Cold War espionage as a winning character study

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There's a whiff of stunt-casting in Farewell, which only the most stalwart cinephiles would catch. French filmmaker Christian Carion (Joyeux Noel) filled his lead roles with a pair of celebrated directors and the result is far from gimmicky. Instead Frenchman Guillaume Canet (Tell No One) and Serbian Emir Kusturica (Underground) give heartfelt and engaging performances that underline the grudging then growing friendship of two very different men.

With the sensibilities of a John Le Carré novel guiding, this real-life Cold War espionage film is more character study than political thriller, trading in both humanity and history. It doesn't so much dive into action as quietly tiptoe toward suspense. Slowly, scene by scene, Carion's modest drama builds intrigue and empathy as it connects the personal costs to the act of political betrayal. 

Based on the little-known actions of Vladimir Vetrov, Carion begins in 1981, telling the story of Sergei Grigoriev (Kusturica), a disillusioned KGB colonel and true believer in communism. Despairing over the corruption and malaise of the Brezhnev-Andropov regime, he decides to pass critical state secrets to the French — most importantly, the name of every intelligence operative in the West — in hopes it'll force his country into radical change. Wanting to keep a low profile, the ogre-like Gregoriev chooses mild-mannered Pierre Froment (Canet), a Moscow-based French engineer, as his go-between. Over time this odd couple develops a relationship, and what emerges is a rich portrait of two melancholy men struggling to hang onto their marriages as they engage in high stakes espionage. 

Their bond and the emotional (as opposed to geo-political) fallout of their covert actions are what keep this low-key thriller humming along. By contrasting the personal with the political, Carion grounds his Cold War players, turning both infidelity and parental estrangement into equally melodramatic minefields. 

Visually astute and well-paced, Farewell offers terrific moments, the best of which occur between Gregoriev and his teenage son. But Carion also shows his flair for the cinematic. Pierre's final flight from the USSR is particularly pulse-quickening.

Less successful are his attempts to weave their acts into the upper echelons of the U.S. and French governments. Though it's always nice to see Fred Ward, his Reagan is sketched in only the broadest strokes, with a barely recognizable David Soul (of Starsky and Hutch) as his aide. Using clips of John Ford's The Man Who Killed Liberty Valance, Carion takes a cheap swipe at the shallowness of American cowboy justice. Similarly, Philippe Magnan as the drowsy-eyed socialist François Mitterand is little more than an icy caricature.

Farewell takes a domestic, on-the-ground procedural view of what Ronald Reagan considered the most important espionage event of the 20th century (it allowed him to bluff the USSR about the Strategic Defense Initiative — aka Star Wars.) It may not have the high-wire tension that typifies Hollywood spy-thrillers, but it does deliver a mostly satisfying night at the movies.

Opens Friday, Aug. 27, at the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.

Jeff Meyers is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

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