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Nancy Drew

When she finds herself shunned by the hip chicks, Nancy falls back on her addiction: sleuthing —Matt Anderson (review...)

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I remember American newscasters talking about “Lek Valensa,” “Solidarity,” and strikes in some Soviet country. I was just old enough to be watching the news but not old enough to understand the International political scene.

As an adult, and with a short trip to Poland under my belt, I have a better idea about what Solidarity meant and why it was so important both in Poland and in America. Polish workers were striking for better conditions and were angry at Soviet influence in their country. For America it was a visible and significant crack in the Soviet system.

Husband, father, breadwinner, and labor leader
Husband, father, breadwinner, and labor leader

Walesa: Man of Hope was not made for me and my countrymen. It was made by a Pole, for Poles. Framed that way, some of the film’s power is lost on an American audience. Nevertheless, it’s good to see some of the passion, emotion, and personalities that lay behind those news broadcasts half-remembered from my teenage years.

The Reluctant Hero

Prolific filmmaker Andrzej Wajda directs Robert Wieckiewicz as the blue-collar worker-cum-leader Lech Wałęsa (let’s Americanize it to “Walesa”). The film covers Walesa’s rise in power during the 1970s, plus a little more. The film is structured as a 1980s interview with an Italian journalist (Maria Rosaria Omaggio), flashing back to the events leading up to the Solidarity strikes.

Wajda blends some historical footage with modern recreations. He’ll switch from color to black-and-white to match the footage taken on the streets at the time. But even during the interview scenes, his palette is a washed-out Soviet gray. Period hair, clothes, and cars lend an uncanny authenticity.

Walesa had long been dissatisfied with the system. He stands up at a union meeting in 1971 to speak against a meaningless proposal to voice camaraderie with workers in Brazil and Thailand, and a bullshit proposal to voluntarily punish themselves for missed quotas (even though power outages and material shortages caused the delays).

But he was mostly just a husband, a father, and a breadwinner. As played by Agnieszka Grochowska, Lech’s wife Danuta is understandably frustrated, but supportive. In return, Lech tries to temper his focus on labor with attention at home. So although he seeks out some early strike leaders in 1976, it’s not to join them but to to tell them “I support your cause because your cause is just, but your methods are shit.”

Eventually, though, the hunger strikers seek out his bull-headed leadership and common-man appeal. Walesa becomes more than just a husband, father, Catholic, and worker.

Rise and Fall

The film takes quite a while in letting Walesa acquire that power. As late as halfway through the film, he’s still being intimidated by police and interrogators. It’s not until he loses his livelihood in the late 1970s when he realizes that he is a threat to the Soviet-friendly regime in charge of Poland — that they are more afraid of him than he is of them.

The film follows Walesa past the interview, through his Nobel Peace Prize, and into an epilogue that sort of just trails off. He visits America to speak to Congress. The film closes with a Johnny Cash song [correction: it’s Paul Henry Dallaire’s song — Ed.] dedicated to Walesa. It’s not a very satisfying ending, but it’s probably as good as any film could do, given Walesa’s less-than-pretty political exit in the 1990s.

What Walesa: Man of Hope does is shine a light on the beginnings of the internal resistance to Soviet power. For us Americans, it’s a film for students of cold-war history and politics, though for Poles it might be much more.