|'); document.write(''); //-->|
Tipped off by a recommendation on NPR (which bats at least 80% in my book), I was lucky to see Christian Carion's Farewell (L'affaire Farewell) theatrically. Amusingly, most of the audience for my showing was made up of elderly Russian-Americans, people perhaps already aware of the drama told on screen.
The official story of the end of the Cold War essentially posits President Ronald Reagan as the man in the white hat who convinced the Soviets that they could never keep up with our ability to devise and implement fantastic super-weapons. It was a terrific bluff, based on, would you believe it, a fantasy proposed in classic science fiction films of the 1950s. Reagan trumpeted the news of an impenetrable "space defense shield" that would hold the high ground of space and thwart a Soviet missile strike. Reagan welcomed the system's nickname, "Star Wars".
Farewell tells an entirely different story, from a decidedly European point of view. If this version of events is accurate, the demise of the Soviet bloc was precipitated by daring, altruistic independent agents who took no pay -- and who were subsequently betrayed by Reagan and the C.I.A. in the name of American interests.
Farewell is the story of a two-man spy network that avoided detection by purposely behaving so amateurishly that the KGB took no notice. The time is 1981. French engineer Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet) attracts no suspicion as he works in Moscow for a private company. But his boss engages him for a one-time rendezvous with a man who hands over some information on a piece of paper. The man is Sergei Gregoriev (Emir Kusturica), a Colonel in the KGB who wants to leak all of his department's espionage information to the West. His aim is to force his country to change. The Soviet Union spends 40% of its defense budget gathering technical and scientific information from the West, and relies on spies and leaks to keep up with Western technology. If Gregoriev cuts off the information flow, the government will have to change.
Pierre's one-time assignment turns into a high-risk operation. Francois Mitterrand wants the "affair" handled not through the French secret service but instead the domestic anti-crime organization the DST (Direction de la surveillance du territoire). He hands off Sergei's intelligence info directly to President Reagan. Normal intelligence channels are avoided because they're fully infiltrated by double agents. Sergei entreats Pierre to stay on the job for the same reason -- he's below the radar of the KGB monitors, and a safe contact.
The two men become close friends. Sergei asks for no money from the DST. Pierre brings him champagne, poetry and music from Paris. The strain on the spies shows at home, however. The normally faithful Pierre lies to his nervous wife Jessica (Alexandra Maria Lara of Downfall and The Baader Meinhof Complex), causing him to develop an ulcer. Sergei rekindles an old affair with co-worker Alina Samarova (Dina Korzun), alienating the affections of his son Igor (Evgenie Kharlanov), the person for whom he is risking everything. Pierre and Sergei wait patiently for a comprehensive dossier called the "X-File" to surface. When the West gets that file, it will be able to dismantle the vast espionage networks that the Soviets have spent decades putting together.
Farewell will fool viewers into thinking that it was filmed in Moscow, but Reuter's Christine Kearney identifies Ukraine and Finland as locations. The illusion is excellent, as Pierre and Sergei stroll through public parks and exchange contraband in full view of various Moscow policemen, "watchers" and a legion of "babushkas" that one KGB official brags are the USSR's first line of defense against spies. Knowing that his servants are forced to spy on him, Pierre befriends them and even helps them in their task, thereby reducing suspicion to nothing. Barring a ridiculous mistake, the only thing that can trip up the oddly-paired Frenchman and Russian is betrayal from back in France, or in the U.S. Unhappy that the new French government has allowed communist ministers to serve, President Reagan is biased against President Mitterrand. The head of the C.I.A. (Willem Dafoe) is not interested in protecting the amazing source of information. The U.S. takes France's help and gives nothing back but treachery. Farewell shows the ugly intersection of espionage and diplomacy; if this film is an honest reflection of what went down, it's no wonder that European nations are none too fond of the Yankee double-crossers. 1
True, the French give Sergei the English-language code word Farewell, hoping that if he is captured the KGB will first conclude that the C.I.A. is Sergei's contact.
Farewell has some amorous intrigues and plenty of tense moments, as when Pierre discovers that four uniformed policemen have him trapped in a Moscow subway station. But the focus is on the sacrifice of two "spies" that believe in what they're doing, and appear to have changed the course of history (or perhaps just accelerated it). I personally think that Reagan's bullying and hard line stance against the Soviets did a lot of the work of ending the Cold War -- the Kremlin seems to have fallen for the actor's "performance" as a great statesman. It just seems so typical that political elements in the U.S. would betray an altruistic ally, and rush in to take credit for his selfless work.
Then again, is Farewell perhaps a biased or only partially true account of the Farewell Affair, meant to favor France over the U.S.? Where's the bottom line on that story?
Director Christian Carion gives Farewell a great look, staying away from spy movie clichés. There are no breathless chases or fights; capture follows detection so quickly in Moscow that the director simply ellides the obvious steps in the process. The acting is excellent throughout, with Guillaume Canet and Emir Kusturica marvelous; they become instantly lovable when comparing their cultural backgrounds. Sergei is amused when Pierre turns out to be faithful to his spouse, in contrast with French stereotypes. Evgenie Kharlanov is also very strong as the opinionated son, who is punished for calling Brezhnev a silly old man, and who learns very late just how great a man his father is. Fred Ward does a good impersonation of Reagan without lampooning the President. Good bootblack hair coloring does half the work of selling the illusion.
NeoClassics Films' Blu-ray of Farewell is a fine HD transfer of this intelligent and overlooked espionage thriller, that saves a number of wild (but true?) twists for its final reels. The color is good and the soundtrack uses French, Russian and English dialogue. The English subs on the Blu-ray are optional. A DVD edition is available as well.
There are no extras beyond a U.S. trailer and a photo gallery. NeoClassics overloads its disc with a ton of trailers, which can be difficult to skip. Otherwise the disc is a quality presentation.
I'd love to learn more about the real case. The actual "Farewell" was one Vladimir Vetrov. According to Reuter's the ending of Vetrov's story is different. Russian authorities have remained mum about the entire episode. Director Carion said that "in Russia no one knows about the Farewell affair, and no one will because our movie is absolutely, strictly forbidden there." So you tell ME if this picture is French propaganda!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Farewell Blu-ray rates:
1. If this version of history is true, then it's a good antidote to jingoist military spy fantasies like The Hunt for Red October. That (very entertaining) story gives cagey U.S. intelligence men a monopoly on wisdom, clarity and integrity, and makes its Russian sub captain a good guy only because he's a 100% anti-communist traitor. Farewell's Sergei considers Communism a beautiful but failed ideal.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
Also, don't forget the 2010 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.