As a political thriller, Christian Carion’s Farewell is fairly feeble, rendering some of the oldest clichés of Cold War potboilers without much urgency or stylistic flair. Based on a real-life espionage case that some say changed history, Farewell features plenty of whispered exchanges of information on park benches and in darkened automobiles, and plenty of scenes of world leaders (including Fred Ward as Ronald Reagan) making stilted pronouncements about the will of the people and the proper exercise of power. Carion also sprinkles in early-’80s signifiers, from Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out” to epic Björn Borg-John McEnroe tennis matches, and a few scenes of a Soviet teenager who expresses his yearning for Western-style freedom by blasting Queen on a smuggled Walkman. And between all that, Farewell heightens the melodrama by delving into the personal lives of a rogue KGB agent played by Emir Kusturica and a reluctant French spy played by Guillaume Canet, documenting their respective marital spats and furtive affairs.
The melodrama does serve a function, though, because as a character study, Farewell is rich enough to mitigate some of its ineffectiveness as suspense. Canet and Kusturica both give engaging performances—the former as a Moscow-based engineer whose involvement with gathering intelligence for the Mitterrand administration is alienating his wife, and the latter as a bearish romantic who hopes to rekindle his marriage by reminding his wife of the happy years they spent in Paris. Farewell is mildly diverting just as a story of how Canet and Kusturica revealed what the Soviet spy networks knew about the United States, and how that allowed President Reagan to bluff about the Strategic Defense Initiative (a.k.a. Star Wars) and thereby tilt the balance of power. But Carion does better when he compares the covert operations of superpowers with the needs and desires of two melancholy men. At its height, the Soviet Union spent more on industrial espionage than on scientific research, believing—wrongly, as it turned out—that it would be cheaper to steal technology than to develop it. Likewise, there’s Kusturica, hoping that some smuggled Léo Ferré records and French champagne can win back a straying woman more quickly than the grueling process of conversation.