If you’ve ever wondered what led to the collapse of the Soviet empire, Farewell offers an intriguing answer. Based on a true story, it introduces us to a high-up KGB officer who smuggled hundreds of pages of key top-secret Soviet documents to NATO in 1981 and ’82, apparently doing as much as any other single person to bring down the Russian bureaucracy.
Recapturing that slice of long-buried history is just one of the pleasures of watching this surefooted thriller, which samples a multiplex’s worth of genres—odd-couple bromance, Cold War suspense, Dr. Strangelove-style farce, and old-fashioned spy-vs-spy—to come up with a wryly witty, understated style of its own.
Emir Kusturica plays the real-life double agent Vladimir Vetrov, who the movie calls Sergei Gregoriev. Guillaume Canet, looking a lot like Ryan O’Neal circa 1981, plays Pierre Froment, the courier Gregoriev uses to get his information to France, since no one would suspect the French civilian of being a spy. The two start off mutually suspicious, even contemptuous, but they come to respect, rely on, and finally love one another in an understated and moving progression that forms the heart of the film.
Parallel stories about the men’s family lives are also beautifully done, making painfully clear how much they’re risking by smuggling secrets. The scenes involving Russian, French, and American leaders don’t work as well, since they’re stilted and speech-heavy, so different in tone from everything else that they might have come from another film. Fred Ward’s satiric take on Ronald Reagan seems particularly out of place, his portrayal making the president merely laughable while the surprisingly respectful screenplay gives him real weight, implying that the much-maligned Star Wars program was a brilliant and successful bluff.
There are some great faces in this film, including Niels Arestrup as a French intelligence agent and Aleksey Gorbunov as a Russian agent who romances Sergei’s wife and winds up leading his interrogation, but the best face of all is Kusturica’s crinkly mug. I know Kusturica best as a director (When Father Was Away on Business, Time of the Gypsies), but he’s done a lot of time in front of a camera too, and no wonder: His recessed eyes and creased forehead seem to hold all the weary wisdom of the old world. Watching Sergei confirm his suspicions of his wife’s affair and then set about to woo her back without ever confronting her, or try doggedly to talk to his sullen teenage son before wordlessly accepting his rejection, you get the measure of a man who keeps titanic emotions in check not out of weakness but out of strength. With his Russian-bear body and battle-scarred face, Kusturica’s Sergei is an old-school man’s man, supremely confident in his own judgment and willing to put his life on the line to protect the people he loves.
He’s also a bit of a loose cannonball. In the movie as in life, Sergei was risking exposure—not to mention further endangering his marriage—by having an affair with a colleague in the KGB, and the real Vetrov was initially jailed not for espionage, as the movie would have it, but for a messy incident that started when he shot his mistress in his car. Another film might have made Sergei out to be the victim of a midlife crisis, but Carion and Serguei Kostine, who wrote the book the movie is based on and cowrote the screenplay, have too much respect for their subject to subject him to armchair psychoanalysis. Instead, they focus on his conviction that Russia’s calcified leadership had betrayed the communist principles he believed in, so the only route back to true communism was forcing the bums out of office and fomenting another revolution. His act may have branded him a traitor, but he did it out of love—for his son and for his country.
Canet is a director too, though he’s done a lot more acting than he has directing. I’m not sure what Carion was up to in casting directors as his two leads, but I got a mild, film-geek thrill from seeing Canet, the director of the excellent Hitchcockian thriller Tell No One as the ultimate Hitchcockian hero: an ordinary man caught up in a charged Cold War intrigue.
In case you’re wondering why you never heard about such an important part of our Cold War history before, the movie offers an explanation. An icy U.S. intelligence officer played by Willem Dafoe thanks Pierre for his help, saying “the free people of the Western world” owe him a lot. But they must never know, he adds menacingly. If Americans learned that the Soviets had held the key to so many U.S. state secrets for so many years, they’d lose faith in their institutions, and democracy can’t work if the people don’t trust their leaders.
Makes you wonder what else they’re not telling us.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.