There’s something fitting about Andrzej Wajda bringing Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa to life, just as it’s proper that he subtitles the film “Man of Hope.” For “Walesa. Man of Hope” is a natural companion piece to the great director’s landmark “Man of Marble” and “Man of Iron,” his influential duo on resistance to communist oppression. With a bit of understandable triumphalism devoid of hagiography, Wajda tracks Walesa’s career from shipyard worker to Nobel Prize winner, crafting an old-fashioned (in the best sense), at times stirring biopic that masterfully integrates an exceptional range of contempo footage. Sales have been brisk, and Euro theatrical play will be strong.
Stateside arthouses should also benefit, though “Walesa” will undoubtedly attract mostly an older audience whose memories of Solidarity and the heady days when Gdansk shipyard workers rose up against the Soviet system still produce a lump in the throat. Wajda brings it all back, expertly resurrecting the period while wisely stopping before Walesa’s controversial term as president. As a lesson in how to make a traditional biopic about a living person without pandering or excessive white-washing (although surely there’s some here), “Walesa” is hard to beat.
The hook is Italo journalist Oriana Fallaci’s 1981 interview with the union leader, just months before martial law was declared and he was arrested for inciting unrest. Fallaci (Maria Rosaria Omaggio, bearing an uncanny resemblance) was overbearing, entitled and fearless; Walesa (Robert Wieckiewicz) was brash and puffed up with self-importance. Their interview, in which Walesa was an ambivalent participant, cemented his growing stature in the West as a hero who could bring down the communist system.
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Using this meeting as a recurring device, Wajda jumps back to 1970 and the start of worker protests in Gdansk (a subject that forms an integral part of “Man of Marble” and “Man of Iron”). Walesa and wife Danuta (Agnieszka Grochowska) have a growing family, which makes full participation in the demonstrations difficult. Seen as a conciliator, Walesa is blackmailed by the authorities into signing a promise to work as an informer — an action that later comes back to haunt him.
Flash forward to 1978 and Walesa’s increasing involvement in the workers’ movement. The next year, following Pope John Paul II’s momentous visit to Poland, a galvanized Walesa moves into a leadership position and spearheads a 1980 strike that is soon joined by other unions, resulting in the birth of Solidarity. Wajda brings the story up through Danuta’s acceptance of her husband’s Nobel Prize in Oslo (her humiliating strip-search at the airport on re-entry to Warsaw is especially well handled) and Walesa’s 1989 speech before the U.S. Congress.
Janusz Glowacki’s meaty script does an admirable job of balancing Walesa the political leader with Walesa the family man (including his neglect thereof), presenting him as a headstrong figure with a pronounced fondness for grandstanding. Arrogant yet principled, he inspired more than he alienated, though the film passes too quickly over divisions in the movement; a miniseries would be needed to fully incorporate the decisive events in Gdansk and their meaning for the entire Eastern bloc.
Given the daunting task of impersonating one of the most famous and arguably influential men of the late 20th century, Wieckiewicz completely throws himself into the role, capturing how Walesa’s growing cockiness came to overwhelm even his private persona. In this day and age, when most leaders turn out to be men of straw, it’s salutary to remember that a man of hope really can effect change. Grochowska makes the most of her limited role as the long-suffering wife unwillingly thrust onto history’s stage.
As a prominent witness to, and chronicler of, the events for nearly 40 years, Wajda is the ideal director to corral the mass of information and distill it into a compact, briskly moving narrative. Especially outstanding is the way he and editors Grazyna Gradon and Milenia Fiedler almost seamlessly combine newsreel footage (plus a scene from “Man of Iron”!) with perfectly matched shots filmed in the present, black-and-white and color with a dynamism rarely matched by other biopics. The sheer breadth of the material attests to the impressive fluency of director and editors with archival sources as well as the events themselves. Given Wajda’s seminal earlier films and their unquestioned influence in raising awareness of Poland’s anti-communist struggle, there’s something particularly moving about seeing the helmer complete the chronicle.
Visuals get the colors absolutely right, re-creating the slightly washed-out tonalities of the period without fetishizing them (ditto the art direction). D.p. Pawel Edelman (“The Pianist”) captures the sweep while matching it with the contempo footage, allowing scenes of strikes and unrest to retain their sense of dangerous immediacy. Ending with Canadian country singer Paul Henry Dallaire’s “A Song for Lech Walesa” attests to the breathless way the entire world watched the fateful events signaling the fall of the Iron Curtain.