Occasionally, stories surface in the news media that smack of the "wouldn't this make a great movie" syndrome. Cinematizing such events can be a risky proposition. In the hands of a screenwriter and director who possess both an original cinematic vision and a well-thought-out handle on the material (such as Frank Pierson and Sidney Lumet, with the Wojtowicz account that inspired Dog Day Afternoon) this can embody a magnificent coup; other examples (see Tony Scott's Domino) make one wish that those responsible would stick to fictional conceits in lieu of insulting real-life characters with shoddy, sophomoric treatment.
Christian Carion's Farewell falls somewhere in the middle. An adaptation of Serguei Kostine's 1997 book Bonjour, Farewell, it relays the tale of Sergei Gregoriev (played by Yugoslavian director and rocker Emir Kusturica), one of the top agents in the KGB during the 1970s and early '80s, who grew rapidly disenchanted with Brezhnev-era Soviet politics and supposedly helped usher in the collapse of the U.S.S.R. His treasonous actions involved slipping reams of information out of the Politburo and into the Oval Office via a young associate of the Thomson Corporation, here named Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet). This associate, in turn, passed the material along to the DST (French Intelligence Agency), which shuttled it to French Prime Minister François Mitterand, who physically handed it to Ronald Reagan (played in the movie by Fred Ward) at key summits and conference meetings. In the process, the United States government learned a whopping amount about the existence of Soviet espionage in the West -- a presence so pervasive that the CIA unknowingly harbored several Russian spies as top agents, and so exhaustively thorough that the Soviets apparently even maintained the laundry delivery schedules of the White House. The Reagan administration was so dense that it required a Soviet traitor to hand it data, and Gregoriev really did his homework, by actually providing the "X List" -- the document revealing the names and locations of all Soviet spies worldwide. Naturally, when the KGB brass learned that Gregoriev and co. had leaked this X List, they grew infuriated and hell-bent on reprisal against the responsible turncoats.
On the level of fundamental execution, the film delivers. Above all else, it remains narratively lucid; Carion and co-scripter Eric Raynaud shuttle back and forth between continents, governments, and groups of characters, but lay out the events with clean, workmanlike efficiency -- so much so that we never once lose track of individual identities or our place in the story. Carion and Raynaud also understand the relevance of conveying the contents of the papers that Gregoriev filters from the KGB archives, but find a clever way to avoid making these revelations feel overtly didactic. We get a wonderful sequence of Pierre and his wife, Jessica (Alexandra Maria Lara), pouring over the documents late at night, and expressing incredulity as they describe the breadth and reach of the material to one another. The filmmakers also maintain basic credibility, both in terms of Gregoriev's and Pierre's abilities to pull off their scheme (Gregoriev was above all suspicion among his comrades, Pierre such an unassuming character that he flew under KGB radar), and in terms of the Reagan administration's past myopia in tagging covert Soviet operatives. The film's only real expository lapse lies in its failure to convey the long-term reach of Gregoriev's actions. Carion and Raynaud probably felt it sufficient to simply establish the fact that Gregoriev and Pierre managed to get the information to Reagan, but the movie could benefit enormously by also giving us a historical perspective, even via some simple title cards in the closing sequence, on the domino effect that linked Gregoriev's leaks with the fall of the Iron Curtain, especially given the fact that the events of the film take place in the early '80s, but the U.S.S.R. collapsed nearly a decade later.
The movie benefits enormously from its convincing performances by Canet and especially Kusturica, who wisely underplays his role, coupling a sly subtlety with emotional seductiveness that neatly establish Gregoriev's capacity to rein in the trust of those around him. Lara, as always, projects magnetic emotional depth via her supporting turn, and both Ward and Willem Dafoe (in a small role as a slimy CIA boss) do fine work.
For all of its strengths, though, what the film really lacks is a multi-layered interpretation of the material itself on the part of Raynaud and Carion. Other espionage pictures (John Schlesinger's The Falcon and the Snowman immediately comes to mind) have suffered from the same problem. Carion and Raynaud probably read the Kostine book and thought it would make a gripping film by default, and on some level, they were right. But even as we obtain a relatively clear-cut understanding of what happened, we walk away thinking, "Okay...so what?" This material could easily have been spun into a thought-provoking historical exposé, a biting satire of Cold War politics, a savage attack on Reagan-era paranoia, or all three, but we only get little bits of each from time to time, scattered throughout the movie; an overall perspective on the material never really congeals before us. It's a shame -- such a perspective could easily have lifted this film from a competent, functional espionage drama into the realm of excellence.