It’s the summer of ‘68 and the young Czech playwright Vaclav Havel is enjoying the atmosphere of fresh freedom, when politics are as exciting as theatre, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. But he avoids conflicts, both in confrontation with the naive euphoria of political developments – led by the celebrated politician Dubcek – which seem naive to him, and also with his wife Olga regarding his romantic escapades.
Freedom, however, is threatened by the invasion of foreign forces and Havel is suddenly broadcasting anti-occupation speeches. In these, he urges people to display personal bravery. His local endeavours are marred by Dubcek’s capitulation. Havel refuses to sign his name under an approval of the occupation, even though this costs him the opportunity to realise his plans in the theatre.
The forbidden author retreats from the limelight to his cottage, but his suppressed creativity leads to the degeneration both of his spirit and his relationship with Olga. He accepts a temporary job in a brewery, which inspires him to return to the theatrical world, if only in private. This wakes him from his lethargy and leads him to musicians working in a similarly “underground” way. And when he learns that they are persecuted in a much harsher manner, and that he is not the only one who is outraged by this, he decides to organise a protest.
He unites a diverse group of as-yet solitary critics of the regime into a resistance movement. He also approaches Dubcek, who hides away from him. The elation at opinion at last expressed openly is crushed by the regime’s hysterical reaction. Havel is sent to prison, where he is unable to face a direct confrontation with power and succumbs to the pressure and stress. With a signature, he gives up political activity, consoling himself with a view of working on his artistic projects in seclusion, but after he is released, he sees he was simply looking for excuses.
Humiliated (especially in his own eyes), he devotes himself to further political rather than artistic activity in order to redeem his failure. He thus deliberately brings about an even stronger reaction from the regime, which leads to his arrest and the threat of several years’ imprisonment. Having come to terms with his sentence, he receives an offer to emigrate to USA, which would give him the freedom to live and work. But his – and Olga’s – suspicion that this would mean fleeing from battle supports Havel in choosing demonstrative imprisonment.
In prison, Havel develops his skill in standing up for himself and other outsiders along with a new courage to openly enter into conflict. He becomes stronger psychologically, but the harsh physical circumstances lead to a serious illness. He can use his condition and ask to be released, but instead of risking further humiliation, Havel decides to stay in prison, despite the risk to his life. This forces the regime to back down and release him. He leaves as a victor and celebrates with another romantic escapade. However, this quickly turns sour: Olga also has a new man.
Encouraged by the personal victory over regime but abandoned by his wife, he devotes himself to organising the growing public unrest and the final conflict with the regime. This means he is ready even though the revolution arrives spontaneously. He takes the lead of now rapidly growing revolution crowd. But there is one more candidate for this part – Dubcek.
Measured against Dubcek’s popularity, Havel is an outsider, but confronted with Dubcek’s inability to put a definitive end to the oppressive regime, he decides to take on this responsibility. Empowered by his reconciliation with Olga – to whom he finally opens up and admits he cannot be this strong without her support – he confronts Dubcek directly, winning because of the ethical weight of his personal sacrifice. He becomes the new leader, euphorically hailed by the masses as a true hero – even though it means the end of his life long effort to return to theatre as an artist, the effort that started the whole dissident story in the first place.