The number of people who mourn the collapse of the Soviet bloc is presumably small and dwindling. But I can't be the only one who mourns what went away along with it, Cold War dramas. From The Manchurian Candidate through WarGames and beyond, geopolitical conflict made for fine screen entertainment.
So I cry a little tear of moviegoer nostalgia now that I have watched Farewell, the French film that tells an exciting and true story of Cold War espionage. In the early 1980s, Sergei (Emir Kusturica), a sad-eyed KGB officer, betrays the Soviet cause and leaks documents to the French intelligence agency. His connection is the nervous French engineer Pierre (Guillaume Canet), who, untrained in spy craft, lives in Moscow. Sergei's revelations prove earthshaking.
The film bears marks of a thriller. There are tense cat-and-mouse sequences, and there also is grisly torture. And the global political stakes are high, as is made clear in scenes with the French president Franois Mitterrand (Philippe Magnan) and the newly inaugurated Ronald Reagan, played by good old Fred Ward.
Ward has mastered certain Gipper tics, and we're shown scenes of Reagan adoringly watching old Westerns, in case anyone still thinks it's funny that he started out as a Hollywood actor. But at times he roars and rages, and this seems out of character. I'm reminded of the old Saturday Night Live skit in which Reagan, played by Phil Hartman, is doddering in public, steely and Machiavellian in private.
But what's most compelling about the film is the subtle portrayals of Pierre and Sergei, complicated men with complicated motives. Sergei, played with warmth and sly wit by the hulking Kusturica, struggles not only with treason but also with a private life that keeps threatening to spin out of control. He has a mistress, and relations with his teenage son Igor (Evgeniy Kharlanov) are awkward. Pierre, meanwhile, is a reluctant spy, and he frets about having to lie to his anxious wife (Alexandra Maria Lara).
Kusturica and Canet's scenes together are wonderful. Sometimes these are fraught, and sometimes they verge on slapstick, as when Pierre lets a loose packet of KGB papers fly out the open window of Sergei's car. In another meeting Sergei, a Francophile, grandly recites French poetry.
Farewell also provides fascinating glimpses of Soviet life at the height of the Brezhnev stagnation. Some of these come courtesy of Sergei's son, who gets in trouble for making snarky remarks about the Soviet premier. He loves Western rock music, and it says something about Soviet teenagers that on his bedroom wall are posters of both Karl Marx and David Bowie.