Farewell (L’affaire Farewell)
Produced by Christophe Rossignon and Pathe Films
Directed by Christian Carion
Screenplay by Christian Carion and Eric Raynaud
Distributed by Neoclassics Films
After 20 years, we finally have a film that dramatizes how Ronald Reagan won the Cold War. Needless to say, it’s not an American production. In the land of the free, we have been relentlessly schooled to believe it was Mikhail Gorbachev who won the engagement by wisely allowing his Soviet Union to melt into history’s inevitability. However odd, this view may explain why American filmmakers have been chary of the material French director Christian Carion has bravely explored in Farewell (L’affaire Farewell).
You’ll know just how bravely if you remember our responsible media commentators’ response to Ronald Reagan in 1983 when he proposed his plan to render nuclear weapons obsolete. They viciously mocked his dream of creating a space-based antimissile shield officially dubbed the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). It was a fantasy, they sneered. The then-resident analyst-in-chief at the New York Times, Anthony Lewis, averred that Reagan had lingered too long in Hollywood. The codger really couldn’t distinguish between reality and the movies. Time called SDI “Star Wars.” Others howled that this maniac was going to abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. It would be the end of that humane status quo known as MAD, the stalemate policy of Mutually Assured Destruction. Stop the war criminal before he blows up the world!
At the time, I thought SDI sounded awfully optimistic. Of course, I had no better insight into its technical feasibility than the redoubtable Mr. Lewis. Thus, I decided to be agnostic on the Reagan program. That was until I learned the Soviets had begun research into how to install their own SDI. This mightily suggested there was something to Star Wars after all. If the program had any chance of succeeding, didn’t we owe it to ourselves and the rest of the world to try it? No, the media thundered. No, not at all! It would be unconscionable. We’d be upsetting those poor Russians, and something would surely happen.
Well, our press corps was right: Something did happen. The Soviet Union began to fall apart six years later. Had he been a man interested in revenge, Reagan could have stepped into the public spotlight and had a last laugh at the expense of his critics. But, unlike other politicians, he was curiously indifferent to tit for tat. His interest was to bring the madness of nuclear stalemate to end. And he did for a while.
Later on it came to light that the Gipper might have been bluffing all along, or at least hedging his bet. He may or may not have been convinced of SDI’s efficacy, but he was pretty sure that announcing his intention to develop the system would be enough to break the Russians’ will. How did he divine this?
According to Carion’s film and the research behind it, Reagan played his hand skillfully with the help of an obscure KGB colonel named Vladimir Vetrov. An engineer by training, in the 1970’s Vetrov had been stationed with his family in Paris, where he acquired Western tastes in literature, liberty, and cognac. When he returned to Moscow, he bridled under the oppressive and sclerotic Brezhnev regime. He was especially outraged by the Soviet decision to rely on Western R&D to develop Russian science and technology. Instead of pursuing pure science, the Russians had made a science out of stealing high-tech information from their rivals, especially America. Doing so, however, they stifled their own homegrown scientific talent. Not surprising. In a thoroughly centralized and relentlessly politicized milieu, being original is a high-risk occupation. Propose a new way of doing things, and you might step on bureaucratic toes and find yourself ostracized—or worse. The infamous case of Lysenko exemplifies the consequences. Having won Stalin’s support, poorly educated Trofim Denisovich Lysenko advocated harebrained agrarian theories that all but wrecked Russian farming through the first half of the 20th century, forcing Soviet citizens to suffer through extensive food shortages. Many Russian biologists and horticulturists were well aware of Lysenko’s quackery, yet no one could stop him. Those who tried risked losing their jobs. Some were sent into the Gulag; others simply disappeared. With Stalin on his side, Lysenko shut down honest criticism.
Against this historical example, Vetrov knew it would be useless to speak out publicly in his own country. He decided, instead, to save Russia from herself by betraying her. He contacted a French engineer working for his company in Moscow and began feeding him information concerning Moscow’s pilfering of Western science. His information revealed that, in the realm of high-tech innovation, the West was, in a sense, competing against itself. It was up against its own purloined technology wielded by Soviet hands.
When French intelligence was notified, they code-named Vetrov “Farewell” (as in farewell to all that, I suppose) and gave his revelations to President François Mitterrand, who then shared it with President Reagan at the G-7 summit held in Toronto in 1981. At first stunned, Reagan and his aides soon came to recognize the Russian operation for the opportunity it was. Rather than roll up the spy network immediately, they decided to allow it to function so they could sabotage Russian technology. Let the Russians continue using their agents to steal our computer software and other high-tech design information. We would have our programmers and designers introduce destructive codes and faulty parts into our programs and technology. Soon, Russia was experiencing industrial disruptions, communication failures, and weapons mishaps. By placing a Trojan horse into computer chips designed to manage valve pressures, in 1982 our computer engineers indirectly caused an explosion in the Trans-Siberian gas pipeline so massive that NORAD, looking at it from space, at first feared it was a nuclear detonation.
The Russians seemed to be flummoxed by the Reagan-initiated response to their thievery. Then came the coup de grâce. Reagan ordered the CIA to roll up their spy network in 1983, effectively stanching the flow of strategic information to the Soviet Union. Following this, Reagan announced SDI. The Soviets were no longer privy to America’s arms innovations, and they were hobbled by an economy knocked silly by their disastrous Afghan adventure. Gorbachev realized that the game was up.
In my favorite scene, Carion shows Reagan (Fred Ward) and an aide watching scenes from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. At first, I assumed Carion was echoing the American press, which claimed Reagan was so besotted with movie fantasy that he was unable to grasp reality. But Carion’s point is quite the opposite. The President is especially interested in the scene in which the idealistic tenderfoot lawyer played by James Stewart finds himself lured into a seemingly hopeless duel with the skilled gunman Valance. Against all odds, Stewart kills the outlaw. Reagan indicates approvingly that Ford shot the scene twice so that, in the second sequence, we can see what really happened. The camera drops back, and we see that John Wayne has clandestinely come to Stewart’s aid, shooting Valance from a darkened street before Valance gets a chance to kill Stewart. “See,” Reagan exclaims, “in the film, the point of view changes. It’s a masterpiece.” His aide looks a bit puzzled but agrees dutifully with his boss. Carion’s point seems to be this: Reagan was a strategist who skillfully deployed his public persona—here represented by his friend in his former profession, Stewart—as a decoy. The Soviets were encouraged to think they were up against a hopelessly fair-minded, naive opponent when, instead, they were dealing with a thoroughly hardened bushwhacker (represented by Wayne). When later the aide asks what he wants to do with the Farewell revelations, Reagan chuckles. We’ll “wipe out their network and play poker. It’s a lot more fun when you know your opponent has a lousy hand.”
In his fictionalized account of the events, Carion focuses primarily on Vetrov, who has been renamed Sergei Gregoriev, played by Serbian film director Emir Kusturica. Gregoriev’s French contacts have become one man, the fictional Pierre Froment, played by French director Guillaume Canet. I don’t know that directors who also act bring added authority to their roles, but the choice works brilliantly here. I would have preferred Carion to have kept to the facts, but I can see the risks in doing so. Films can’t help abbreviating the truth, and I respect his desire to avoid the charge of falsifying the Vetrov story.
Carion wanted to show us the impact of international political machinations on private lives. As played by Kusturica, Gregoriev comes across as a proud man disgusted by his country’s leaders and the culture of abject compliance they have fostered among the Russian people. He wants to change this but now, in middle age, doesn’t expect to benefit from his actions in the time he has left. He hopes to force reform in Russia for his son and his generation. Froment is quite different. As an ordinary man who has taken Western freedom for granted, he seems to be blithely unaware of the oppression with which Russians must daily contend. By allowing himself, however reluctantly, to become involved with Gregoriev, he gets a harrowing crash course in totalitarianism. He finds himself meeting the colonel in parked cars, subways, park benches—none of them particularly hidden from public view: Conducting their business in plain sight is safer than trying to hide. Gregoriev knows what Froment doesn’t: In 1980’s Moscow everyone was liable to be under surveillance.
In one instance, Froment detects Russian soldiers following him into a subway station. Not knowing what to do, he walks up to a newsstand. As he does so, a stout, thuggish man slips through the crowd behind him, reaches out and grasps the arm of an ordinary looking woman in her 50’s standing alongside the trembling engineer. A slight nod of the thug’s head, and the woman walks off with him unprotestingly. The news agent continues to do business with a customer, not once giving evidence of having seen a thing. It’s a chilling vignette of life in the police state.
As good as all this is, the film makes some missteps toward its conclusion, when Carion introduces some flourishes that damage—if only slightly—his story’s credibility. The facts need no melodramatic adornment; they’re compelling enough on their own.