The Kursk submarine disaster took place on 12th August 2000, with all 118 personnel on board dying as a result. Thomas Vinterberg’s film Kursk: The Last Mission (or The Command for US audiences) explores what happened on that fateful day.
This film is a slow burner, taking the time to introduce the audience to those due to board Kursk, alongside their families. One of them is Mikhail (Matthias Schoenarts), a submarine captain who is a father to a young son and married to heavily pregnant wife Tanya (Léa Seydoux). These two are major players for the events that take place in the film.
Unfortunately for Mikhail and his fellow sailors, money is tight and everyone does their best to scrape funds together. To best highlight this, it is revealed that they all sold their watches to pay for the champagne at the wedding of fellow sailor Pavel (Matthias Schweighöfer) and Daria (Katrine Greis-Rosenthal), a gesture which confirms the genuine bond between the men.
Their wedding is perhaps the last happy moment experienced by the characters, as things rapidly start to go downhill. As the crew descend into the ocean onboard the Kursk, there is a massive torpedo explosion which causes catastrophic damage and flooding in the submarine. The second explosion was so large that it measured on the Richter scale, alerting the British navy in the process.
After this moment, the film then cuts between those on board the Kursk, and the women and children desperately trying to find out what is being done in order to save the men. The short answer is ‘not much’, as the government and senior navy personnel are repeatedly criticised for their apparent nonchalance.
There is a truly compelling dynamic between British Commodore David Russell (Colin Firth) and Russian Admiral Vyacheslav Grudzinsky (Peter Simonischek), as they try to figure out what is to be done about this disaster.
Russell tells Grudzinsky that “time is of the essence”, but he does not listen. Those of you who were frustrated by the higher powers in HBO’s Chernobyl should expect to feel equally as frustrated in this situation too.
Despite knowing how it ends, the film still leaves you with a pitiful glimmer of hope that things might be okay. The use of close-ups to make things feel more claustrophobic is a brilliant touch, as we follow the sailor’s attempts to survive and keep each other safe. As audience members, we desperately want that to be the case.
Even back on the surface things begin to feel claustrophobic, with a press conference scene seeing Tanya and other navy wives crowd into a room and start challenging the senior personnel, in an environment that is both tense and unhelpful. They want answers, but they don’t come.
Although it’s formulaic and those well-versed in disaster films have probably seen this all before, Vinterberg uses this familiar narrative to educate those on just how tragic the Kursk submarine disaster was, and that we shouldn’t ever forget about it.
These sailors didn’t get to have an emotional happy ending where they emerge from the water and hug their loved ones with tears in their eyes. Kursk became their underwater coffin instead.
Set against a soundtrack by the always brilliant Alexandre Desplat, this film is bleak, melancholy, and a painful reminder of what can happen if we don’t act quick enough in an emergency.
An end title card reveals that ‘the men of the Kursk left behind 71 children’, revealing a devastating truth about those who were orphaned by the disaster. The film taught me a lot about the disaster, and I really do feel that it’s an important watch.
Directed by: Thomas Vinterberg
Cast: Colin Firth, Matthias Schoenarts, Peter Simonischek, Léa Seydoux
Kursk: The Last Mission is out on Digital HD 9th September and DVD + Blu-ray from 16th September courtesy of Signature Entertainment
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