Jack Strong


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Jack Strong
"Bilov's turn is excellent, working well with the rest of the cast to create an air of menace around him that never disappates."

Faced with the realisation that in the event of a war his country will be used to absorb a NATO counter-attack, a senior Polish officer offers secrets to the enemy. Not just secrets but advice, plans, tactics, turning his own genius for organisation against his notional allies within the Warsaw Pact. The potential penalty for his actions is death, and the price he asks is... nothing.

Based on a true story, Jack Strong is genuinely thrilling. Full of Cold War detail, tradecraft like chalk-marks and dead-drops, miniature cameras and spy satellites, it convinces with even smaller touches: On Brezhnev's desk, nestled between telephones, sits Misha, the mascot of the 1980 Moscow Olympics; desperately trying to repair a malfunctioning bit of espionage equipment, cigarettes are lit with the end of a soldering iron; even the General Staff of the Polish Army are not immune to petty office jealousies over holidays.

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Ryszard Kuklinski is played by Marcin Dorocinski, who gives him a well balanced mixture of professionalism and desperation. As the subterfuge continues, as the intelligence delivered becomes more and more important, the stresses and strains tell on him and then his family. His handler, played by Patrick Wilson, becomes increasingly concerned, shepherding a man while trying to strike a balance between treating him as an asset and a friend. In a compelling turn, Dimitri Bilov is a KGB apparatchik devoted to the cause - in a brutal opening sequence it's made abundantly clear the price that treason carries. Not a bullet, no - a short drop into a blast furnace. There might be no Hell in the Soviet sphere, but there's still an inferno awaiting those who fall. Bilov's turn is excellent, working well with the rest of the cast to create an air of menace around him that never disappates, even when he's at his most affable. His friend Ryszard's motivations are made clearer as the film progresses, as are the vicissitudes exacted upon him by perilous choices.

Wladyslaw Pasikowski's script and direction do an excellent job of building tension, constantly managing and subverting expectation to create genuine thrills. Framed with a beautifully composed interrogation, it is both efficient and gripping. At slightly over two hours it's relatively long, but it uses it well. There are some bits of exposition delivered in contexts that would give any counter-intelligence officer more than enough rope, but they are more forgivable when balanced against an excellent sequence of reversals. There's even a car chase, which is always a positive, and for all that it's between Opels and Ladas it's both exciting and credible, well composed and straightforward to follow.

There are a couple of odd notes - action is preceded by four screens of text, context that there might have been a better way to present, admittedly at the expense of more running time. Pasikowski's talent is such that they'd doubtless have been good, but for international audiences it might be a bigger ask. In Polish, Russian and English, it's well subtitled, but most importantly it's well made. This is an excellent Cold War thriller, all the stronger for being based on a true story. An unsung hero of the era, Ryszard Kuklinski's actions have had justice done to them.

Reviewed on: 23 Feb 2014
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A spy thriller about a man who rebels against the Soviet system in which he has grown up.
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Director: Wladyslaw Pasikowski

Writer: Wladyslaw Pasikowski

Starring: Marcin Dorocinski, Maja Ostaszewska, Patrick Wilson, Dimiitri Bilov, Dagmara Dominczyk

Year: 2014

Runtime: 128 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Poland


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