'Jack Strong': Turin Review

Jack Strong Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Scorpio Studio

Jack Strong Still - H 2014

Tinker, tailor, soldier, traitor.

True story about the Polish spy who passed Soviet military secrets to the CIA at the height of the Cold War, and may even have averted World War III.

Playing like a real-life John Le Carre espionage yarn, this handsome Eurothriller tells the dramatic true story of Ryszard Kuklinski, a Polish colonel and anti-Soviet spy who passed thousands of top-secret military documents to NATO between 1972 and 1981. Co-financed by the Polish Film Institute, Jack Strong is a solid addition to the ever-growing canon of films in which former Eastern Bloc nations reflect on their troubled Communist past. With its secret gadgets, poison pills and furtive assignations in snowy graveyards, it is also an enjoyable throwback to the cloak-and-dagger heroics of classic Cold War cinema.

Titled after Kuklinski's CIA codename, Jack Strong has glossy production values that defy its modest budget, which reportedly came in under four million dollars. The movie has already been a domestic hit in Poland, where Kuklinski is a widely known but still controversial figure. Screened at the Turin Film Festival last week, it has sufficiently universal and populist themes to appeal overseas, particularly among spy-movie aficionados hungry for some real-life James Bond or Jason Bourne adventure. Ironically, recent warnings about a new Cold War with Russia over Ukraine could even help the movie's commercial prospects.

Writer-director Wladyslaw Pasikowski lays out the stakes with a brutal opening scene in which a previous spy meets a grisly death at the hands of the KGB. Jumping forward a few years, we first meet Kuklinski (Marcin Dorocinski) as a much-admired military strategist who has made powerful friends at the Kremlin after helping to crush the Prague Spring uprising of 1968. With handsome, brooding looks reminiscent of the late John Cassavetes, Dorocinski gives an understated performance which constantly hints at inner turmoil and quiet desperation.

With two young sons and an adoring wife Hanna (Maja Ostaszewska), Kuklinski is a rising star among the Warsaw Pact's military elite. But his conscience is increasingly troubled by the ruling regime, especially after colleagues open fire on striking Solidarity shipyard workers in 1970. Access to secret Soviet battle plans for World War III, which would have turned Poland into a giant slaughterhouse, prove to be his tipping point. In 1972, he arranges a furtive first meeting with CIA agents in Amsterdam. Before long, he becomes one of American intelligence's most valuable Cold War assets, earning plaudits from both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

Skipping through the 1970s at a brisk clip, Pasikowski keeps tension levels high by bringing envious colleagues, suspicious neighbors and family friction into the mix. When Soviet high command finally realize there is a traitor in the Polish military, an anguished Kuklinski even tries to confess, but his words are misconstrued. These moments of dark comedy bring some welcome light relief, as do the scenes featuring lookalike actors playing former Russian premier Leonid Brezhnev and notorious Polish general Wojciech Jaruzelski, who imposed martial law in 1981.

Eventually, fearing exposure, Kuklinski calls on his CIA handler (Prometheus co-star Patrick Wilson) to help him defect. At this point Pasikowski indulges in a little Argo-style fabrication, sexing up real events with a home invasion, a frantic car chase through snowy Warsaw, and a hair-raising stand-off at the Checkpoint Charlie crossing between East and West Berlin. In fairness, the border showdown is based on a true incident, but the rest is artistic license. The overall narrative framing device, a sinister interrogation taking place some years after the main events, is another smart double bluff designed to keep viewers in suspense.

Kuklinski left a troubled legacy in Poland, where many still view him as a traitor. Sentenced to death in absentia by the old Communist regime, he was initially refused a full pardon by the freely elected Lech Walesa until Bill Clinton made it a condition of Poland joining NATO in 1999. Since Kuklinski's death in 2004, his grave in a Warsaw military cemetery has been vandalized several times. Some old Kremlin insiders have even claimed he was a double agent. In a macabre twist, both his sons later died in unexplained accidents, leading to inevitable speculation about KGB revenge killings.

Jack Strong only alludes to the fate of Kuklinski's sons in a single fleeting reference. Otherwise Pasikowski has little time for the more complex moral and political shadings that might have diluted his stirring tale of courage and sacrifice. His script repeatedly stresses that Kuklinski did not ask for payment from the CIA, but was simply a proud patriot who had become disgusted with the corruption and brutality of Russian rule. "Maybe we're not Poles any more," he agonizes, "our souls have ugly Soviet faces."

All the Russian characters in the movie certainly have ugly faces, from cold-blooded assassins to vulgar, profanity-spouting, table-thumping generals. Jack Strong is not a subtle movie, and it will not please Kremlin apologists of the pre or post-Communist era. But it is an agreeably old-school Cold War spy thriller, full of high stakes and high treason.

Production company: Scorpio Studio
Cast: Marcin Dorocinski, Maja Ostaszewska, Patrick Wilson, Dimitri Bilov, Dagmara Dominczyk, Oleg Maslennikov, Krzysztof Pieczynski
Director: Wladyslaw Pasikowski
screenwriter: Wladyslaw Pasikowski
Producers:  Klaudiusz Frydrych, Roman Gutek, Sylwia Wilkos
Cinematographer: Magdalena Górka
Editor: Jaroslaw Kaminski
Sales company: Scorpio Studio

No rating, 128 minutes