By Matt Prigge
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Aug. 17, 2010

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Not once but twice does the Cold War espionage docudrama Farewell show Ronald Reagan (Fred Ward) watching The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Both times, he’s watching Lee Marvin’s titular baddie get shot, but a more sledgehammer-to-head clip would be the film’s famous suggestion to “print the legend.” It’s advice Farewell heeds well, at least when it comes to its tragic, victimized hero.

Sergei Gregoriev (Serbian director Emir Kusturica) is a KGB officer in 1981 Russia, disenchanted with Communism and a winsome Francophile thanks to a long-ago stint in Paris. Making friends with French businessman Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet, another director and occasional thespian), Gregoriev starts slipping him highly sensitive information, which makes its way to DST French Intelligence and eventually the Reagan White House.

In the film’s (perhaps hyperbolic) estimation, this incident, not widely known until recently, was a key part of the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., and Gregoriev was a martyr who only wanted a better life for his Western-obsessed son and who felt terrible about having a mistress. The real-life man the character is based on wasn’t quite so cuddly: He tried to kill said mistress, and did kill a militiaman who witnessed said attempted murder. But Farewell scrubs Gregoriev clean, with Kusturica playing him with the kind of haunted gravitas that telegraphs the horrid fate to come. (Kustirica’s calm screen presence both here and in Patrice Leconte’s The Widow of Saint-Pierre is the opposite of the manic films he directs, including the great Underground.)

Sanitized though it is, Farewell has an attractive restraint, bordering on dispassion, that makes for compelling viewing. Director Christian Carion takes the greatest pleasure in crafting an alterna-world spy movie that depicts, of course, how spies really work. Our double agents aren’t boozing Bonds but average Joes; our globe-trotting locations aren’t scenic hot spots but drab Moscow locales.

Farewell moves at the funereal pace of Kusturica’s doomed apostate, coming alive only when Western music suddenly intrudes into the soundtrack; the film’s high mark is a brief scene with Gregoriev’s son rocking out to a smuggled Queen tape on a smuggled Walkman, in thrall to American excess.

The chief drawback is Gregoriev’s French, allegedly tortured accomplice, a blank cypher whose disapproving wife (Alexandra Maria Lara) is no more than a mere nag and who never sufficiently conveys the thrills and terror of being a nobody helping to erode a major world power. With his character at least, the filmmakers neglected to print the legend.

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