Douglas Hurd on Robert Harris' An Officer and a Spy

One question above all emerges when reading this book: would we in Britain have behaved better?

An Officer and a Spy
Robert Harris
Hutchinson, 496pp, £18.99

Robert Harris is a novelist of range and depth – he moves from the Soviet Union to the politics of ancient Rome through a prime minister manufacturing his memoirs and now to France of the Third Republic convulsed by the Dreyfus case. In each book, Harris has found a way of marrying history with intelligent fiction to produce thrillers that are both insightful and gripping.

In An Officer and a Spy, Harris gives us a portrait of one institution: the French army. There are skilfully composed characters, from successive ministers of war and the chief of the intelligence department to Major Henry, the second in command of the shadowy statistical section. Each is driven by devotion to the army, right or wrong, and tested by the horrifying thought that the Jewish officer from the Alsace condemned by a court martial and sent to Devil’s Island to serve his sentence may be innocent.

The narrator is Colonel Picquart, who is promoted to run the statistical department, thus becoming the youngest colonel in the French army. Convinced of Dreyfus’s guilt at the beginning, he slowly starts to realise his innocence. However, one by one, his colleagues try to block his inquiries, arguing that loyalty to the army is the supreme good in their lives. As one of them puts it:

Now do not be such an arrogant young fool and listen to me. General Boisdeffre is about to welcome the tsar to Paris in a diplomatic coup that will change the world. We simply cannot allow ourselves to be distracted from these greater issues by the sordid matter of one Jew sent to a rock, it will tear the army to pieces.

Another officer makes the point more crudely. “He ordered me to shoot a man and I have shot him,” he says. “You tell me afterwards, I got the name wrong, and I should have shot someone else – I am very sorry about that but it is not my fault.” And so, in different accents, say the rest of them. Eventually Picquart is posted to Tunisia. Only there does he find a sympathetic fellow colonel but that officer is so disillusioned with Paris that he declines to help. Although most in the military are not in the first instance moved by anti-Jewish prejudice – their driving motive is raison d’état – they are blinded by the knowledge that Dreyfus is a Jew. The army is determined to find a German spy in its ranks and Dreyfus is suited to the role.

As newspaper leaks multiply, the “Dreyfusards” gradually gather strength; they include Clemenceau and Zola, with his article “J’accuse”. At the same time, the name Esterhazy begins to appear in documents intercepted by the French authorities. Were there two spies or is Dreyfus innocent? Doubt spreads from one newspaper to another. It is too late to undo the past; the lies have not just been told but repeated.

Ultimately a warship is sent to Devil’s Island to bring Dreyfus home and he is acquitted. The years pass; Clemenceau becomes prime minister and appoints Picquart as minister of war. The last scene is an argument between Dreyfus and Picquart about the correct rank in which Dreyfus can be brought back into the army.

One question above all emerges when reading this book: would we in Britain have handled things better? My publisher, George Weidenfeld, tells a story about leaving Austria at the time of the Anschluss. As the British consul in Vienna stamped his documents, he told Weidenfeld, “You will be safe now. We once had a Jewish prime minister in Britain.” Technically that is incorrect, because Disraeli was baptised at the age of 12 into the Church of England. But in spirit, the consul’s point was valid. Despite all the barriers, prejudices and obstacles that British Jews faced in the 19th century, Britain somehow stoppedshort of the depths of institutional persecution that scarred Europe. There was cruelty but also an element of the comic opera in the way the English considered Jewish people in these years. When Disraeli stood for election at Shrewsbury in 1841, a man arrived on a donkey saying he had come to take him back to Jerusalem. There was no such humour in the treatment of Dreyfus in Paris.

In the novel, Harris describes fishermen bringing in the daily catch. This includes some turtles, their jaws tied shut with string – all alive but blinded to prevent them from escaping. They make a noise like cobbles being cracked together as they clamber over one another, desperate to find the water they can sense but can no longer see. This is the parable that runs through the story, as the French army suffers from a similar blindness.

“Disraeli: or, the Two Lives” by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£20)

French soldier Alfred Dreyfus on his release from prison and restoration to his army rank after the charges against him were dismissed. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump