80 Million: Film Review

Buried treasure from recent Polish history.

Poland's official Oscar candidate turns a dramatic true story from the final years of the Cold War into a rousing heist thriller.

Based on real events, the official Polish entry in the Best Foreign Language Oscar race is a punchy period thriller with a universal feel-good message. Set at the dawn of Poland’s final turbulent decade under the yoke of Soviet Communism, 80 Million joins the swelling ranks of dramas from former Eastern Bloc nations that re-examine the dying days of Russian rule - films like Kolya from the Czech Republic, The Lives of Others from Germany, and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days from Romania. It may just be coincidence, but two of these three won Academy Awards.

The 58-year-old director Waldemar Krzystek grew up under Communism, but 80 Million is less a political drama than a lively hybrid of action movie, heist thriller and dark comedy. Shot in a fairly conventional but fast-paced style, it features double agents, treacherous lovers, divided families, car chases and wily Catholic priests working for the anti-government underground. Classic spy-movie material, in other words, with a stirring and easily understood good-vs-evil plotline that could play well to foreign audiences with the right marketing.

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The action takes place in the southern Polish city of Wroclaw over 10 days in December 1981, just before the imposition of martial law, a Moscow-approved crackdown designed to crush the growing power of Lech Walesa’s independent trade union Solidarity. The Wroclaw security services are already running a low-level propaganda war against local Solidarity members, shadowing their movements and even framing them for a staged desecration of war graves – a crude misuse of state power that echoes Vladimir Putin’s ongoing attacks on punk protesters Pussy Riot.

Solidarity activists Wladyslaw (Filip Bobek), Maks (Marcin Bosak) and Staszek (Wojciech Solarz) learn about the impending state of emergency from a mysterious Deep Throat character, who may just be a double agent. As martial law will allow the government to freeze the union’s financial assets, they plan a daring mission to withdraw 80 million Polish zlotys – roughly $2 million - from Solidarity’s own bank account. The notion of staging a heist to steal your own money is delightfully absurd, but not so funny if you are under constant surveillance in a totalitarian state.

Fraught with tension, the bank mission involves laying a false trail, switching vehicles, and a dramatic chase through Wroclaw’s snowy streets. The angry state response brings a flood of arrests, threats, bribes and blackmail attempts. Within days, tanks roll into the streets. Within weeks, most of the Solidarity leaders will be arrested and jailed, but at least they have secured a fighting fund that will help them edge towards victory through the bleak years ahead. If 80 Million ends on a triumphant note, it is only with the benefit of historical hindsight. In reality, this was an early skirmish in a decade-long civil war.

Krzystek paints these events in simple colours, with Solidarity apparently composed entirely of noble young freedom fighters while regime insiders are either inept stooges or sadistic sociopaths. But there is a method behind this broad-brush approach, since the only truly villainous character is Sobczak (Piotr G?owacki), a foulmouthed government enforcer who is equally contemptuous of pro-democracy campaigners, Catholic clergy and – ultimately – his own Soviet paymasters too. By making Sobczak a monstrous cynic who is despised even by his own colleagues, the film-makers smartly avoid having to find degrees of blame elsewhere. This is a film all Poles can enjoy, and indeed non-Poles too, whatever their political or religious leanings.

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The risk of such a black-and-white approach to history is that it makes the Solidarity heroes a little colourless while Sobczak emerges as the most charismatic character in the story, just as Alan Rickman did in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. That said, Krzystek's film is first and foremost an entertaining yarn, and no more unfaithful to its real-life source material than Hollywood Cold War adventures such as Charlie Wilson’s War or Ben Affleck’s current smash Argo. Like both those movies, 80 Million condenses a series of complex historical events into an enjoyably upbeat thrill ride and a universal celebration of victory over tyranny.

Producers: Marcin Kurek, Sylwester Banaszkiewicz
Production companies: MediaBrigade, Studio Produkcyjne Orka, Odra Film
Cast: Filip Bobek, Marcin Bosak, Piotr G?owacki, Krzysztof Czeczot, Wojciech Solarz, Maciej Makowski, Mariusz Benoit, Jan Frycz, Olga Frycz
Director: Waldemar Krzystek
Writers: Waldemar Krzystek, Krzysztof Kopka
Cinematographer: Piotr ?liskowski
Editor: Marek Mulica
Sales company: MediaBrigade, www.mediabrigade.pl
Rating TBC, 105 minutes.