Film Review: ‘The Command’

A sobering account of a real-life tragedy in Russia's post-Soviet history
June 27, 2019 Updated: June 27, 2019

PG-13 | 1h 57min | Action, Drama, History | 21 June 2019 (USA)

Russia. Year 2000. It’s summer, but you wouldn’t know it from the dreary northern landscape that greets us as the new disaster film “The Command” opens up. Although outside it may be frigid, the houses in a small, Russian naval town on the coast of the Barents Sea are warm.

The docked submarine Kursk, in “The Command.” (Belga Productions)

One such home belongs to submariner Mikhail Averin (Matthias Schoenaerts, “The Mustang”) and his pregnant wife, Tanya (Léa Seydoux, “Zoe”). We witness scenes of familial love as the two lovebirds chase their young son around the house, and Mikhail shows the boy how to hold his breath underwater for long periods of time.

The year 2000 also marks nearly a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when economic woes had engulfed Mother Russia. It’s against this backdrop that we are introduced to the other members of the Kursk’s crew.

Funds are so tight that the navy isn’t able to pay the men their proper wages. As a result, Mikhail has to pawn his special mariner’s watch in order to be able to afford enough champagne and vodka for his best friend’s wedding. The wedding itself functions as an excellent plot device to show the strong sense of brotherhood among the men.

a wedding toast
Matthias Schoenaerts as Captain Mikhail Averin and Léa Seydoux as his wife, enjoying the wedding of the captain’s best friend, in “The Command.” (Belga Productions)

The following morning, the crew sets out into the icy waters of the Barents. A couple of the crew members are in the torpedo bay, tending to some of the munitions, when one of them detects some unusual heat signatures. A hydrogen leak is emanating from one of the torpedoes.

Captain Averin relays this information to his superiors, but it’s too late. Not only does the first torpedo explode, but also the entire torpedo bay becomes engulfed in flames, which detonates the rest of the Kursk’s payload, instantly killing most of the crew.

captain averin in Kurst
Matthias Schoenaerts as Captain Mikhail Averin (R), in “The Command.” (Belga Productions)

The vessel sinks in relatively shallow waters (around 350 feet), and as the front of the nuclear-powered submarine hits the sea floor, the remaining crew scramble toward the raised, still-dry aft compartments. They successfully seal this last safe zone off, but for how long? The water levels are rising and the pumps aren’t working properly. Not only that, but their precious air supply is running thin as well.

The Rescue Efforts

Back at headquarters, the crew’s superiors detect rather quickly the anomalous sonic dispersions caused by the explosions and immediately dispatch a full rescue detachment. However, it takes over 16 hours to locate the Kursk.

What’s more, when their rescue submersible attempts to latch onto the submarine’s top hatch, its dilapidated equipment is unsuited for the critical task at hand.

The British are quick to offer their own naval aid to the Russian naval brass. After lots of balking on the Russians’ part, the Brit team eventually receives a reluctant go-ahead and is finally allowed onto the site of the unfolding disaster. Colin Firth plays British Commodore David Russell, who heads the Brits’ rescue effort.

Kurst-Command, colin firth as british naval officier
Colin Firth as Commodore David Russell in “The Command.” (Belga Productions)

The Russians’ main concern seems to be not wanting the Kursk—one of the most advanced nuclear submarines in the world—to fall into foreign hands. But that’s just part of the picture.

During that period of time, the Russians had been feeling rather crestfallen as a nation. To these proud people, the fall of the USSR represented a kind of fall from the world’s stage. One of the last vestiges of projecting power, at least to the outside world, was the Russians’ facade of maintaining a peerless military. As a result, pride sometimes outstripped common sense, and in many cases, proper safety measures.

The Kursk itself had not come into the world easily. It had been built during the collapse of the USSR. Its construction was finally completed in 1994, and it was launched to little fanfare. Nevertheless, the Kursk represented the apex of Russian technology. It was able to remain submerged for up to 120 days at a time and could break through Arctic ice if need be. It was an absolute beast. Meanwhile, many of the older Russian navy ships and submarines were sold off as scrap metal or repurposed for civilian duties.

Film Keeps You Glued to the Screen (and Spoiler Alert)

The film’s acting is pretty decent across the board, particularly Schoenaerts’s as the Kursk’s beleaguered captain. But Colin Firth turns in an exceptional performance as the intrepid British commodore who becomes increasingly frustrated by the Russian navy’s balking brass. He captures the film’s moments of glee and hopefulness when the Kursk’s crew members are heard by rescue crews, banging on the interior of the sub’s hull. He also broods in abject frustration and deep despair when it eventually becomes clear that the crew is doomed.

pleading for Kurst victims
Tanya Averin (Léa Seydoux) pleads for the life of her husband and those trapped aboard the Kursk. (Belga Productions)

Ultimately, “The Command” is a tense film that is hard to watch in places. However, Thomas Vinterberg’s skills as a director must be commended in keeping eyes glued to screen.

A special nod should also go to Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “127 Hours”) whose cogent shots manage to capture the dreary, claustrophobic conditions in the Kursk perfectly.

A True Story

The real tragedy lies in actual history itself. Only 27 at the time, Lt. Capt. Dmitry Kolesnikov, the real-life commander of the Kursk, apparently foresaw his own death. According to The New York Times report on the event:

“And the captain’s widow, Olga Kolesnikova, her face covered with tears, said her husband had a premonition of death before leaving on the Kursk’s last voyage and left his dog tags, a crucifix, and a poem as a remembrance.

“The couple had married only this year.

”’And when the time comes to die,’ he wrote in the poem, ‘though I chase such thoughts away, I want time to whisper one thing: My darling, I love you.”’

‘The Command’ (originally titled ‘Kursk’)
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Starring: Matthias Schoenaerts, Colin Firth, Léa Seydoux
Rated: PG-13
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Release Date: June 21
Rated: 3.5 stars out of 5

Ian Kane is a filmmaker and author based out of Los Angeles. To see more, visit DreamFlightEnt.com or contact him at Twitter.com/ImIanKane

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