I’ve called Christian Carion’s Farewell a “spy thriller,” and it is one. In fact, this is one of the most suspenseful films I’ve seen in some considerable time, but don’t let this put you in mind of James Bond. And even though it’s a Cold War tale, it has even less to do with Salt. This one is a serious fact-based tale about the Cold War and bringing an end to the Soviet Union. That’s not what makes the film remarkable so much as the fact that it’s a film about the people the spies are. That’s the detail that makes Farewell unusual and unusually satisfying. That it’s also very stylish and crafted with an eye toward suspense, on the other hand, shouldn’t be sold short.
The story concerns a man, Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet, Tell No One), who is not a spy in any sense of the word, but whose boss taps him to ferry information from the Russians to the French secret service. It isn’t a task Froment likes, nor is it one he’s really equipped for on any level. Moreover, the Soviet contact, Sergei Gregoriev (Emir Kusturica, The Good Thief), a man supposedly above suspicion, isn’t exactly delighted to find himself working with an amateur—at least at first. Partly what changes lies in the fact that Gregoriev is a patriot, who believes that Russia has to change in order to survive. He isn’t after money for his services—though he accepts some decadent Western goodies like champagne and a Walkman and some Queen albums for his son. Gregoriev truly wants to help his country. As things progress, he and Froment become friends of a sort—tied together, in part, because they are the only ones who can even discuss what they’re doing.
The characters are at the center of Farewell, but the film’s players—like the story it tells—are drawn from a pretty broad spectrum, including Ronald Reagan (Fred Ward), who is presented as both a fairly formidable adversary, a bit of a paranoid and a man who can only understand the world by reducing it to the level of movies he’s either seen or been in. It’s an odd portrayal, but it does tend to match up with the facts as we know them, even while obviously being an interpretation. This isn’t to say that the film is a leftist screed that paints the Soviets in glowing colors. Far from it, since nothing about Farewell suggests that the regime Gregoriev is helping to destroy is in any way admirable.
It would be a mistake to give away too much about the actual breakdown of events here. This is the kind of film that works better if seen cold. The more you let the film lead you in without much knowledge of anything beyond the basic premise, the more profoundly I think it will affect you. Knowing that this is a movie that puts a truly human face on espionage is enough. I suspect the film’s subtleties, in terms of character development over the course of the story, would only improve on a second viewing. Still, it would be a grave disservice to give away the progression of the plot, which you need to see for yourself—and I hope you take the time to do so. For me, this is the film everyone told me The Lives of Others (2006) was—except this time I actually found it to be so. Not rated.