With state-of-the-art Russian submarine Kursk now at the bottom of the sea, and Russian rescue equipment mostly sold off, Royal Navy Commodore David Russell (Colin Firth) asks Admiral Vyacheslav Grudzinsky (Peter Simonischek) if his bosses will let the British in: “not until I’ve tried a sufficient number of times to do the impossible with the inadequate”.
It’s a great line for a disaster movie where we know the victims are already doomed, even if not one that anyone would ever say.
Kursk: The Last Mission offers many submarine disaster movie beats. They mostly work well with the two steady and understated lead characters (David and Mikhail, the Kursk’s captain) – though are sometimes a little too trope-ish.
Its themes are common too, though that’s more because of the repeated hubris of politicians and military top brass; it’s not surprising filmmakers keep highlighting their folly and its human cost.
Director Thomas Vinterberg’s film combines those real-life themes with real-life tragedy: the sinking of the Russian nuclear submarine the Kursk, which sank (in relatively shallow waters) in the Barants Sea during Russian military exercises in 2000. Russia refused offers of international help until it was too late; President Putin, who had then only been president for a few months, was heavily criticised for his Navy’s lacklustre response to a disaster in which all 118 sailors died.
In Kursk: The Last Mission the extraordinarily strong bonds between sailors cross nationalities and rank only up to a certain level, above which the lives of the Kursk crew are deemed less worthy than national pride and national secrets. (Though Putin himself does not appear in the film at all.)
When we first meet Mikhail (Matthias Schoenaerts), a submarine captain with a young son and heavily pregnant wife, he and his fellow sailors have again not been paid and are trying to work out how to pay for a friend’s wedding. In the end they all swap their watches for the champagne for Pavel and Daria’s church hall nuptials, a moment of camaraderie against faceless bureaucracy.
The town housing their naval base is rusted and chilly, bleak and industrial, with fading murals of inspiring Soviet scenes and vast neglected grey tower blocks. Like the fleet, its people are its heart.
Kursk: The Last Mission was called The Command when it was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, and while that title actually sums up well the conflicting forces in the story, it doesn’t have the name recognition (for people over about 35 anyway) that the new title has. This is a survival tale where we already know they don’t survive; it’s thoughtful, grim, and, considering we know the outcome, impressively tense.
Mikhail and his friends work in a Navy that has been underpowered for years, with key equipment sold off or sitting in a dry dock. The Kursk, Mikhail’s sub, may be a flagship but it’s a flagship of a much-reduced fleet.
The military manoeuvres they are sent on occur far less frequently than in the past; they used to be yearly, sighs Grudzinsky, and so the Kursk heads out to sea, part of a faked display of strength. The impressiveness of the Kursk and the decrepit nature of much of the rest of the fleet create a situation where the wherewithal to stage a rescue without foreign help simply isn’t there, yet to the Russians it’s essential that the sub’s technological secrets be kept from prying international eyes.
The on-board torpedo explosion, when it happens, leads to a greater one; a Richter-scale boom that alerts the British, who are monitoring the manoeuvres. With most of the crew dead, the survivors gather in a small unflooded part of the ship, hoping for rescue before the air runs out or the sub fills with water.
Every disaster includes sacrifice and this is no exception: “we can’t leave or it’s Chernobyl” radios one of Mikhail’s friends in the torpedo room. And actually although self-sacrifice is a trope of disaster movies, these scenes are some of the best in the movie: gritty, realistic, and genuinely moving. Among the expected (and delivered!) thrills and tension, decisions like this are frighteningly matter of fact, as are their goodbyes.
And it is tense, despite us knowing the outcome (if not how the screenwriters will get us there). It also sometimes feels manipulative, as Mikhail and his colleagues, an engaging group bound together by life at sea, experience twisty highs and lows with life or death consequences.
Those moments are offset by poignancy as the clock ticks: back on land desperate wives and mothers fight Max Von Sydow’s immovable Admiral Petrenko for information, while at sea David Russell works with Admiral Grudzinsky trying to manoeuvre around these blocks to help with a rescue.
Russell is quick to offer support, as do other countries, but it’s support that the Russians refuse to accept for days. Yet despite the links between Russell and Grudzinsky (they’ve known each other a long time) this is less about their relationship than about David and Mikhail, who even though they never meet or speak are similar characters.
As well as looking terrific in Navy-issue knitwear, Firth excels at suppressed worry, and David often looks as if spending his working life having to do everything according to protocol has worn him down. He and Mikhail are stoic and understated, though Mikhail’s comparative youth and situation mean his heroism is the opposite of deskbound.
Both Firth and Schoenaerts exert a natural, quiet authority in their roles, their characters infused with innate trustworthiness and boosted by the military hierarchies that are also creating this disaster.
Léa Seydoux is rather underused as Mikhail’s wife Tanya, though she’s effective when she appears, trying first to find out what is happening, and then desperately hoping she can make the admirals change their minds. Petrenko and his fellow military leaders sit stony-faced in a line in a hall, a crowd of desperate women demanding action.
Sometimes Kursk feels too heavy-handed, as clunking as the great grey subs look out of water, its knowing dialogue a little too on the nose. Mostly though its top notch cast rescues the heaviest of sentences. And sometimes these shoehorned similarities work well, particularly the news of the the Russian submersible rescue craft sold off to ferry millionaires down to see the remains of the Titanic, another giant of the seas brought low by human folly. (I have no idea if the Titanic story is actually true; I hope it is.)
Kursk: The Last Mission is out in UK cinemas and on digital HD from 12 July 2019.
If you like submarine movies, check out my Submarine section here.
Watch the trailer for Kursk: The Last Mission and scroll down for images from the film:
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