Talk about life imitating art imitating the movies: it seems like everywhere we look there’s a Soviet Agent hopping on moving vehicles (Salt), stealing secrets from New Jersey housewives (real life), or, in this case, effectively ending Soviet Communism. This French film “based on facts” re-creates the so-called Farewell Affair, in which a disillusioned, bearish KGB industrial spy (played by Bosnian director Emir Kusturica) followed some passionate but indefinable inclination to leak extremely sensitive information to a low-level French intelligence worker, which, according to the film (and some historians) led directly to Star Wars, Perestroika, and the fall of the wall. What’s odd about this compelling film is the new way it stretches our credulity. Instead of being asked to accept Angelina Jolie infiltrating the White House, we now need to believe that the real Ronald Reagan (played here by the great Fred Ward) was actually a pragmatic genius engaged in covert affairs while repeatedly screening John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I personally don’t buy that his cinematic tastes were that good.
Director Christian Carion (Joyeux Noël) bookends his film with a shocking scene that sets an ominous tone and then provides a sobering punch line. But the film is more John le Carré than 007. Most of the great post-WWII political thrillers, from Z (1969) to The Lives of Others (2006), have hewed closer to the conventions of police procedurals than to the usual Bond shenanigans, preferring interrogation rooms over big shoot-outs. This is no exception, though it holds its most compelling drama ’til the very end, when spies close in, people are arrested, and borders are nervously crossed.
Still, this film’s finest moments are the touches of family life that dot the narrative. It begins with a kid’s circus and ends with a long family drive in which Mom and Dad have to leave the car in order to yell at each other. The political can’t always be made happily personal, this film says. On the other hand, if Ronald Reagan can be George Smiley, then just about anybody can save the world.