NEW YORK (Reuters) - Ever since 10 Russian spies were arrested in the United States last month in what seemed a throwback to the Cold War, people have wondered how the secretive sleuths still can be operating in 2010.
Maybe they should see the new movie, "Farewell."
The French film is an espionage thriller inspired by the little-known story of KGB colonel Vladimir Vetrov, code-named Farewell, who is depicted as providing classified information that led to the expulsion of Russian spies from the U.S. and other countries around the world in the 1980s.
And "depicted as providing" is an apt description of what Vetrov did, because to this day, there is no official version of the events of his secretive life.
The espionage drama hits U.S. theaters on July 23, the same day as big-budget Hollywood flick "Salt" starring Angelina Jolie as a CIA officer accused of being a Russian spy.
But moviegoers might think of "Farewell" as pepper, when compared to "Salt," a big-budget movie with A-list Hollywood stars and a huge promotional budget. "Farewell," by contrast, was made on a modest budget by a French director using French and Serbian actors.
Early reviews have been kind, and if audiences truly want to know about Cold War-style espionage, which obviously still exists today, there is more than one film in theaters.
"If this were a ramped-up American production, it would, given its subject matter, be one of the most heavily promoted films of the year," said veteran critic Todd McCarthy at movie website IndieWire.
The new film shows Farewell, who is disenchanted with his homeland, passing defense technology secrets and eventually a coveted list of KGB agents working secretly around the world to a French businessman working in Moscow.
Russia refused to allow shooting in Moscow and dissuaded Russian movie actor Sergei Makovetsky and Russian producer and director Nikita Mikhalkov from participating in the film, according to the film's French director Christian Carion.
Instead, "Farewell" was shot in the Ukraine and Finland, and it stars French director Guillaume Canet and Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica. Along with the U.S., it will be released in the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary. In France, it hit theaters in 2009 under the title, "L'affaire farewell."
"In Russia no one knows about the Farewell affair, and no one will because our movie is absolutely, strictly forbidden there," said Carion.
A spokesman for the Russian ambassador to the United Nations had no immediate comment on the film.
The film took much of its story from a book by Serguei Kostine called "Bonjour Farewell," but differs somewhat in what Kostine and others say is the real life ending to Vetrov's story -- that he was convicted of the attempted murder of his girlfriend, sentenced to death and shot in a Siberian jail.
Oleg Kalugin, a former head of KGB operations in the United States, confirmed the basic story shown in the film, as did former chief of CIA operations Jack Devine.
"It was indeed an important operation, very important, and it typifies the chess game between the U.S. and the Russians that was rampant in that time frame," Devine told Reuters.
Devine said Russian spy stories have for many years captured the imagination of audiences, and would continue to do so -- in real life and in fiction.
"The world is fascinated with this story because for many people life can be rather humdrum. And I think the combination of (movies) and books have created a fantasy world that is entertaining and appeals to our sense of adventure," he said.
Additional reporting by Gemma Haines, editing by Bob Tourtellotte