a French military espionage series now showing on BBC iPlayer (although its original French name is Coeurs Noir). Created by Dang Thai Duong and Corinne Garfin, the six-part series is set in 2016 in the outskirts of Mosul, which was then still held by ISIS.

Both writers worked on The Bureau and its influence is evident, although there is a single main setting rather than multiple locations, and a more straightforward storyline. An elite French commando group, operating undercover, captures Zaid, a French jihadist.

Locked up in a cell, Zaid, grubby, shabby and very overweight, does not seem very menacing. But as a high-level terrorist, he has plenty of information both about ISIS’s operations across the frontlines, and even more importantly, about jihadist networks in France. He is, after a while, ready to cooperate. His price is the rescue of his daughter Sala and his grandson Yanis and their safe return to France.

The cracking action scenes are skilfully choreographed, and the military and intelligence details all feel very authentic

That demands a perilous mission deep into ISIS-controlled territory. The Kurds, who have networks of agents and informers inside Mosul, are ready to help — but can their information be relied on?

A strong cast includes Thierry Godard, best known for playing in multiple seasons of Spiral, the gritty French detective series, and Nicolas Duvauchelle, who starred in Braquo — a French cop series less well-known than Spiral but even more violent and intense. Marie Dompnier is powerful and convincing as Adèle, a senior member of the team.

The harsh terrain and shabby provincial towns of Morocco do a plausible job standing in for Iraq. Skillful directing by Ziad Doueiri explores the inner dynamics of the group, its rivalries and powerful loyalties. The writers develop their characters with care. Even a female ISIS enforcer, now secretly working as an informer for the Kurds, is sympathetically portrayed with a backstory.

The cracking action scenes are skilfully choreographed, and the military and intelligence details all feel very authentic. The first season ends on a cliffhanger but delivers enough to make satisfying viewing. I am very much looking forward to season two.

Few people in history have a darker heart than Adolf Eichmann, one of the key architects of the Holocaust. By the time he arrived in Hungary, in March 1944, the Nazi machinery of death was so well organised that in less than two months around 430,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz. Most were gassed on arrival. Eichmann escaped justice after the war and eventually fled to Argentina.

As anti-Semitism soars across Britain, this utterly chilling documentary is very timely

There in 1957 he gave a series of interviews to Willem Sassen, a Dutch journalist. The recordings of those interviews are the basis for The Devil’s Confession: The Lost Eichmann Tapes, a two-part documentary now showing on BBC iPlayer.
For decades the tapes gathered dust in a German archive. Eventually they were released to Kobi Sitt and Yariv Moser, two Israeli filmmakers. Eichmann was kidnapped by Mossad, brought to Israel and put on trial before being executed in 1962. This masterful, compelling production has the pace of a thriller.

Sitt and Moser use Eichmann’s actual voice to recreate his gloating conversations with Sassen then cut between courtroom footage and interviews with survivors. Hannah Arendt, the philosopher, described Eichmann as embodying “the banality of evil”. But there was nothing banal about Eichmann’s determination to murder every living Jew, nothing at all. As anti-Semitism soars across Britain, this utterly chilling documentary is very timely.

On a lighter note, season three of Cobra, showing on Sky and NowTV, is a reliably engaging standby for the holiday season. Robert Carlyle is back as Robert Sutherland, the perpetually besieged British prime minister.

In season one a solar flare blew up the electric grid while in season two a cyber-attack crashed our comms systems. This time round the disaster is smaller scale — a local environmental protest that goes horribly wrong with a high human cost.
Sutherland has a personal stake in the catastrophe. His daughter Ellie, an environmental activist, is stuck underground with the eco-warriors.

Cobra fans will enjoy plenty of familiar scenes and characters. Once again Sutherland, his flunkies and plotting ministers stride purposefully around 10 Downing Street, yelling at each other or into their mobile phones. Or they are sitting around an enormous table watching various catastrophes unfold on giant monitors, firing barbs at each other across the room.
Sutherland’s rocky marriage finally crashes but he finds comfort in a hilariously unconvincing affair with his chief of staff Anna Marshall (Victoria Hamilton).

The dialogue can be impressively clunky and the acting overwrought, but Cobra is still entertaining. David Haig steals the show as Archie Glover-Morgan, the scheming, Machiavellian foreign secretary. Give that man his own series — it would have plenty of bite.

This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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