What kinds of lives do real spies lead? “Farewell,” a quiet little movie far removed from the land of cinematic spies Jason Bourne and James Bond, focuses on the personal repercussions of the outwardly exciting life of political espionage, instead of resorting to thrilling chases and impenetrable mysteries. The film is a remarkably nuanced portrayal of the tension of the times during the Russian-American Cold War.
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Based on the real-life story of Soviet spy Vladimir Vetrov, “Farewell” follows the partnership and tentative friendship between KGB colonel Grigoriev (Emir Kusturica, “Underground”) and nebbish French engineer Pierre (Guillaume Canet, “The Beach”). Increasingly disillusioned with the Russian administration under Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov, Grigoriev begins to pass classified, high-risk KGB information to the French Élysée Palace and eventually the American government. The mission, codenamed “Farewell,” promises to eventually release the lucrative “X-list,” a list of all the Soviet spies across the world, to the Reagan administration.
Save a rather hamfisted portrayal of Ronald Reagan by Fred Ward (“Sweet Home Alabama”) as a gunslinging, flag-waving 1980s George W. Bush, “Farewell” manages to exercise excellent subtlety and restraint in its depiction of the Cold War. There is a quiet tension threaded in the papers gently slipped into a pocket or the intake of a breath when a Soviet policeman comes near. All this serves as an excellent allegory for the arms gridlock present in the actual war — all friction, but no action.
At first, the film largely centers on the rationale behind Grigoriev’s choices and his adherence to his country’s beliefs. Kusturica plays the role of the conflicted, ursine Grigoriev to great success, effectively capturing the spy’s doubts and concerns about his actions. In betraying the country he held so dear, Grigoriev, who accepts no monetary compensation save wine, chocolates and music cassettes of Queen (whom he mistakenly and farcically calls “Keen”) for his son Igor, sustains the hope of a better, more revolutionary Communist future for the next generation.
Canet plays Pierre with more high-strung neuroticism, and seizes his mission of delivering secret papers with considerably less enthusiasm than his calm Russian counterpart. The two spawn a unique relationship, navigating the maze of espionage one minute and companionably discussing French poetry the next. Yet while Grigoriev and Pierre grow closer in their quest for Soviet takedown, they begin to alienate their families in the process.
Slowly, as the two spies spin their webs of deception, they migrate away from the wives and children to whom they cannot reveal their secrets, their gradual slip from reality comparable to the 2006 German film “The Lives of Others.” The result is a rather touching, unglamorous portrait of spies who cannot return to their real lives after exercising such duplicity in their jobs, or perhaps because they were never part of it in the first place.
Dismayingly, though, the film begins to lose all momentum as it approaches the last 20 minutes. As the plot begins to twist into more and more unsolvable knots, “Farewell” becomes reduced to an externalized account of political espionage, rather than the internal one it had been building up to. Finally, when Willem Dafoe (“Antichrist”) appears, making a brief cameo as the mustache-twirling American CIA agent with a dastardly plan up his sleeve, the film loses all shred of subtlety. The ending is pretty much what you would expect from a Cold War spy movie — a dramatic, climactic standoff set in the icy landscape of the Soviet Union, accompanied by the delicate plinks of a piano from the composer Clint Mansell (“Requiem for a Dream”). The tension is still there, but the quiet has disappeared.