Thursday, September 9, 2010

"farewell (l'affaire farewell)" movie review

Pat and I went to see “Farewell (L’Affaire Farewell),” an espionage thriller based loosely on a true story, on Labor Day. “Farewell” was released in July - and eerily coincided with the deportation of 10 Russian spies that had recently been rounded up by the FBI. Was that life imitating art (at least as the discovery that spy ring mirrored themes from “Farewell”)? The story is set in 1981, with cold war spy networks in full bloom. The difference with this film, an almost anti-spy espionage picture, is the protagonists are amateurs.

The KGB officer, colonel Grigoriev, vets raw intelligence before it continues on its travels through the varied Soviet bureaucracies. Later in the film we learn the bulk of Soviet spying is actually industrial espionage. It was cheaper to steal trade secrets and processes than invest in the time consuming (and expensive) research and development. Interestingly, the material passed on by Grigoriev was information the Russians had learned about the allies (and the marginal notes made by the Russian analysts regarding its value).

Grigoriev passes the information (which culminates with the piece de resistance, the “x list” detailing the names of Russian agents around the world), to a mid-level French engineer, Pierre Froment. The twist, which insulated him from suspicion, was his private sector job. Froment was not a spy. More fascinating, still, is the French themselves kept this conduit secret from the external French spies (their CIA) and ran the operation - code named “Farewell” - via the internal security apparatus (their FBI).

The ostensible reason for this subterfuge was that the external service was riddled with Soviet spies! The Soviets, according to the French explanation, didn’t bother to infiltrate the domestic service because there weren’t any worthwhile secrets to steal! Eventually, the documents turned over by Grigoriev land on the desk of Francois Mitterand himself - who, in turn, shares this gold mine of intelligence with Ronald Reagan, in person. While the French refuse to divulge their sources, the American’s eventually learn the identities of the two principals.

In between the start of the information hand-off and the ultimate pay-off with the “x-list” is the slow destruction of Grigoriev’s and Froment’s personal lives from the toll of the lies and duplicity. Froment, with a borderline hysterical wife, continues the “spying” despite flat out telling his wife that he won’t do it any longer (to protect family - living deep in the Russian state). Grigoriev, for some unknown reason, takes a mistress - and in what can only be described as a “fatal attraction” moment - arrives back at his apartment and had the front door opened by
the mistress (his wife, clueless, in the background).

It’s his rebellious son that catches the mistress grabbing a kiss from Grigoriev while the his wife searches for a book on dog training!? The son, a huge fan of Queen, comes to loath his father as a result of this discovery. Grigoriev, who took no money for his traitorous deeds, opted for little things instead - French champagne, brandy, books of poetry, a walkman (which he referred to as a “johnny walkman”), queen cassette tapes (which he called “keen”)... and so on. His payoff was the psychic satisfaction that he was hastening an new Soviet Union for the next generation (specifically his son).

I won’t reveal the outcome - but I will say the “fatal attraction” moment was easily one the most suspenseful of the film. This isn’t your “Bourne Identity” style thriller, but rather a more cerebral “The Lives of Others” cold war drama. If you like “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” - Le Carre's world of espionage - then this film is for you. I enjoyed it - in no small part because it was set in the early 1980's, and also the Moscow locations were beautiful. It’s a well put together film, well worth catching on the big screen.

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