Christian Carion's Farewell is that rare surprise -- a political thriller that's more about the emotional components and consequences of espionage than it is about the adrenalized mechanics of an operation.
Using a pair of film directors -- Guillaume Canet and Emir Kusturica -- as his stars, Carion retells a true lost chapter of Cold War chess playing during the Reagan years. Unsurprisingly, the black/white worldview of Ronald Reagan and his administration is the least sophisticated part of the story -- and the most costly.
Though the film skips from Russia to France to Washington, D.C., and back again, the real focus is in Moscow, where a French businessman named Pierre (Canet) finds himself pressed into service by his boss, who has ties to the French equivalent of the CIA. But because Pierre himself is just a business executive working in Moscow, he seems to be the perfect choice when a high-level Russian KGB official named Sergei Gregoriev (Kusturica) makes contact with the French and offers to share secrets.
Given the code name Farewell, Sergei is a bear of a man with a pumpkin-sized head and the world's saddest eyes. He's married, with a teenage son with whom he can't seem to communicate -- and he's got a lover (Dina Korzun) who also works with him.
Sergei doesn't want to defect or make a deal. Rather, he wants to help ease the tension between the U.S. and the USSR, the country that Reagan has christened "the evil empire" in his typical reductionist thinking. Sergei knows that, in fact, the Soviets don't pose nearly the threat that the Americans think -- and he offers to provide documents that make that clear, in hopes of alleviating Cold War tensions.
His go-between is Pierre, a French businessman with no interest in politics, espionage or anything beyond perhaps winning a promotion that will get him out of Russia and posted to New York. But he is beguiled by Sergei , who sees his mission as a romantic one, offered with a pure heart and an affection for his country that includes a critical eye for the way that Leonid Brezhnev is running things.
Carion's script bounces back and forth between the encounters between Sergei and Pierre in Russia and the maneuvering that goes on between the French CIA, the American CIA, newly elected French president Francois Mitterand (who Reagan decries as a socialist -- gee, that sounds familiar) and Reagan himself (played ably, without doing an impersonation, by Fred Ward).
It is a romantic vision built by Sergei, who believes he can change the world by allowing a little sunshine into the world's perception of his government. But the human-scale exchanges between Sergei and Pierre ultimately are undermined by Reagan's ham-handed handling of a situation he either doesn't understand or refuses to see in any but the most political of perspectives. Either way, he can only make things worse.
Kusturica gives an incredibly soulful performance as a man of great strength and skill who has finally decided to take matters into his own hands. His doleful eyes reflect great melancholy for a world he dreams of but ultimately knows he won't live to see. By contrast, Canet is appealingly normal, an ordinary guy caught up in an international plot that has him working in the deep end, far out of his own depth.
Tense, tough and touching, Farewell is a sleeper in this summer of bombastic special effects. It's a film that deserves to be widely seen and appreciated by an audience that doesn't require an explosion every 10 minutes to hold its interest.