A spy thriller without rooftop chases, gunfights and high-tech gizmos? That’s what “Farewell” is, and yet it delivers more suspense than most testosterone-soaked Hollywood action flicks. Christian Carion’s film is more Le Carre than Ian Fleming, an intelligent Cold War espionage tale with real humanity at its core.
It’s based on the little-known story of Vladimir Vetrov, a KGB colonel who in the early eighties passed important Soviet secrets to the French, who in turn shared them with the Americans. Here he’s called Grigoriev, and as played by Emir Kusturica, he’s a big bear of a man who, while believing in communism as an ideal, is disillusioned with the perversion of it represented by the Brezhnev-Andropov regime. He decides that his nation needs radical change, and hopes to help bring it about by giving the west access to the USSR’s most jealously guarded information, including the identities of its agents, so that its intelligence operation can be dismantled.
His French contact, however, isn’t a Gallic spy—he’s Pierre (Guillaume Canet), a meek fellow working for a news agency who’s reluctantly enlisted to accept Grigoriev’s initial drop and then compelled to become his regular contact simply because of his low profile with Soviet authorities. Much of “Farewell”—the moniker that French intelligence gives to Grigoriev—is devoted to the meetings between the two men and the bond they come to share, and Carion is fortunate that Kusturica and Canet, both directors themselves, work together so well.
But they also carry off their characters’ relationships with others as well. Grigoriev’s home life is tense; he suspects his wife Natasha (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) is having an affair, and he has trouble connecting with his western-loving teen son Igor (Evgenie Kharlanov). Matters get more complicated when he begins having an affair himself, with office-mate Alina (Dina Korzun) and his wife and son find out about it. As for Pierre, he’s forced to keep his clandestine activities from his wife Jessica (Alexandra Maria Lara), who’s afraid of anything that might put the family in danger.
Virtually all the Moscow-set material in the picture is fascinating and effective, although the turn of events in the final reel—when Grigoriev’s actions are discovered and the authorities try to discover his contact—feel rather overextended. More problematic are the segments that deal with the impact of the Soviet documents on the highest echelons of the French and US governments. The newly-elected socialist French president, Francois Mitterrand, is played by Philippe Magnan as a canny but sleepy-eyed fellow a mite contemptuous of his American counterpart, President Reagan, who’s portrayed by Fred Ward in broad caricature. (His scenes with a close aide, played by an almost unrecognizable David Soul, are clumsily comic with their references to “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”) The Washington sequences are redeemed somewhat when Willem Dafoe shows up as a smooth CIA operative, who’s also important in the script’s rather nasty closing twist that contrasts the idealism of the leading characters with the cynicism of the “professionals.”
All of which raises the question of precisely how accurate the details of the screenplay are, particularly on the domestic side. (Reagan himself testified to the importance of the Vetrov material in helping to bring about the weakening of the Soviet system.) But it really doesn’t matter dramatically. Compared to the CGI-heavy spy pictures American studios turn out nowadays, “Farewell” is a model of classical storytelling that’s all the more satisfying for its restraint.