Friday, June 21, 2019

The Command: The Kursk Russian Submarine Disaster

Although it only had a fracture of the death toll, Russia’s Kursk submarine disaster was sort of a mini-Chernobyl. It exposed the incompetence of the Russian Navy and the utter indifference of its leadership for all the world to see. NATO could have helped, but Putin waited five days to ask for help, while still enjoying his seaside vacation. It is a cold, claustrophobic tragedy that unfolds in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Command (a.k.a. Kursk), which opens today in New York.

Hopefully, we all know this will end badly, but if you didn’t, Putin likes the way you consume news and media. The Kursk, an Oscar class Soviet-designed submarine loaded with nuclear cruise missiles was participating in a large-scale naval operation intended to intimidate the West. Well, so much for that. The sub captain was warned their Big Bertha missile was running a little too hot, but he chose to continue anyway—and then boom.

Mikhail Averin will try to keep the rag tag remnant of survivors alive in the aft chambers, in the vain hope a rescue party will reach them in time. Admiral Vyacheslav Grudzinsky is willing to do whatever it takes to save the Kursk crewmembers, including accepting the help of British and Norwegian recovery specialists. Unfortunately, the top brass above him drags their feet, hoping a barely sea-worthy Russian submersible can get the job done instead, for reasons of propaganda ad paranoia. Of course, Grudzinsky understands better than anyone how badly the Russian rescue teams have been equipped and maintained in recent years.

What happened to the men of the Kursk (and the 71 children they left behind) was a disgrace, but it inspires some of the films most intense scenes, like when Averin’s wife Tanya publicly shames Grudzinsky’s commanding officer at a media op. Frankly, it is hard to believe Putin was subsequently re-elected, but then again, its always been hard to believe, hasn’t it?

The Flemish Matthias Schoenaerts makes a credible Russian, but he is way too big to believe as a submariner. Regardless, his character is definitely a strong, silent stereotype. In fact, none of the Kursk crewmembers really stand out. In contrast. Peter Simonischek (Mr. Toni Erdmann) is terrific as Grudzinsky, conveying all his prickly contradictions as an old school loyalist, who also always happened to be a reformer by inclination. Likewise, Colin Firth adds some heft and authority as Commodore David Russell, Grudzinsky’s old friendly rival. Of course, Max Von Sydow effortlessly projects sophisticated menace as the sinister, obfuscating Russian Navy chief.

The scenes aboard the Kursk look appropriately dark, dank, and confined, but the film is still a long way removed from the dogme95 movement of which Vinterberg was once considered a leader. Some of his old admirers might find it satisfying to see him doing some interesting things here with aspect ratio shifts. Yet, this is one of the rare submarine films that has its best moments above water (sort of making it the polar opposite of Das Boot, the series). Recommended for fans of military drama, The Command opens today (6/21) in New York, at the Cinema Village.