In 1981, a KGB operative named Grigoriev decided to sabotage the Soviet Union’s espionage cover in hopes of ending the Communist regime and bring about an end to the Cold War. He got in contact with Pierre, a French engineer working in Moscow, and began to pass top-secret documents over to him. The documents revealed the startling amount of information the Soviets had amassed about America’s military, industrial, and scientific R &D. Pierre frantically photographed these documents, and passed along the files which eventually found themselves in the hands of Presidents Mitterrand and Reagan.
The discovery proved to be a linchpin in Reagan’s victory over the Soviet Bloc, as he used the intelligence to bluff the already cash-strapped Soviets into a making a critical choice: either take the nuclear arms race into space (via a prohibitively costly missile-defense system) or declare an end to Cold War hostilities and democratize. If you’ve followed the news over the last 20 years, you know the choice Russian President Gorbachev made.
Director Christian Carion’s “Farewell” – which takes its name from the code name given to Grigoriev by the French Secret Service — takes a close look at these events, focusing on the private lives of Grigoriev (Emir Kusturica) and Pierre (Guillaume Canet). Co-writers Carion and Eric Raynaud, adapting Sergey Kostine’s novel, turn the themes of loyalty and emancipation into a metaphor that runs through all of “Farewell’s” dramatic layers, from the national and geopolitical to the deeply personal. The informant Grigoriev’s home life is hardly better than the political and economic life of his tottering nation. That both he and his wife Natasha (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) feel guilty about extramarital affairs doesn’t remedy the fact that their marriage is in shambles. His relationship with his teenage son, Igor (Evgenie Kharlanov) is in similarly dire straits as Igor – having no idea of his father’s top-secret activities — resents his old man’s seeming conformism, and craves to free himself of the shackles of home, finding an outlet for his rage in Western rock ‘n’ roll (Queen in particular features heavily throughout the film).
Grigoriev’s unfaithfulness towards both home and country is less a critique about his personal flaws and more an observation on the messiness and inconsistencies in our personal and political lives. And while he resents his role as a go-between, particularly because of its dangerousness, Pierre develops a genuine respect for the brusque, eccentric Grigoriev. The trust between him and his wife, Jessica (Alexandra Maria Lara), meanwhile, begins to unravel as she realizes the intensely reckless nature of her husband’s double life.
This paradox between truth and appearances is capably woven through the fabric of “Farewell’s” script. And Carion benefits from Kusturica’s masterly performance, which finds a winning balance between Grigoriev’s warmth and candor and his darker, more transgressive impulses. Performances remain strong across the film’s main roles, and it’s only in the secondary roles that troubles arise: As Reagan, Fred Ward (a generally fine actor) fumbles his way from parody to platitudes to just bad imitation. He never suits the role, and the actor never finds his footing.
For a story rich with such dramatic potential, “Farewell” is a conscientious, but surprisingly dull affair. Whether deliberately or not, Carion elides any and all opportunities for suspense, danger and paranoia, all crucial elements if any espionage drama is going to succeed. Instead of an intelligent thriller in the vein of “All the President’s Men” or “The Parallax View” – both of which, at first glance, seem like “Farewell’s” natural peers — the film stumbles towards more or less predictable domestic soap opera. And that’s a shame, given a subject widely considered one of the pivotal episodes in the demise of the Cold War.
Directed by: Christian Carion
Written by: Christian Carion, Eric Reynaud
Cast: Emir Kusturica, Guillaume Canet, Alexandra Maria Lara, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Oleksii Gorbunov, Dina Korzun, Philipe Magnan, Niels Arestrup, Fred Ward, Willem Dafoe, David Soul, Evgenie Kharlanov, Valentin Varetsky