For many of us of an impressionable age and frame of mind in the year 2000, the Kursk submarine disaster occupies a uniquely chilling part of the imagination. Even far removed and only getting updates via news reports, the real-time experience of the excruciating 7-day delay between the explosions that sent the Russian nuclear submarine to the bottom of the Barents Sea and the rescue mission divers finally opening its hatch, caught international attention in the same way imperiled space missions used to, or, a decade later, a Chilean mine collapse would.
This is both a blessing and a burden for Thomas Vinterberg’s expensive, glossy recreation of the disaster and its immediate aftermath, “Kursk.” On the one hand, it’s a story everyone knows, and on the other hand, it’s a story everyone knows. How to make it feel new and exciting while being respectful of the real lives lost and how to relate the failures and vanities of the Russian rescue efforts to the geopolitical landscape of the day (let alone of today) are fraught questions with which the lavishly mounted, intermittently effective but mostly underwhelming film largely fails to grapple.
Scuppered perhaps from the outset by a true-story narrative that, no matter how you spin it, has little possibility of uplift (there can be no Kate-Winslet-floating-to-safety-on-a-door embellishment here), “Saving Private Ryan” writer Robert Rodat’s screenplay is itself an adaptation of Robert Moore’s nonfiction book about the disaster called (spoiler alert) “A Time to Die.” And Vinterberg stacks his cast with a pan-European panoply of talent, all speaking English as the increasingly archaic convention for this sort of thing mandates. It is understandable, of course, the desire to have Matthias Schoenaerts, Léa Seydoux, Peter Simonischek (“Toni Erdmann”), August Diehl, and Max Von Sydow in key roles rather than less-recognizable Russian actors, but it does contribute to the film’s glossy remove from the raw reality of the disaster, and makes clear that while “Kursk” might be about Russia, it is not for Russia.
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Instead “Kursk” is firmly aimed at U.S. and international audiences who, the slightly condescending assumption seems to be, only have a hazy idea of the inherent weirdness of watching Belgian, French, Austrian, German, and Swedish actors all field Russian-accented English. And this is all under the stewardship of a Danish director who co-founded the radically austere Dogme 95 movement and delivered one of its foundational texts with “The Celebration” before moving away from it with “The Hunt” and “Far from the Madding Crowd” and here contentedly and competently embracing the anonymity of Dogme’s ideological opposite: the big-budget prestige pic.
Indeed, rather than refer to anything in his own back catalog, Vinterberg steers “Kursk” into the grand waters of the classic Hollywood war drama, with an opening that seems explicitly to reference Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter.” The relationships between the crew of the nuclear submarine are established above ground, at the raucous and joyful wedding of Pavel (Matthias Schweighöfer) which was partially funded by crewmates pawning their watches. Pavel’s friend Mikhail (Schoenaerts, apparently becoming a byword for bulked-up, hunky, taciturn masculinity) makes a toast, with his pregnant wife Tanya (Seydoux) and young son by his side. He is a loving father and husband, popular with the men and doggedly loyal to his shipmates: “Kursk” insists on the unalloyed heroism and goodness of all its soon-to-be victims.
Engaged in a fleet exercise soon after, something goes wrong aboard the “unsinkable” Kursk — a nuclear sub that is the pride of the Russian navy and contains top-secret intel and tech that the powers-that-be value far above the lives of the men. Despite Pavel’s last-minute warning, an explosion occurs that later triggers several others, killing the vast majority of the crew more or less instantly. The 23 survivors gather in the last remaining compartments and try to stay alive long enough for rescue to arrive, battling freezing temperatures, flooding waters, dwindling oxygen, and despair.
Back on the surface, the Russian admiral in charge of the rescue operation (Simonischek) becomes frustrated at his superiors’ insistence that he use the subpar Russian salvage vehicle (“We’re trying to do the impossible with the inadequate,” he says) and is inclined to accept the offer of better-equipped help that comes in quickly from his British opposite number (Colin Firth, looking to the manner born in British Navy whites). And the wives and families of the seamen become increasingly desperate for information, yet are consistently, infuriatingly stonewalled by authorities loath to lose face or admit to the shortcomings of the Russian rescue effort.
Anthony Dod Mantle’s elegant cinematography is particularly clever in the counterintuitive use of widescreen within the confines of the submarine, but a boxier aspect ratio at home on land, and Alexandre Desplat’s typically excellent, tastefully Russian-accented score does serve to power us through some of the less engaging moments, while giving the more obviously dramatic sequences an underscoring of melodic melancholy. And some of the dramatic license taken with real events is justified: The characters are mostly amalgams of real people which makes their tragic fates easier to shorthand. And Vinterberg’s cross-cutting between the moment-to-moment battles for survival of the trapped men (which give rise in particular to one bravura underwater “mission” sequence reminiscent of “The Poseidon Adventure” for sheer thrills) and the enforced inactivity of the English and Norwegian rescue team nearby, as though they were happening much closer together than the real reconstructed timeline suggests, serves to emphasize the inhumanity of the Russian pettifogging, and to invest the somewhat uninvolving surface action with a little ticking-clock dynamism.
But other choices smack of compromise, in particular the decision to include some generally critical political context but to excise Vladimir Putin from the story, although the Kursk crisis was the first big challenge of his newly established presidency, and although the press conference, at which the mother of one of the submariners was indeed forcibly injected with a sedative as is depicted in the film, was actually given by him. And so Vinterberg’s “Kursk” occasionally lands an emotive blow but only in its more fictionalized stretches, while it pulls its punches with the thorniest and most provocative elements of the real story, an instinct that unduly submerges much of the real horror and lasting consequence of this tragically, enragingly, heartbreakingly bungled incident.