An extraordinary but little-known episode in international espionage, one that greatly greased the rails for the Soviet Union’s downfall, is fluently recounted in “Farewell.” If this were an amped-up American production, it would, given its subject matter, be one of the most heavily promoted films of the year. But this is largely a Russian-French story and properly a European film in which the two leads are played, in an inspired casting coup, by two well-known directors, Emir Kusturica and Guillaume Canet. Intelligent handling should make Christian Carion’s compelling picture a solid international success at least throughout the Western world.
It’s puzzling that the story is not better known of how the Soviets’ extensive network of spies in the United States, some in place for decades, became almost entirely compromised in the early ’80s. But it is to the advantage of “Farewell” (the French code name of the KGB source) that it has remained unfamiliar and therefore all the more astonishing as it plays out in the clear, methodical script by Eric Raynaud, working from a book by Serguei Kostine.
It all came down to one man, in real life Vladimir Vetrov, here called Grigoriev, a KGB colonel who, in middle age, still admires the original communist ideals but realizes that dream has become irreversibly corrupted under Brezhnev and Andropov. Well aware that he’ll likely never live to see the change, he acts so the world might be different for his teenage son and subsequent generations.
To avoid detection, Grigoriev (the rangy, big-headed Kusturica) knows he must avoid contact with any foreign agents on the KGB’s map and indeed completely flusters French engineer Pierre (the more diminutive Canet), who works for news agency Thomson in Moscow, when he passes him an initial batch of documents. The flummoxed Frenchman has little desire for involvement in the cloak-and-dagger world, and his resistance grows when he imagines his family might be endangered. Nonetheless, he passes his information on to his boss, who is well connected at the Elysee Palace.
The early, Moscow-set scenes possess a distinctive fascination for the settings alone (ironically, but for a few background shots, these were all shot in Finland and the Ukraine), as well as for the tension and humor stemming from the men’s interactions. With his life at risk, Grigoriev is the calmer of the two, keen to discuss French poetry and music and uninterested in any compensation save liquor, chocolates and Western music for his Queen fanatic son Igor (Evgenie Kharlanov). Pierre, by contrast, is uptight, agitated and henpecked by his whiny, incredibly annoying wife Jessica (Alexandra Maria Lara).
Still, the contents of Grigoriev’s packages are intelligence dynamite and quickly accepted as authentic in the West; an early delivery includes such tidbits from KGB files as the complete engineering plans for the U.S. Space Shuttle. At a G7 summit when both are quite new to office, French President Mitterrand (Philippe Magnan) overcomes the initial distrust of Ronald Reagan (Fred Ward) by passing the information along, thereby starting in motion revelations that enabled Reagan to gain the upper hand over Gorbachev’s USSR.
Like any good thriller, this is the story of deceptions within deceptions, of characters who, no matter the extreme precautions they take, gradually feel themselves painted into a corner. Grigoriev loves his wife, Natasha (Ingeborga Dapkunaite), and particularly his son, but can disclose nothing to them. He even possibly endangers his position by entering into an ambiguous affair with a woman at the KGB.
It’s juicy, fascinating stuff, well orchestrated by Carion (“Merry Christmas”) and finely thesped — especially by Kusturica, who has acted on occasion (Patrice Leconte’s “The Widow of Saint-Pierre,” Neil Jordan’s “The Good Thief”), and moves through the plot’s maze like a big, agile bear, speaking Russian with a certain accent that in no way detracts from his credibility. Carion keeps things simmering on medium-high throughout, and the tension arguably could have been ratcheted up further in the final stretch, which is marred by contrived and conventional suspense-film ploys.
Although Ward proves a pretty good physical match for Reagan, the voice doesn’t catch the real man’s clarity and authority, and Reagan admirers will be annoyed that he’s been made into a borderline boob — not a figure of ridicule, exactly, but lacking the appropriate stature and poise. At one point he’s even shown watching “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (the crucial gunning down of Lee Marvin) and commenting to an aide as to how he was once meant to work with John Ford.
Production values are aces and accurate down to the smallest details of Russian life at the time.