The warning signs were in plain sight.
Sailors were bartering to pay for necessities, including the booze for a shipmates’ wedding, because Mother Russia wasn’t meeting payroll.
Maintenance had fallen by the board, and not just on ships mothballed because they couldn’t afford to send them to sea.
Scrambling to get the Northern Fleet into a major military exercise didn’t take into account what the crews, and officers, hadn’t been drilled in — for years — to keep themselves and their vessels safe.
And then a hydrogen peroxide/kerosene-powered torpedo gets “angry,” and the rigid chain of command doesn’t respond well to emergencies.
“All in good time,” we hear one elderly admiral purr to concerned families of the submarine “Kursk.” Of course, by this time the massive submarine, pride of the Russian Navy, was sitting on the bottom of the Barents Sea, its nose blown off. Official indifference put them there, the populace’s famous Russian fatalism would play right into that. Or so officialdom (Max Von Sydow) thought.
“The Command” is a Western account of the 2000 disaster, a harrowing but routine thriller released as “Kursk” in Europe (now on DirectTV and in North American theaters June 21).
French super-producer Luc Besson ensures that the cast and effects are first rate, and Danish director Thomas Vinterberg (“The Hunt,””The Celebration”) summons up as much suspense as he can for a tragedy in which most viewers will remember how it came out.
The narrative is heavily fictionalized, with the screenwriter slapping the names of Russian skaters and dancers on some naval characters. It’s based on Robert Moore’s book on the disaster, “A Time to Die,” and follows three threads.
Matthias Schoenaerts is Mikhail, a petty officer aboard “Kursk” with an adoring son (Artemiy Spiridonov) and a loving, very pregnant wife (Léa Seydoux). Mikhail’s biggest concerns before putting to sea is gathering the booze for a shipmate/pal’s rowdy weepy Russian Orthodox wedding, which he secures from corrupt quartermasters.
Admiral Grudzinskty (Peter Simonischek) is the leader of the Northern Fleet, on the bridge of his flag ship for the first fleet exercises since the fall of the U.S.S.R. He grouses about the state of the ships, and the size of deployment, even if a subordinate boasts they are “more than enough to send a message to our enemies.
“Now all we have to do is figure out who our enemies are.” In the movies, this is what the “good Russians” say.
And Colin Firth is the British commodore in charge of monitoring this exercise from afar, via observer subs and deep sea listening devices. Commodore Russell doesn’t hear the torpedoman’s warning call to the captain, that the no-warhead “practice” torpedo they’re set to use is leaking its igniter chemical into its fuel.
“It is angry, sir.”
Russell doesn’t hear that concern brushed off, and the crew members muttering “Say your prayers” to each other, nor does he hear the “I am not a religious…” before the inevitable happens.
But Russell and his team hear the “BOOM” when the five ton “dummy” weapon blows up, the crunch when the sub plunges to the bottom and the even more massive explosion that follows minutes later.
Only men in an aft compartment survive the blast and flooding. Mikhail, Oleg (Magnus Millang) and a few others must scramble to stabilize their flooding compartment, get a pump running and tap on the hull to get the fleet’s attention.
The admiral and his men on the surface have to figure out what’s happened and process a response.
But over in Britain, Commodore Russell & Co. are way ahead of them, pretty much for the rest of the movie.
“Mother of God. They’ve lost a submarine!”
Too much of what the world knows about the disaster has been filtered through an unreliable Russian investigation and cover-up, and some dramatic license is to be expected in a movie with European stars and financing, and the need to condense the “ticking clock” race to save the men in the stern of the huge boat.
The chronology is flawed as to who knew what and when, and who offered to help first, and the film is too eager to put fake names on characters, too eager to allow that fictionalization to move to the fore.
But there is dramatic underwater free-diving repair footage as Mikhail and his men struggle to buy themselves more time. We get truthful if not precisely accurate accounts of a secretive military culture and government given to hiding everything from its people struggling to “contain” this crisis, stalling and harrumphing in bursts of Cold War paranoia.
And there is pathos, a crackling intercom conversation between the aft compartment and the nuclear reactor crew — “We can’t leave, or it’s Chernobyl!” A little boy asks his mother, “Is Dad dead?”
“The Command” plays down the whopper that the Russians insisted on repeating, time and again, that a NATO (American) submarine had collided with theirs, causing the disaster. It sanitizes or seems to absolve some of the chain of command, and utterly ignores the PR disaster that new-“president” Vladimir Putin presided over. He was on vacation for much of this.
But we do see the worried wives and children ignore their elders’ gullible counsel, “We let the Navy do its work…Their comrades will do their duty. Your duty is to wait at home.”
We see the infamous “official” reaction to a near riot that broke out with that crowd (Putin was present for this).
And in this case, that’s enough to remind us that unlike that Russian admiral, unlike the generally cowed and complaint populace, unlike the alleged “Leader of the Free World,” we remember who our enemies are — their lies, paranoia, clumsiness and venality, systemic and endemic, that have made them our ideological foes for a century.
It’s not a classic of the genre, not moving enough to truly grip the viewer and pull us to the edge of our seats. But a very good cast and a general respect for the facts makes “The Command” a worthy-enough entry, one that realizes sometimes there is no happy ending.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some intense disaster-related peril and disturbing images, and for brief strong language
Cast: Matthias Schoenaerts, Léa Seydoux, Peter Simonischek, Colin Firth and Max Von Sydow
Credits: Directed by Thomas Vinterberg, script by Robert Rodat based on the Robert Moore book. A Saban Films/DirectTV release.
Running time: 1:57