The tragedy of the Kursk, where a top-secret Russian submarine ran aground sparking a flawed rescue effort, is a story that in many ways has fallen from public consciousness. Back in 2000 it occupied a small amount of time on cable news, but was soon relegated to history here in North America where tragic events from the next year occupied attention for the next decade.
Back then the rapprochement of former Soviets and NATO members was already been strained, like embers from the then fading Cold War that refused to extinguish. Given recent conflicts, be the rhetorical or through cyber and electoral warfare, the time is ripe for a re-examination of this period when the hopes of a flourishing partnership were scuttled by intransigence and a clinging to the ways of the past.
Thomas Vinterberg, a director most known for his deep and probing character dramas, manages to make a very human story from the wreckage of the event. We meet the various sailors as they struggle to make ends meet to fund a wedding, selling off maritime equipment when their salaries go unpaid. It was a period of great economic turmoil in Russia, a result of massive corruption, flawed policies and Western indifference. Yet for these submariners the pride of their work, and the fraternal comradery, ties them directly to the great military history of their nation.
The film portrays an arrogance of leadership but a deep humanity for the sailors, a fairly overt indictment of the ills that continue to plague Russian society. Be they captains refusing to heed warnings, or commodores refusing the help of outside parties, the result is the loss of the best due to the indifference of those in charge.
Vinterberg assembles a fine cast led by Matthias Schoenaerts, Colin Firth and Lea Seydoux, with a highly welcome appearance by near nonagenarian Max von Sydow. The events of the sub occupy relatively little screen time, as it’s mostly a film exploring interpersonal relations, be they during times of crisis or simply fighting a system intent on maintaining composure.
For those unaware of what transpired the ending may come as a shock, but the fundamental questions about pride preventing cooperation resonate regardless. The loss of the Kursk is not merely a military loss, it’s indicative of the challenges of overcoming geopolitical prejudices, of truly finding common humanity in order to find shared empathy, all while respecting and even elevating the pride of those in need of assistance. It’s these complex elements that elevate the film beyond a mere showcase for a thrilling drama.
Unfortunately, the film never quite stays afloat, trying hard to do justice to the history while still crafting something that’s audience accessible. From a production point of view it’s fantastic – the sub itself is a marvel of tubes, switches and compartments, and even the decaying apartments of the seaside town serve as perfect visual metaphors for soaring achievements that are now doomed to collapse. And while the performances are all in keeping with the tone of the film, it does devolve often into overwrought speechifying, grossly simplifying the complex web of bureaucratic nonsense that truly drove the incompetence of the rescue effort.
It will be fascinating to see how the film is seen in Russia, if at all. This really was their story to tell, and Vinterberg does his utmost to pay respects. Still, it’s not clear that Russia is now or ever able to come to terms with that period where the once mighty Russian navy were made to look fools on many fronts.
As a conversation starter, a character study and a record of the events Kursk does a decent job of reminding the world of the men lost that day. It may not be the definitive statement on the matter, but it’s better than being forgotten as we again march to an environment where distrust is the currency for exchange between the West and their former Cold War foes.