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Cold War spy scorned as a traitor to Poland portrayed as hero in new movie

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WARSAW, Poland - For many Poles, Col. Ryszard Kuklinski was a traitor for passing secrets to the Americans during the Cold War — and even Solidarity leader Lech Walesa refused to honour him after he became president. A new Polish movie casts Kuklinski in a different light, as a hero who acted on conscience and helped avert bloodshed.

The movie "Jack Strong" — after Kuklinski's CIA code name — traces the arc of the colonel's life from his career as a loyal officer to his lonely and ultimately tragic years as an exile in the United States. It opens Friday in Polish cinemas.

Kuklinski served as a liaison officer between the Polish military command and the Soviet Army under communism. Disillusioned by the army's role in the bloody suppresion of a Polish workers' protest in 1970, and convinced that Moscow was planning a military conflict with the West, he contacted the CIA with an offer to co-operate — for free.

From behind the Iron Curtain, he passed some 35,000 pages of Warsaw Pact secrets to the CIA, including the communist government's plan to impose martial law in 1981 and launch a brutal crackdown on the pro-democracy Solidarity movement. He was spirited out of Poland with his wife and two sons shortly before the Dec. 13, 1981 military crackdown, and the family lived in hiding in the U.S. In 1989 the Poles peacefully ousted communism, paving the way to independence for other nations in the Soviet bloc.

Aris Pappas, a CIA analyst who assessed information from Kuklinski, said the Polish spy took no money for the information he provided over 9 1/2 years.

"As an analyst I was on the receiving end of all of that information," Pappas told The Associated Press. "It was absolutely amazing. The beauty of the information that was being provided was that it allowed us to have an insight into the deliberations at the highest levels of the Warsaw Pact command. ... The information was absolutely essential."

In the fast-paced movie by director Wladyslaw Pasikowski, Kuklinski emerges as a man of courage and conscience: Raised in the best tradition of Poland's military, he comes to the conclusion that the communist-era army does not serve Poland's best interests, and that Moscow is ready to sacrifice Poland in a major conflict with the West. A talented army strategist, he decides to risk his life to avert the threat and help democracy through espionage.

The tension mounts until the dramatic scene of the Kuklinski family's passage into the West. Years later, after Poland has become a free country, he is shown telling American officials in Washington that the ordeal he endured — life in exile, the mysterious death of a son — was worth it.

President Bronislaw Komorowski, who attended a gala screening this week, said it was an "unusual movie about an unusual man" and about "very difficult, sometimes squalid times" under communism in Poland.

He said Kuklinski was a "hero who will always be a source of some controversy," but who was driven by pure intentions in his "dramatic decision to serve the homeland in the way he considered the best."

Previous presidents, including Solidarity founder Lech Walesa, refused to bestow state honours on Kuklinski, questioning his loyalty to Poland. But Kuklinski's ashes were ultimately laid to rest in 2004 in Warsaw's historic Powazki military cemetery.

Kuklinski's role was less ambiguous to the Americans. When he died in Florida in February 2004, aged 73, then-CIA director George Tenet hailed him as a "true hero" and a "passionate and courageous man (who) helped keep the Cold War from becoming hot."

To young Poles, born under democracy, the movie is revealing, with its well-reconstructed atmosphere of Poland under communism.

"I have not heard much about Kuklinski, but I see that he was a real hero who prevented a nuclear conflict," said Ewa Kalinska, 26, after a pre-screening of the movie this week.

"And I liked the movie. It's really a thrilling spy story."

Pappas, the CIA analyst, called the movie "wonderful" while noting some embellishments for drama's sake.

"I find it very, very accurate in terms of the tone and the tenor and the motivation of the characters and the general outline of the story," he said. "In detail, it's a dramatization, it's not a documentary. There is a car chase in it, that did not happen, but you can't have a movie without a car chase in it."

The cast is international, with popular Polish film actor Marcin Dorocinski as a convincing Kuklinski; Russia's Oleg Maslennikov as a Soviet Warsaw Pact commander; and American actor Patrick Wilson speaking remarkably good Polish as Kuklinski's CIA handler.

The movie will be screened this month in Britain and Ireland, and talks are underway on distribution in the U.S and other countries.

In 1984, Poland's military court sentenced Kuklinski to death for desertion and treason. His house and property were seized. The family lived under an assumed identity in the U.S. for years.

During that period, Kuklinski's younger son died in a sailing accident, and the older one was killed by a car some time after Kuklinski told the Americans he had no regrets. Unexplained questions surround the deaths that came a year apart. Many Poles believe they were acts of revenge by Moscow, although there is no evidence to suggest that.

Surrounded by bodyguards, Kuklinski visited democratic Poland in 1998, just months after a court cleared him of treason charges. On that visit he expressed his anguish that many Poles considered him a traitor.

"Not only the loss of both my sons but also the injustice and unfair opinions in my home country hurt me most, but I never had doubt that I have made the right choice," Kuklinski said on that visit. "If I were to live again, I would do the same thing."

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