NR | 2h 8min | Suspense Thriller | 2014
Given his life-long dedication to American national security, it must have been a bitter irony for the late CIA officer David Forden that the Sept. 11 terror attacks occurred on his birthday. At least he could take comfort knowing he helped manage and protect one of the most important sources in American intelligence history.
However, it did not come without costs for his whistle-blowing mole, Polish People’s Army Col. Ryszard Kuklinski. Alarmed by the USSR’s escalating militancy and its preparations for Polish martial law, Kuklinski supplied game-changing information to Forden and his CIA colleagues.
Kuklinski’s real-life espionage remains controversial in Poland, but he is the unambiguously heroic protagonist of Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s fact-based thriller, “Jack Strong,” which streams on multiple platforms.
Kuklinski’s father had served in the Polish Home Army during World War II, making his son automatically suspect to the secret police, who preferred subservience over initiative in military officers.
Warsaw Pact Secrets
However, Kuklinski’s brilliant strategic analysis made him invaluable to his commanding officer. It also gave him access to incredibly sensitive Warsaw Pact military information. He knew what the Soviets were capable of doing in Poland, because he was the one who planned the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Based on top secret documents provided for his review, Kuklinski understands the Soviets are preparing for a pre-emptive conventional military strike in Europe. There is also a very real possibility that Soviet tanks will roll into Poland to crush Solidarity once and for all. To counter these hardline plans, Kuklinski reaches out to the CIA, who have him vetted by “Daniel,” a composite character transparently modeled after Forden (who served as an advisor to the film).
Over the course of several years, Kuklinski (code-named “Seagull” and “Jack Strong”) passes revelatory intel to Daniel and his other handlers. They are all keenly aware of the risks, because of the gruesome execution of Oleg Penkovsky, the Soviet Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) colonel who was the subject of the film “The Courier” (originally titled “Ironbark” for its Sundance premiere).
The CIA does not want to see him share a similar fate, but the repercussions of the resulting American military adjustments are so significant for the Warsaw Pact that they inevitably realize there is a mole highly placed somewhere in their military command.
When judged simply in terms of suspense, “Jack Strong” is quite a nifty suspense thriller. Pasikowski keeps it real and grounded, staging a car chase sequence with boxy Trabants on icy, ill-plowed Warsaw streets that is the kind of tense white-knuckle ride any Hollywood stunt-driver would appreciate. The film also has a visceral sense of paranoia that isn’t really paranoia, because everyone in Poland at that time was indeed under surveillance.
This is a Polish production, so it will most likely feel authentic to most American viewers, some of whom might be surprised by its positive portrayal of the CIA. The Forden character and Kuklinski’s local contacts genuinely care about his safety.
Unfortunately, the agency was not immune to the bureaucratic inefficiencies that plague the Federal government, at least according to Pasikowski’s screenplay. Arguably, the film holds bipartisan appeal, spanning multiple administrations, but rather logically Carter’s Polish-born National Security Council Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski is the only real-life American official to appear by name (Pasikowski even adjusts the timeline, to give him more screen time, at the expense of the Reagan administration).
Regardless, movie-lovers of all nationalities should definitely check out Marcin Dorocinski’s lead performance as Kuklinski (Strong). He is indeed a strong presence—stoic on the outside and burning with righteousness on the inside.
Patrick Wilson is appropriately earnest as the Forden analogue, while his real-life wife Dagmara Dominczyk (whose parents were Solidarity members who emigrated to America in the early 1980s) is pretty impressive handling a lot of the in-country action and intrigue as “Sue,” a CIA operative stationed in Poland.
Rather craftily, Pasikowski uses some sleight of hand to trick the audience, right from the start. There is definitely a tragic logic to Kuklinski’s story, but it is not what we are expecting. As a result, those final scenes stay with the viewer well after the film ends.
Kuklinski sacrificed much, which is presumably why Forden helped tell his story. Both served the free world at a critical juncture of history, so to recognize their service and to remember something positive associated with that awful day, consider streaming “Jack Strong” this Sept. 11 on Peacock, Fandor, or Freevee.
Director: Władysław Pasikowski
Starring: Marcin Doroncinski, Maja Ostaszewska, Patrick Wilson
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 2 hours, 8 minutes
Release Date: Feb. 7, 2014
Rated: 4.5 stars out of 5