Screens at CIFF: 10/11 & 10/13 & 10/16
World premiere: 5 September, 2013, Venice International Film Festival

Winner of the Silver Hugo for Best Actor (Robert Więckiewicz)

My bona fides in disliking the biopic as a cinematic form can hardly be called into question, so the mere fact that I think Wałęsa: Man of Hope is kind of great from the first to the last minute of its more than two-hour running time almost certainly means that "kind of great" is a huge underestimation.

This has nothing to do with the film being a narrative subversion, or anything like that: it couldn't be any more boilerplate if it culminated with the title character's triumphant comeback concert as his soon-to-be-reconciled ex-wife smiles tearfully from the front row. Which, given that Lech Wałęsa (Robert Więckiewicz) was a union and political leader in Communist Poland in the '70s and '80s, would have in fact been pretty tremendously subversive, in fact. The point I'm driving at, though, is that Man of Hope (as I shall call it henceforth, so as not to create confusion between the film and the man) takes unto itself the hoary framing device of an interview, right around the time of the subject's most prominent triumph, that causes him to flash back more than a decade, to the first events on the path that he now walks, recalling along the way the struggles he faced and the personal sacrifices he had to make.

Mind you, the struggles in question are not of the "I got rich and spent it all on heroin" variety, but the "I attempted for most of my adult life to wrest my beloved country away from the totalitarian grip of the Soviet Union, my successes ended up providing a template for the rest of the Soviet satellite nations to stage their own revolutions, and for my efforts I won a Nobel Peace Prize" variety. I believe that's what they call a "qualitative" difference. So Wałęsa is maybe a bit more deserving of the biopic treatment than a lot of people and it helps that Polish filmmaking institution Andrzej Wajda, directing a script by Janusz Głowacki, is less interested in the personal demons driving Wałęsa - of which there seem to be none at all, in this telling, unless "not putting up with bullshit even if the bullshitters are threatening to let you rot to death in prisoner" is a personal demon. In fact Man of Hope is very keenly interested in politics and political morality, subjects that, as an American, I had forgotten that movies could do.

The very short version of what happened in this man's life: an electrician at the Gdańsk shipyards, Wałęsa became involved with the anti-Communist trade unions at his place of work, and as a result was frequently in conflict with his overseers, particularly after he took a leading role in a major strike at those shipyards in 1970. By the middle of the decade, he'd been fired, and looked up to with ever more respect from his colleagues, and in 1980, he was drafted, more or less, to lead another strike in Gdańsk, one that triggered a chain of strikes in multiple industries across the entire country, and represented the moment in which Poland's great trade union Solidarity (with Wałęsa in a leadership role) became a major force in the country's national politics, and from that point to the collapse of Soviet rule in Poland was really just a matter of waiting the bastards out. That plus spending every minute in jail, or with the constant awareness that jail might be just around the corner, because nothing's nastier than a dying police state.

Ultimately, Man of Hope has been made for a Polish audience, and a lot of what happens is presented with a bare minimum of expansive context; place names and dates are tossed around in a casual enough way that if you don't know what's going on - as I did not - the overall shape of the thing isn't crystal-clear. But that's a really hard fault to lay at the movie's feet, when the overall point of the thing isn't to present with nice exactitude what happened (something film implicitly supposes we already know), but to present the up and down feeling of being involved in those events as they played out, experiencing the triumphalism, anger, and concern (don't you dare call it fear - Lech Wałęsa sure doesn't) that accompanied the various victories and setbacks of nonviolent revolution in Poland over some 20 years of chaotic history. The best thing that Wajda does with the material is find a way to combine a historical long view with momentary bursts of feeling, often just in the form of a montage set to one histrionic protest song or another (turns out, and I think I've noticed this before, but maybe not in print, that Poland's political music is, like, explicit in its lyrical intentions), or in a recurrent motif of switching to grainy black and white or noisy videotape at dramatically appropriate moments, the instants when personal action and political history seem to line up most precisely - THIS is the moment that history changed, if we need to pick one.

Primarily, though, Wajda's gift lies in presenting the material swiftly, never letting a moment drag out and never beatifying his characters, and especially in winding up Więckiewicz and letting him go - I wouldn't know Wałęsa from anybody, so I won't vouch for this as a work of mimicry, but as an actor playing a character, Więckiewicz is absolutely terrific. In his hands, Wałęsa is a tart, often disagreeably self-assured bear of a man, the sort of person with a huge frame that seems even bigger because of how confidently he inhabits that frame. He exudes charisma, inviting you to agree with him, and dismissing you in the most jolly way when you disagree; he is a warm life force at all times, even when that kind of vitality is exactly what those around him desperately wish he had less of in the moment. Więckiewicz is playing a garrulous showman, in essence, a Falstaffian character whose boundless enthusiasm and passion and unsophisticated genius are energising for every second that he's onscreen. That, more than anything, is what makes Man of Hope such a triumphant biopic: for all that the subject matter is compelling and well-presented, the joy in watching Więckiewicz roar across the screen devouring his enemies leaves this the most fun movie about the political realities of 1980s Poland that I think any of us are ever likely to see.