AKA: L'affaire Farewell
The practice of invoking artistic license is as accepted as it is expected in movies loosely based on true events whether it's with the addition of an invented love story to changes the genre of It Could Happen to You to a romantic comedy or relying on a college transfer to heighten the impact of a final victory at the end of The Great Debaters in an Ivy League setting.
From reconstructing the timeline to deliver the most cinematically interesting version of events to blending composite identities to form precisely the right main character to center the film on a la Made in Dagenham, filmmakers translate fact into dramatic fiction, using historical events as inspirational building-blocks in the hopes of crafting a more palatable tale for audiences around the globe.
Of course, it’s easier than ever to sleuth out creative liberties from factual certainties in the information age.
Yet nonetheless, whenever I watch a movie derived from real life, I can’t help but question how much of what I’m watching is actually true and likewise whether the fabricated material helped or hindered the historical retelling overall.
Frequently onscreen we’re treated to far more dramatic interpretations of events with greater obstacles, manufactured action and thrills, and an urgent subplot that focuses on a personal relationship in their lives in an attempt to both magnify the character(s)’s struggle to achieve their goal and compete with the sensory overload of most mainstream motion pictures.
While obviously any attempt to break the mold and take the audience by surprise is welcome, unfortunately for French director Christian Carion, the decision to remove the thrills and tension that were already present in this true life spy drama backfired in his disappointingly underwhelming attempt at an early ‘80s era Spy Who Came in from the Cold or Russian Falcon and the Snowman.
And given the enormous potential of journalist turned documentarian Serguei Kostine’s heavily researched work of nonfiction, Carion had all the makings of a cinematic masterpiece… if only he’d remained loyal to it.
Simply put, when your source material is this good, you have absolutely no business making a movie that plays extremely fast and loose with the facts because not only are you not going to top it, Farewell is of such international importance that it begs to be adapted faithfully.
On the surface however, the basic premise is the same. Farewell gives us the CliffsNotes chronicle of a stupefying saga of epic proportions centering on high-ranking KGB officer Vladimir Vetrov, who turned nearly four thousand pages of top-secret documents over to French intelligence in one of the most complicated and furthest reaching cases of international espionage that helped end the Cold War and topple the Iron Curtain before Vetrov’s hubris toppled him as well.
Instead of focusing specifically on the treasonous KGB operative who helped bring down Mother Russia for idealistic reasons only to get away with it (!) before he led to his own avoidable downfall in a series of bizarre events, a fictional character steps in for Vetrov.
In a confusing and sloppily edited beginning, we jump right into the spy game along with the two main characters – in a sense meeting them at the same time they meet each other – wherein we learn that Moscow-based French engineer Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet) will become the unlikely governmental go-between for the film’s Vetrov composite Sergei Grigoriev (Emir Kusturica).
Admittedly, this technique of getting to know everyone on the same level and at the same moment can be supremely effective – particularly in conversational romantic dramadies such as Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset wherein dialogue dictates character.
But it's a disastrous move for a spy movie as we never feel fully enveloped in the plot or connected to our main characters to the extent that the filmmaker desires given the family squabbles and interpersonal drama that follows.
Though we’re riveted by the naturalistic performances of filmmakers Kusturica (Underground, Arizona Dream) and Canet (Tell No One) and I understand the intent of creating a fake anti-hero in this post 9/11 era of WikiLeaks, everything about the way the events unfold feels lazily unspecific and maddeningly vague.
Fixated on the bigger picture and how the lessons of the past tie in today, in Farewell Carion uses a device that’s more wooden than Fred Ward’s performance as President Reagan to drive a point home in a roundabout way rather than through traditional storytelling.
Illustrating the importance of symbolism and subtext through a conversation about the same thing, Farewell brings us to Film School 101 with the guest lecturer Ronald Reagan as throughout the film, the president repeatedly screens the eponymous sequence of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance while relishing in the symbolism.
It’s an odd decision to say the least and awareness of this fact pulls us right out of the film. And as we watch Reagan indulge his inner film geek onscreen, we wonder what he would've said offscreen about this scene in particular, considering that we’re never told the name, rank, or position of his favorite movie buddy and foreign policy confidant... which in a spy picture should probably carry more narrative weight than an observation about Liberty Valance.
Farewell landed in theaters last year alongside Angelina Jolie’s sleeper summer stunner Salt as proof that when it comes to the multiplex, it takes all spies. But with the release of 2010's strongest spy tale Fair Game, Bourne Identity helmer Doug Liman reminded us to accept no imitations as in the world of onscreen espionage, facts reign supreme.
Christian Carion's The Girl from Paris
Emir Kusturica's Arizona Dream
Guillaume Canet's Tell No One
Denzel Washington's The Great Debaters
John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Phillip Noyce's Salt
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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.