A biopic tribute to the Polish trade union leader who went on to lead a nation

Most political biopics, at least American ones are taut and solemn by default. But Andrzej Wajda’s film is not so. It bristles with the energy and enthusiasm that drove Walesa to such great heights for Walesa started his career as an electrician in a dockyard and ended up becoming the president of Poland.

The film begins with an interview with Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci and uses this as a recurring framing device. This works well because much of Lech Walesa’s strength and character lies simply in the way he talks. He talks briskly in clipped sentences and has a way of getting to the heart of any matter quickly, even impatiently. He is unafraid of speaking his mind as we see in an early scene where he opposes a proposed penalty on the salary of the dockyard workers. Even though all workers are obviously opposed to the penalty it is only Walesa who speaks up and this immediately endears him to his people. This is a pattern that repeats on ever increasing scales for Walesa speaks what is on everyone’s minds but speaks it boldly and fluently. He is cocky and self assured and these qualities help him assume the mantle of leader of the people.

His political life soon takes over his domestic life, quite literally with endless streams of advisers and allies pouring into his house at all hours. Wajda explores the neglect of his wife and kids in some detail but ultimately Walesa enjoys power far too much to give it up for the sake of family.

In the recreation of events Wajda effortlessly blends archival footage and old newsreels with contemporary scenes, heightening the authenticity of the film. The film also has its moments of comedy and irony and these often undermine Walesa. As screenwriter Janusz Glowacki explained in an interview “I did not want to raise a monument or build a shrine. I wanted to depict a strong man, but one who also has his weaknesses. A giant who stumbles, falls but rises again.”