Submarine films are always tense experiences, whether they consist of the black & white war films that I watched as a kid, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or the claustrophobic U-boat epic Das Boot. Tension, anxiety and claustrophobia are intrinsic to the cinematic world of submarines, whose components are broadly similar almost to the point of cliché. Go to a film with submarines in it and you can expect to find a great deal of sweaty masculinity and few if any women. Expect close up visuals of unshaven men in stained vests in tiny rooms biting their lips and peering nervously upwards; captains in rollneck jumpers peering through periscopes.
You can almost guarantee that there will gushing water, burst pumps and valves; accidents and explosions from depth charges or collisions; metallic bangs and men being tossed about and drowned or nearly drowned; lots of silent watery shots of submarines cruising through inky depths to the sound of sonar bleeps. You know that sooner or later the oxygen will run out or nearly run out unless the crew performs some impossible technical feat that is mostly incomprehensible to landlubber audiences. You understand that at some point engines will fail or get seriously damaged; that the submarine in question will go too deep or too shallow; that there is likely to be a race against time.
You know before you enter the cinema that things will go wrong, because no cinematic submarine ever leaves its port without things going wrong. These expectations aren’t necessarily a a problem, because submarine flics are a genre like gangster films, and fulfilled expectations are the whole point.
That said, it’s not a genre that you easily breathe new life into, so hats off to Kevin MacDonald for his nail-biting and utterly compelling account of yet another underwater venture gone badly wrong in Black Sea. The film tells the story of an ill-starred attempt by a laid-off Aberdonian submarine Captain, played by Jude Law, to recover a U-boat filled with Nazi gold from the bottom of the Black Sea.
Summarily dumped onto the dole queue by his company after years of service, Captain Robinson thinks he sees a way out of an impoverished dead end life when a mate tells him about the sub. After getting funding from a dodgy venture capitalist, he assembles a British and Russian crew of 21st century desperadoes. Most of them are blue collar divers and submariners who are similarly down on their luck, but they also include a seedy little banker who accompanies the mission on behalf of its financier and a homeless Scots teenager.
Robinson and his crew set off for the Crimea, where they get old of a rusty mothballed former Soviet sub in Sevastopol, and then they’re off. To say it doesn’t go well doesn’t even begin to describe it. All the standard ingredients of the submarine flic are present, together with some additional sources of tension in the shape of a psychotic diver, lethal rivalries between the Russian and non-Russian crew, and corporate treachery and malfeasance which I better not say anything more about without revealing more than IU should.
MacDonald orchestrates the underwater tension brilliantly, but Black Sea isn’t just a thriller. It’s also a strikingly angry film with a strong political message. Most submarine films are about men in extreme situations, but Captain Robinson and his crew are already way out on the edge even before they go underwater. All of them are skilled blue collar workers who have been thrown on the scrapheap and are facing an old age of poverty, unemployment and debt. Most of them have been shafted or exploited by their employers and recognize the essential truth spoken by one of them that ‘ you’re dogshit in this world if you don’t have money’.
They are desperate and bitter, particularly Captain Robinson, who is played with real passion and conviction by Law in the best performance I have ever seen from him. Robinson rails at corporate greed and the arrogance of bankers, and the presence of the corrupt banker Fraser on the sub provides him with ample opportunity.
You don’t normally expect social comment from the bottom of the sea, but there is a great deal of political invective in Black Sea against corporations, power, powerlessness and global inequality. In this sense MacDonald’s film recalls another much less-known cinematic genre, which for want of a better title we might call the blue collar-vengeance-against-the system flic.
I’m thinking of films like Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar, Clouzot’s magisterial Wages of Fear, Treasure of the Sierra Madre or some of Raul Walsh’s movies, and also of the worlds that the great proletarian novelist B. Traven depicted in novels like Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Death Ship. MacDonald apparently got his scriptwriter Dennis Kelly to watch Wages of Fear and Treasure of the Sierra Madre while writing the script.
Kelly has done his homework well, because Black Sea can take its proud place within this tradition. He and his director have come up with a movie that is dark and angry, gritty and tense as hell, and which is simultaneously a powerful statement about the world we have created.