Way back in 1968, a brilliant officer in the Polish military grew bitter towards his imperial Soviet overlords when he was tasked with planning the Prague Spring. Plagued with moral self-doubt about the removal of the Dubcek regime in Czechoslovakia, Ryszard Kuklinski saw the Soviets brutally strong-arm their way through what looked like Dubcek-inspired protests in Gdansk two years later, and he became a spy for the United States. Embedded deeply within the ranks of the haughty officer class, shielded by a modest lifestyle and a high level of professional competence, he found himself held above suspicion and trusted with many of the Warsaw Pact’s most sensitive secrets — which for a decade he fed to the United States and dramatic impact upon the course of the Cold War.
Those of you who subscribe to Netflix at the moment have the opportunity to see a remarkable biopic about that man, a 2014 film from Poland titled Jack Strong.1 It’s well worth the just over two hours of running time on your Netflix account, or whatever other means you choose to watch a movie at home.
From a cinematic point of view, the movie is patient and measured, taking its time to set up the drama of Kuklinski’s dilemma. The ambiguous place of Poland during the Cold War is an understated but there-to-be-seen message of the cinematography — the grayish drear of Soviet style neighborhoods and lines for scarce basic necessities are prosaic and offered as experiences the audience is assumed to have shared; when Kuklinski “upgrades” his family’s home about halfway through the film, he hardly winds up with a lovely dacha by a beautiful lake; the period-appropriate cars driven by the characters are ugly, unimpressive, and utilitarian at best.
But those cars occasionally drive through gorgeously labyrinthine medieval neighborhoods; the Palace of Culture and Science looms over Warsaw2 as a dominating reminder of the potential within Poland; the nominal political autonomy and deep religiosity of the nation is flexed and tensed against terrifying Soviet imperialism; and the protagonists’ lifestyle has room for nice dinners and nights out at clubs with live music and the kinds of tensions about family finances that will resonate well with middle-class viewers from everywhere in the industrialized world.
The mostly Polish actors demonstrate exceptional skill at their craft, perhaps none more so than Maja Ostaszewska, who plays Ryszard Kuklinski’s wife Hanna, and provides one of the strongest pulls on the spy’s conflicting senses of morality, patriotism, and duty. I hope we see more of her in movies released here in the West.3 The star and focus of the story is Ryszard Kuklinski himself, and with the assistance of makeup and costuming, subtly portraying the effects of age and stress, Marcin Dorocinski bears an uncanny resemblance to the title role of the film. Dorocinski uses small gestures of his face to demonstrate Kuklinski’s moral struggles leading to his becoming a spy, and then more and more overt bodily gestures to the tension his character feels as the stakes rise and the net tightens, as it inevitably must, around him. Yet he never goes over the top into melodrama: it is easy to imagine the real Kuklinski’s physical behavior having been exactly what Dorocinski depicts while playing the role.
The script seems initially direct and obvious, and it takes most of the film before the viewer can appreciate the manner in which the story is told. Part biopic, part spy thriller, there are subtle games going on with storytelling here. The writers deserve high praise — even though much of Kuklinski’s story is public knowledge by now, tension and mystery is crafted notwithstanding. In its dénouement, the film takes on a paranoid, partisan slant, and portrays certain events as nefarious that may well not have been and which in fact are likely going to be impossible for history to interpret with certainty. Which is not to say that the writers are wrong, only to say that they could be. My main criticism is not that the writers express opinions about these ambiguous events, but rather that the shift in tone is very jarring to the viewer.
The script also falls a bit flat when it deals directly with America. We are taken inside the CIA briefing room for discussions about Kuklinski between his handler (played by the one non-Polish actor in the cast, American Patrick Wilson) and to not-quite-readily-identified spymasters to whom he reports. Unlike the scenes in Poland and Russia, the Americans’ dialogue is flat and almost boring; the actors seem more disinterested in going through their paces of these scenes. The writers do not indicate any significance to the Kuklinski’s critical activities taking place during the waning days of the Carter Administration and the early days of the Reagan Administration; there is little conveyance of concern within the Soviet bloc at the ascension of a more belligerent leader in the West. Perhaps it is for the best they do not: the story is ultimately not about the United States; the west is not particularly depicted as a force for good. Instead, the authors perceive it as a less-bad or at best morally neutral counterbalance to the utter awfulness of the bloodstained Soviet hand clamping down, tighter and tighter each year, upon a Poland that yearns for freedom.
In real life, Ryszard Kuklinski remains a deeply controversial and ambiguous figure in Poland. Officially, he was tried in absentia in 1984 and sentenced to death for his espionage; after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he was officially exonerated and recognized as having acted under extraordinary circumstances in a fashion now officially portrayed by the Polish government as heroic. Still, his grave has been repeatedly vandalized with graffiti labeling him a traitor and it appears that the Polish government remains unenthusiastic to this day about his place with Poland’s pantheon of national heroes.
Though the parallel to the contemporary figure of Edward Snowden appears obvious, nothing in the film seems to directly acknowledge Snowden at all. We see Kuklinski painted as a hero; he sees an immediate threat to a massive shooting war at obvious risk of going nuclear in his own country and risks all to prevent it. Though Edward Snowden is also betrayer of secrets of a homeland he professes to love, Kuklinski’s motive seems sufficiently different from Snowden’s to have suggested that the movie’s authors not attempt to hold up a mirror to see one story in the other. Maybe that’s for the best — Kuklinski’s story really is not Snowden’s story, and we ought to consider each man on his own merits rather than try to suggest equivalence.
Those of us who are not Polish nationals must remember that this is a Polish film aimed especially at a Polish audience about a deeply polarizing figure from Polish history. That will help the non-Polish viewer to understand why Jack Strong labors early and often to point out that Kuklinski betrayed only Soviet secrets, and never Polish secrets nor the interests of Poland, when considered independent of its repressive communist overlords. This may well have been how Kuklinksi himself saw it, but we would all be wise to remember that history is much more ambiguous than that and so, ultimately, was Ryszard Kuklinski himself.
- “Jack Strong,” we learn in the film, was one of two CIA code names for Kuklinski. If I had been making the movie, I’d have titled the film with the other CIA code name, “Seagull.” But this is a Polish film, so titling it with a very American-sounding name may have been a choice made for dramatic impact in that nation.
- Thanks apparently to the magic of CGI, this landmark stands unchallenged for dominance of Warsaw’s skyline, unlike what you would see if you visited that city in real life today.
- I think she would make a wonderful, deeply credible, and utterly human Catherine the Great.