Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 28, 2019)
Based on a true story, 2019’s The Command offers a tale of naval disaster and survival. Set in August 2000, the Russian sub K-141 Kursk participates in a military exercise in the Barents Sea.
During this event, an explosion occurs on the sub, and this sinks the Kursk. Initially the authorities back in Russia assume all aboard failed to survive this disaster, but they soon learn otherwise.
Above water, families of the sub’s inhabitants struggle with the Russian government in regard to rescue attempts. With lives on the line, this becomes battle against the clock – and against bureaucracy - to save the stranded sailors.
Over to the left of this text, you’ll see a box that reads “Related Reviews”. Logically, this should link to another submarine-based film, or at least one that takes place underwater.
Instead, I opted to feature 1995’s Apollo 13. Whereas it took place in space and not in the sea, it shared so many thematic and structural components with Command that I felt it came across as a cinematic sibling.
A much better-made cinematic sibling, unfortunately, as Command fails to approach the glories of Ron Howard’s classic. While I appreciate aspects of the 2019 film, it seems less compelling than one might anticipate given the literal life or death subject matter.
And this doesn’t occur due to familiarity with the subject matter. If I knew about the Kursk disaster in 2000, I forgot about it, so the events depicted here come to me without foreknowledge of the eventual outcome.
Not that this awareness dooms a movie to failure, of course. I knew that Jim Lovell and pals would wind up safely back on Earth but that made Apollo 13 no less thrilling.
Given the material at hand, Command should muster similar levels of tension and impact, but instead, it comes with a mystifying lack of power. Not that I find myself disinterested in the fate of the sailors, but I just don’t feel as invested as I should.
After a wedding-based opening that seems inspired by 1978’s Deer Hunter, we go to the same three-pronged dramatic approach used in Apollo 13. This means the film cuts among the sub itself, the families of the sailors, and the bureaucrats.
That structure makes sense, and it worked just fine in Apollo 13, but director Thomas Vinterberg doesn’t use it well. With so many mouths to feed, it takes a deft hand to satisfy on all fronts, and Vinterberg fails to do so.
As with Apollo 13, each domain comes with one character onto whom we should direct our attention. On the sub, we focus on sailor Mikhail Averin (Matthias Schoenaerts), and as a corollary, we concentrate on his wife Tanya (Léa Seydoux) as well. British Commodore David Russell (Colin Firth) represents the primary source of information connected to rescue attempts.
That’s three logical prongs of the narrative and three capable actors as well, but Vinterberg just doesn’t meld the threads in a pleasing way. The movie depicts the events in a competent manner but it never digs deep.
As a result, Command feels oddly unmoving. We should really care about the characters and what happens to them, but we don’t.
Again, it’s not that we lack any emotional interest, as we maintain a modest stake in various fates. Unfortunately, this never becomes as significant as it should, so we feel vaguely concerned at most.
Without a substantial bond between viewer and characters, The Command falls somewhat flat. Despite a compelling story at its core, the end result feels oddly unmoving.