The Command

The Command (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

On the surface, “The Command,” inspired by the biggest submarine disaster in history and based on Robert Moore’s book “A Time to Die,” is a disaster film: a Russian Navy exercise turns deadly when one of the torpedoes, due to a hydrogen peroxide leak from within, overheats and causes a series of explosions which renders the “unsinkable” submarine utterly destroyed in the bottom of the Barents Sea. The surviving sailors must wait for rescue as water levels rise and temperature continues to drop. But those who choose to look closely will realize that the film is not a popcorn flick. It filled with sadness and anger. It is a condemnation of politics and bureaucracy when a life-or-death situation demands that these petty things be set aside.

The work is written for the screen by Robert Rodat and directed by Thomas Vinterberg. It is a fruitful partnership because the screenplay is filled with nonverbal cues that communicate plenty about the characters, especially when they are trapped in their own thoughts and are forced to wrestle with grim possibilities. To support this, the direction is patient and precise; notice the framing of how hands tremble when terrible news is heard for the first time, how eyes search the room for answers regarding loved ones, how a person breathes while facing an impossible situation. By providing images filled with rich, haunting, and useful information, the filmmakers engage the audience—not because of the disaster itself but because of the people affected by it.

But this isn’t to suggest that the picture lacks tense moments. A standout involves Captain-Lieutenant Mikhail Averin (Matthias Schoenaerts) and a fellow sailor having to dive into a lower level of the flooded submarine in order to acquire adaptors for an oxygen generator. The first attempt of rescue by the Russians has failed; the trapped sailors know that the next attempt will not occur for several hours. The task itself is seemingly insurmountable because the compartment where the adaptors are stored is quite a distance away. In order to hasten their swim time, the volunteers must remove their clothing with the exception of shorts and cloth wrapped around their biceps which serves to hold a flashlight in place. By providing pertinent details and taking the time to present these details, it allows us to imagine how cold the two must get with every second they must spend in that water. We are already worried for them even before the dive.

Events outside the submarine gather tension, too. Mikhail’s pregnant wife (Léa Seydoux), their firstborn in tow (Artemiy Spiridonov), along with other Navy wives, demand answers from officials. They are constantly denied by fancy men in uniform with their roundabout way of speaking. These women are not to be taken as fools. Out on the ocean, Admiral Grudzinsky (Peter Simonischek) is wise enough consider the possibility that Russia might need help from other nations after two failed rescue attempts despite the fact that his superiors demand that the circumstances be kept secret. You see, officials like Vladimir Petrenko (Max von Sydow) would rather protect their Naval secrets from foreigners than the men in the submarine—technology over human lives. Meanwhile, Commodore Russell (Colin Firth), a Brit, extends a helping hand to the Russians from the moment explosions are detected under the sea.

“Kursk” is a high quality dramatic thriller because it understands the importance of details. Although the final act is a bit rushed—it ends just when anger is at its peak—I admired that every step is presented in a clear and intelligent manner. We always have an answer to what is happening, why it is happening, and how it is happening. And despite having at least half a dozen key characters, we have an understanding of each one even though we may not always agree with his or her choices. Choices decided the fate these sailors.

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