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Film Review


Most spy movies are cartoonish concoctions of constant shootings, jumping from planes or trucks, you name it, with nearly superhuman characters. They seem to be aimed at the teenage and young adult male audience, and tend to do well at the box office. Think Salt. But a serious and realistic look at espionage and counterespionage is rare, even in foreign films. The French director, Christian Carion, has just made such a film, Farewell, a powerful, yet understated look at an unfolding spy drama, with its human costs, and in this case, world changing consequences. The story is based on the 1982 defection of Vladimir Vetrov, who revealed over 150 highly placed Russian spies in 16 countries, the most damaging leak ever.

Farewell opens with archival footage of Soviet troop reviews, missile parades, and Kremlin leaders, all set to Soviet music. It is 1981, the Soviet system is sclerotic and decaying, with intensive surveillance by the KGB and widespread fear. People are still arrested for complaints about shortages or the political system. A young French engineer, Pierre, and his family, are posted in Moscow, and attending an evening circus, where his daughter is performing. Midway through the performance, he tells his wife he has to check on his car, parked outside. He gets in, looks around expectantly, but sees no one else. Suddenly, he is startled by a voice from the back of the car, and a barely lit face. It is Sergei Grigoriev, a colonel in the KGB, who has become disaffected by the Soviet system, and wants to change it. He says "I am not afraid to die. I can change the world". Grigoriev wants a better world for his teenage son, who is rebelling against his father's world, and loves American rock music. He gives Pierre some important data, a long list of Soviet spies in various countries, which Pierre gives to his boss at a French engineering firm, all unbeknownst, initially, to Pierre's wife. Pierre asks Grigoriev how much money he wants, and Grigoriev replies "keep your money, just bring me some French champaign, brandy, a Johnny Walkman", and some rock music tapes for his son. He also asks for some French poetry. The French spy agency, the DST, has given Grigoriev a code name, Farewell, and attempts to send an agent into Moscow to meet with Grigoriev, but Grigoviev warns Pierre that the KGB knew immediately when the spy landed in Moscow, so that spy is useless. Pierre has to continue to be the go between, which he does reluctantly. But a friendship of sorts has developed between him and Grigoriev. Grigoriev says "you are the only person I can talk to".

The film then cuts to the White House and the Elysee. The President of France, Mitterrand, is being briefed by the head of the DST, about the importance of this list. Similarly, Reagan interrupts his repeated watching of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence to be briefed. A French view of Reagan, with some basis. He is initially skeptical, but his advisors are stunned by the names on the list, and realize that this information will indeed change the world. The scenes with both Presidents are well done, but lack the reality and tension of the action in Moscow. Grigoriev and Pierre have been meeting openly, which violates everything that both have been taught. After several more exchanges, Pierre decides he must quit this. His marriage is falling apart because his wife has discovered what he is doing, and is frightened for the family. Grigoriev warns him that the KGB wouldn't bother to arrest him, they would have him killed in some sort of accident. "Beware of trucks", Grigoriev says. There are frequent cuts to Soviet Youth outings, monumental stone sculptures of heroic Soviet figures, and Moscow street scenes, all of which add to the sense of repression and tension throughout the film.

Then there is a dramatic change, creating even more tension than before, and the story takes a very different path than what we had expected. I won't reveal more. Farewell is a very accomplished film, filled with tension and an increasingly ominous atmosphere. This is a thriller at its best, never flashy, but always riveting. The acting is absolutely fantastic: Emir Kusturica, a well known Serbian director/actor, is marvelous as Grigoriev, a tragic, weary figure, willing to die to help bring about a better world for his son. Guillaume Canet, the director of Tell No One, is equally fine as Pierre, the French engineer. All the minor characters, like the wives, the other KGB officers, and the son, are believable and flawless. The film does a excellent job of character development, so that by mid point, we know Pierre and Sergei well. The cinematography is also outstanding with many memorable scenes, and tight editing. Much of the music is Soviet era propaganda music, which adds even more to the level of tension. Farewell is unforgettable, and you will leave emotionally drained. A fine, fine film, that should be seen on the big screen. Just opened last weekend at the Embarcadero.

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