Movie Review: Farewell (L'affaire Farewell)
The Charlotte Observer
A man who can’t tolerate leaders’ mistakes and decides to undermine his nation always thinks of himself as a patriot, be he George Washington or Benedict Arnold. Whether he’s called a hero or a traitor depends on who writes his history afterward.
That’s the situation in “Farewell,” a drama based on events that crippled the USSR’s spy system in the mid 1980s and forced the Soviet Union closer to accepting Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, a restructuring of government and the social system.
French writer-director Christian Carion presents Sergei Grigoriev (Emir Kusturica) as a hero. “Farewell” makes a genial Everyman steering his government in the proper direction, a principled guy any of us might become if we decided the nation we loved was killing itself.
The title refers to a real operation, in which Grigoriev passed information about Soviet security to an amateur: French engineer Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet), who worked for a Moscow firm tied to the French CIA.
Froment is also an Everyman with a worried wife (Alexandra Maria Lara) and kids. At first, he’s grudgingly willing to trade books of poetry, cassettes of rock music and bottles of champagne to the Francophile Grigoriev in exchange for secrets. Later, he’s torn between protecting his family and enjoying his venture into danger; he realizes he can shape the fate of nations by joining what Rudyard Kipling called “the greatest game in the world.”
The movie asks a whimsical question: Do people become spies because they’re good liars, or does that skill emerge after they join the game? And it asks a serious one: What obligation do we have to aid our country, either by following its dictates or countering them, when we and those we love are at risk?
Carion was in his 20s when “l’affaire Farewell” took place, and he mingles the anger he might have felt with a middle-aged man’s reflective sadness. He chose film directors as his leads: Kusturica (“Hungry Heart”) and Canet (“Tell No One”) are actors who turned to directing, and experience behind the camera taught them to know what works in front of it. (It’s interesting to see guys used to controlling a film crew playing men whose lives spin out of control.)
The United States comes off badly. Though the French put us in the loop, President Ronald Reagan doesn’t return the favor after realizing the USSR has heard about Farewell. That’s partly because he disapproves of President Mitterand (who has Communists in his government) and partly because the CIA is getting great information and doesn’t want the flow to dry up.
Reagan (Fred Ward) keeps watching the ending of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” in which a hidden John Wayne guns down an outlaw menacing a pal; Reagan seems to see America as Wayne, the covertly righteous savior. (Canet is surely being ironic; “Valance” is the movie where a newspaper editor says, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”)
By the end, Canet sweeps away any illusions we have about altruism. A CIA agent (Willem Dafoe) explains to Froment the way realpolitik works: Individuals, however noble or valuable, must be sacrificed for a greater good. This is a game of numbers, not personalities, and a shrewd man wants the bigger numbers on his side when historians pick up their pens.