FilmJuice have my review of Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s historical espionage thriller Jack Strong, which is out in the UK on Monday. Set during the final decades of the Cold War, the film tells the story of a real-life Polish officer who came to realise that the Soviet Union would quite happily turn Poland into a radioactive wasteland if it meant protecting themselves from a Western invasion. Thus, rather than remaining loyal to his military command and working with the Soviets to defeat the West, he began sharing Polish and Soviet military secrets with the Americans in the hope of averting war. Aside from being a technically-accomplished thriller with bags of tension and some lovely set pieces, the film also goes out of its way to explore not only the historical context that informed the officer’s decision the spy for the Americans, it also spends quite a lot of time building up the characters in order to ensure that every act of betrayal has a personal edge:
The grit in the story also extends to the film’s treatment of Kuklinski’s home life as his teenaged son Bogdan comes to reject his family’s military heritage in order to embrace the kind of dissident political tendencies that would eventually result in the formation of the famous Solidarity movement. Bogdan is trapped between an intense love for his father and an intense hatred for the authoritarianism that his father’s job represents, this eventually leads him first to drink and then to drugs setting up some wonderful scenes in which Kuklinski is forced to confront his son about ideals that he secretly shares. In fact, one could easily read Bogdan as a manifestation of Kuklinski’s tortured conscience as well as the fear and self-disgust that grows within him as the film progresses.
Jack Strong reminded me of why I used to love spy films and why I no longer do. I have two main problems with the espionage genre:
Firstly, the number of spy films coming out of the English-speaking world seems to have increased exponentially since 9/11. Aside from successful franchises such as the Bond, Red and Mission Impossible films, we have ‘historical’ spy films such as Zero Dark Thirty, Fair Game and Argo as well as action-based spy films like Hanna, Haywire and Safe House.The popularity of espionage tropes is even blurring genre boundaries as TV procedurals such as Elementary and Sherlock seem to have gone out of their way to include espionage elements and that’s without mentioning the fact that superhero films and TV series make extensive use of espionage tropes in an effort to make their costumed antics seem more grounded and real. Espionage tropes are now so ubiquitous and over-exploited that their presence in a film or TV series often feels like an admission of intellectual bankruptcy.
Secondly, when espionage elements do turn up in contemporary films and TV series, they usually take the form of power fantasies. ‘Power fantasy’ is often associated with texts in which a character is imbued with super-human powers giving them a degree of agency to which the audience could only ever aspire. A textbook example of this type of power fantasy is the scene in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in which the freshly-empowered Peter Parker beats and humiliates a high-school bully. However, while power fantasies are usually associated with agency-giving powers like flight or super-strength, they can also be associated with characters having the capacity to see the world in much simpler terms than people in the real world. Espionage thrillers often feature these types of knowledge fantasy in that they replace complex political issues with simple moral dichotomies in which it is relatively easy to know ‘right’ from ‘wrong’. In some cases, the knowledge fantasy even extends as far as having the evil-doers be instantly recognisable thanks to their physical characteristics and it is in this shared fantasy of recognition that the espionage and superhero genres meet.
What makes me uncomfortable about a lot of contemporary spy stories is the way that they apply these fantasies of knowledge to real-world political problems in an effort to make the film or TV series seem more ‘realistic’. The reason that real-world political problems prove intractable is that it is often almost completely impossible to determine which is the ‘right’ side of a particular issue. Taking real-world problems and reducing them down to simple moral dichotomies is not only supremely unrealistic, it is also intensely problematic as it means not only demonising the people who happen to be on the receiving end of popular fears, it also encourages the fear by suggesting that audiences are right to be terrified of particular groups. For example, one of the most egregiously right-wing TV series in recent memory is Homeland, a series that suggests Al Qaeda not only have the power to infiltrate the CIA but also to ‘turn’ American soldiers into double agents. Eager to continue feeding on popular fears, later series of Homeland appear to have switched from fantasising about an all-powerful Al Qaeda to fantasising about the supremely competent and ruthless Iranian intelligence services.
Jack Strong is just as much of a knowledge fantasy as any contemporary spy film as it not only assumes that the Soviet Union would have abandoned its satellite nations, it also glosses over the fact that America would almost certainly have proved equally reluctant to defend European cities with nuclear weapons if it meant endangering US cities. However, the fact that the film dealt with ‘historic’ issues rather than contemporary ones served to make its knowledge fantasies seem less grating and Pasikowski further attenuated the political elements of his story by stressing the human dimension not only of the character’s decision to become a traitor but also of his on-going attempts to remain hidden from people within his own government and military hierarchy. Jack Strong appealed to me because, unlike many spy films, it never forgets that complex political problems have their roots in complex political humans. Films that reduce real-world problems to simple moral dichotomies are nothing more than the latest generation of war-time propaganda.