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Movie Review: Farewell (2009)

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The events and after-effects depicted in Farewell (titled L’affaire Farewell in its original French) were some of the most far-reaching, dramatic, and important of the Cold War, yet they’re also some of the least known and undoubtedly the least appreciated, while still having an impact on world affairs today. A random poll of people on the street would reflect vast ignorance of this page of recent history, yet these events have had an impact on all our lives, as well as on the well-being of entire nations. What says quite a lot about the interest that Americans show for realpolitik is that although this film began making the rounds in the middle of 2009, it’s still getting only limited US showings. It’s still racking up the prestigious film festival showings, however.

It’s unfortunate that this same story applies all too frequently. As the old saw goes when referring to America’s intelligence agencies: “Their failures we hear plenty about. The successes, not a word.” In this case, Americans just flat don’t seem to care.

Farewell takes place mostly in France and Russia beginning in 1981, following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and it’s currently being shown in selected theaters in the US and abroad. It’s essentially a story of an unwitting non-spy sucked into the danger and drama of international brinksmanship. Our protagonist, Froment (Guillaume Canet), is a French businessman who gets into bed, so to speak, with Grigoriev (Emir Kusturica), a senior KGB officer disenchanted with what the Communist ideal has become under Brezhnev. Along with the everyday duties of evading detection, dead drops, and the trauma brought on by living under the stress of people watching everybody’s every move, Froment also has to deal with the breakup of his family caused, or at least exacerbated, by his dealings with Grigoriev.

It’s a complicated plot at times, but then again, espionage is seldom uncomplicated. And, of course, we can’t forget about Mr Murphy, of Murphy’s Law fame, who rears his ugly head from time to time, mostly when things are going better than expected. Even those who aren’t spy buffs will find some parts of the plot and the film grossly riveting, suspenseful, and downright scary, all made the more astonishing by the simple fact that the story is true.

It’s not a Granolaville production, so don’t expect an effects-saturated, shoot-‘em-up, bang-‘em-up screen filled with blood and gore that is typical for a Die Hard or Nic Cage melodrama. It’s more like real life (because it is real life), and more terrifying, than can be imagined by a Hollywood writer whose toughest mission in life is dealing with the parking attendants at the latest trendy-hip Sunset Strip restaurant, and is therefore sometimes constellations away from what movie-goers have come to expect as reality.

Many of the cast and the production team are household names in the film industry, although not as well known here in the US as in the remainder of the Western world. They’re as much a breath of fresh air as the factual plot. One of the criticisms that I’ve read, however, is spot on. Fred Ward’s characterization of former President Reagan is weak in spots, whether due to Ward’s lack of talent (highly doubtful) or to Christian Carion’s direction (likely). Other Reagan scenes ring true.

A tightrope act in a circus, the second scene in the film, is a fitting metaphor for the main characters, Grigoriev and Froment, and is exemplified by Froment’s first missive from Grigoriev, which is a list of 15 high-ranking or highly-placed names, officially working for Western nations, but in reality feeding top secret information to the USSR on a regular basis. This already tangled web is further complicated by France’s spy-riddled internal security structure, which necessitates bringing in Froment, a novice with no intelligence training. “Our external espionage is infiltrated by the KGB,” is the official pronouncement. Not to downplay the intelligence coup taking place on all sides is the continued bounty that Grigoriev is risking his life for, including the complete defense posture and keys (codes) to the entire communications conducted between the president and various military commands responsible for protecting the US. The tension and danger are steadily ratcheted up until the audience is holding its breath, right up until the not-so-happy ending.

Farewell takes some concentration, since it’s a real story in real life. And as we all know, life can be complicated.

Read more about the film at the Pathé International website.

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About Lou Novacheck

  • Carol Kasper

    Are you my cousin, or are you his son?