“Farewell” is a throwback sort of spy film, both in period and in tone. Set in the Cold War 80’s, it’s a spy thriller, but these spies aren’t Jason Bourne or Veronica Salt; indeed, one wonders if they know which end of the gun is the dangerous one. They look and act more like professors than the Professional. I know nothing about the world of intelligence, so I hesitate to say that this kind of spy movie is “more real” than the other kind, but it certainly feels more real. The things that happen in “Farewell” seem actually plausible; and in fact, the film is based on a true story. How true, though, is anyone’s guess. This is a movie about spies, after all.
Emir Kusturica is a high-ranking KGB officer, the kind who works in an office, doesn’t have to wear a uniform and (one suspects) is able to casually order the arrest and disappearance of anyone at any time. Kusturica doesn’t look like a Cold War warrior; looks like a shaggy intellectual. He is big and floppy, dramatic but confident in his gestures and words, confident in his own intellect and charisma. He’s an idealist, a true Communist, and is frustrated by the Kruschev/Gorbachev regime that has taken over his fatherland and driven it into the ground. He becomes a spy and a traitor in service to his country; he believes that the current regime must fall in order for Russia to return to its former glory. One wonders about a man who still regards Stalin as a national hero but looks with contempt on the men who came after him, but there you go. Spies aren’t necessarily heroes.
Kusturica passes on his secrets to Guillame Canet, an engineer working at the French embassy who has absolutely no desire to be Jason Bourne. He just wants to make some money in Moscow, raise his family, and eventually apply for a transfer to New York or Brussels or somewhere a little more friendly. If Kusturica is the brilliant professor type, Canet is the TA who is alarmed and upset that his bosses keeps sleeping with the students. He’s all horn-rimmed glasses, frowns and frumpy suits. His unassuming, mind-his-own-business nature is exactly what attracts Kusturica to him; he knows that the KGB has no interest in this mouse of an engineer. Canet keeps saying that it’s all too dangerous and he’s done; Kusturica keeps laughing at his frowns and fits and insisting he won’t pass his secrets to anyone but Canet.
And the secrets are pretty big ones. Kusturica reveals, through documents, that the USSR’s prowess in intelligence and information-gathering far surpasses their scientific and technological acuity. They are keeping up with America in the Cold War almost entirely because they’re stealing America’s scientific secrets. They have spies everywhere, but their scientists are second-rate at best. Canet passes this information on to the French president, who informs Ronald Reagan, played by Fred Ward. (The last time I saw Ward was in “Tremors,” and I must confess, I kept half-expecting giant worms to come crashing through the floor of the Oval Office.) One starts to wonder how much of this is actually fact-based, because that’s quite a revelation. According to “Farewell,” Reagan’s entire Star Wars missile defense system was an elaborate bit of counter-intelligence, and the technology never existed at all.
“Farewell” is tense and intelligent, but far more interested in the men who do the work of spying than in action sequences, car chases, and interrogations. Both men have family problems; Canet’s are pretty simplistic, but Kusturica’s are more interesting. His son sees through the USSR regime, and rebels against it in typical teenager ways – by listening to rock music, mouthing off, and slamming lots of doors. He sees his father as a pillar of the system he hates, and treats hims with contempt. Of course his father agrees with his views and shares his frustration, but he can’t let him know, because doing so would put him in danger. He gives up everything so that his son will have a better future, and his son spits on him all the while.
“Farewell” takes a nasty turn toward the end, a turn that leaves Canet indignant and disillusioned with his superiors, wondering who the good guys really are. It’s tempting to join in Canet’s indignation, but consider this: Kusturica never seems the least bit surprised by what happens to him. He’s a high-ranking KGB official and understands how the intelligence world works far better than Canet does. From the moment he decides to turn on his government, he seems resigned to his fate, and everything seems to play out pretty much the way he expected it to. The USSR did fall after all, and this man’s treason was instrumental in its fall. He’s an unsung hero. I wouldn’t put much faith in the facts of “Farewell,” — affairs of state are almost always far more complicated than they appear in the movies– but this film succeeds as a tense, intelligent spy thriller, both communicating the terrible importance of intelligence work, and the awful consequences that almost always go with it. It’s far more a intellectual’s line of work than an action hero’s.