‘Jack Strong’ was the codename of a senior Polish military officer who spent decades sharing Soviet plans with the CIA in the hope of averting a nuclear confrontation that would have turned Poland and much of central Europe into a smouldering irradiated wasteland. Ryszard Kuklinski’s contribution to the West’s attempts to win the Cold War is said to have been so great that an American national security advisor is said to have referred to him as the first NATO soldier. Five years in the making, Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s Jack Strong is an ambitious and not entirely unsuccessful attempt to share Kuklinski’s story by telling it in the form of a gritty spy thriller.
The grit in this story comes from a laudable desire to ground the action in social history. Reminiscent of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others, Jack Strong goes out of its way to suggest that while the Polish establishment may have taken their orders from the Soviet high command, they nurtured a connection to their pre-Soviet past and worried about where their relationship with the USSR might take them. Kuklinski (Marcin Dorocinski) is introduced to us as an honourable man who begins to have serious doubts about the path his country has taken when the army puts down a peaceful protest and winds up killing at least 42 people and wounding over a thousand. Widely considered to be one of the brightest officers in the Polish army, Kuklinski is rapidly promoted and made privy to all sorts of state secrets but this only serves to make matters worse as Kuklinski’s new job means that he spends all day confronted by the Soviet high command’s brutal disregard for polish lives.
The grit in the story also extends to the film’s treatment of Kuklinski’s home life as his teenaged son Bogdan (Piotr Nerlewski) comes to reject his family’s military heritage in order to embrace the kind of dissident political tendencies that would eventually result in the formation of the famous Solidarity movement. Bogdan is trapped between an intense love for his father and an intense hatred for the authoritarianism that his father’s job represents, this eventually leads him first to drink and then to drugs setting up some wonderful scenes in which Kuklinski is forced to confront his son about ideals that he secretly shares. In fact, one could easily read Bogdan as a manifestation of Kuklinski’s tortured conscience as well as the fear and self-disgust that grows within him as the film progresses.
What makes Jack Strong such a compelling film is that while Pasikowski finds the time to both comment on Polish society and unpack his characters, all of this clever stuff is then put to use building tension. For example, Kuklinski’s first opponent is a sad sack intelligence officer who resents not only Kuklinski’s fast rise through the ranks but also Kuklinski’s failure to invite him on a sailing holiday. This personal animus adds a real edge to the officer’s confrontations with Kuklinski as do the strength of the individual performances. Particularly noteworthy is Oleg Maslennikov’s portrayal of real-life Soviet Marshal Kulikov as a bull-necked working class tough guy who does not so much command respect as bully everyone into submission before being brought down to size by an iron-willed Brezhnev. Far from weakening them, Pasikowski’s desire to humanise his villains only serves to make them seem more dangerous.
While Jack Strong is an exquisitely made and really quite effective thriller, its 128-minute running time is a little long and while Kuklinski’s attempt to outwit a furious Kulikov may carry much higher stakes, it is a little bit too much like his battle with the Polish intelligence officer to avoid making the film feel a bit repetitive. Similarly, the final act in which Kuklinski tries to escape Poland as the noose tightens goes on rather too long and misplaces Kuklinski’s relationship with his family in the rush to string together as many tense set-pieces as possible. This urge to keep escalating the risks not only strains credulity but also serves to sour the memory of the much better set-pieces earlier in the film. As it is, a little more restraint would have turned this damn fine spy thriller into a really great film.