Despite popular belief, Russian movies that are sharply critical of the status quo are still being commissioned, sometimes with Ministry of Culture support. For example, the ministry-supported Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Oscar-nominated ‘Leviathan’, a dark drama that exposed everyday corruption in a small Russian seaside town.
Then again, the Ministry appeared to later regret the decision, and soon afterward complained about certain films “defiling” the national culture. ‘Leviathan’ was heavily criticised by the authorities - but it was made and released. Russia later banned Armando Iannucci’s satire ‘The Death of Stalin’ (due to frosty relations with the UK) and has recently used its media arm to launch a “mini-crusade” against the HBO series ‘Chernobyl’, which chronicled the ways in which Soviet leadership valued its own image above its citizens. Nationalistic epics are still doing quite well with local audiences, though.
So, it isn’t too surprising that ‘Kursk’, based on a real-life tragedy that depicts the Soviet military bureaucracy in an unfavourable light, is an English-language French-Belgian production, rather than a Russian one.
Back in the ‘90s, as the co-creator of the Dogme 95 manifesto with Lars Von Trier, Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg (‘The Hunt’) created films about uncovering truths and writing wrongs. His seminal work ‘Festen’ remains a groundbreaking piece of cinema and he has been slowly commercialising himself with movies like the Carey Mulligan costume-drama ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’, an adaption of the 1874 Thomas Hardy novel. Seemingly a combination of both Vinterberg’s interest in hidden truths and his mainstream leanings, ‘Kursk’ is an adaptation of Robert Moore's book 'A Time to Die', one of the more controversial accounts of the 2000 Kursk submarine disaster.
In the accepted version of events, a leaky torpedo exploded aboard the K-141 Kursk, a Russian flagship nuclear-powered submarine, as the crew were preparing to test-fire it. It crippled the vessel and sent it to the bottom of the Barents Sea; the detonation then caused a second, much larger explosion that measured 4.2 on the Richter scale and was detected as far away as Alaska. This second blast killed all but around 20 seamen, who survived in a small section of wreckage, but only for a few more hours.
Moore’s book, upon which Robert Rodat’s screenplay is based, goes further. It claims that these men actually survived underwater for a number of days, and signalled repeatedly to rescuers by tapping on the outer hull during that time. The cinematic appeal of this version of the story is obvious, as it lends the political dogfights and aborted rescue attempts unfolding above the surface a race-against-the-clock sense of urgency. This is aided by a terrific cast, including Matthias Schoenaerts (‘Far From The Madding Crowd’) as the heroic captain-lieutenant Mikhail Averin, Léa Seydoux (‘Isle of Dogs’, ‘Spectre’) as Averin's worried wife and Colin Firth (‘Mary Poppins Returns’) as David Russell, the Royal Navy officer who led the UK efforts to rescue survivors.
'Kursk' isn’t a traditional “submarine movie”, per se. If you are expecting a claustrophobic action/thriller like ‘Das Boot’, ‘Hunt for Red October’, ‘Crimson Tide’, ‘U-571’ or ‘K-19: The Widowmaker’, you will be disappointed. Moments of suspense are abound (Antony Dodd Mantle’s suffocating cinematography effectively ratchets up the tension) but not abundant – cutting between four different points of view creates too much of a distance between the action and the viewer. The majority of the characters are thinly sketched (particularly the UK and Russian rescue squads on the surface), although there is a wedding scene reminiscent of Michael Cimino’s ‘The Deer Hunter’ that bonds the men on the submarine. Schoenaerts also does typically great work as the working-class hero who rallies his men to try and solve a nearly impossible puzzle.
'Kursk' isn’t a traditional “submarine movie”, per se. If you are expecting a claustrophic action/thriller like ‘Das Boot’, ‘Hunt for Red October’, ‘Crimson Tide’, ‘U-571’ or ‘K-19: The Widowmaker’, you will be disappointed.
The real grist of the story lies in the fact that the Russian Navy stalled after the initial explosion for an inexcusably long time, then lied repeatedly to families of the survivors - and the public in general - about what caused the explosion, the progress of their rescue efforts, and the fate of those on board. Russian rescue equipment was either obsolete, poorly maintained or simply didn’t exist, following over a decade of military cutbacks, and they were too proud and paranoid to ask for help.
The themes of bureaucratic interference (handled with a simpler elegance in Wolfgang Fischer’s recent ‘Styx’) and media manipulation are more relevant than ever today, and it’s the heartbreaking tragedy of what occurred beneath the waves that resonates here, as well as the infuriating behaviour of those who refused to help, embodied by Max von Sydow (‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’) as the grimacing Admiral Vladimir Petrenko. Aside from a few manipulative embellishments (according to 'A Time to Die', there was no final memorial service attended by both the Russian Navy and the British rescue team), the film mostly manages to strike a balance between humanising the doomed seamen and depicting the prideful bungling by the high command.
Presumably, lessons were learned in the aftermath of the disaster. But the fact that the filming of ‘Kursk’ was delayed after the Russian Ministry of Defence failed to provide a permit on time, with suggestions that they grew concerned over giving the crew access to classified locations and information, does make you wonder.