There is something about a submarine. It goes beyond what we immediately conjure up when we first hear the word (depth charges, Das Boot, periscopes, sonar blips) into something a good deal more primordial.
Personally, if I really think about it, I shudder. Two things you need to know about me: I'm pretty claustrophobic and have a healthy respect (or clawing fear, depending on whom you ask) of deep water. Submarines, therefore, wouldn't be my first choice of military assignment. Submarine movies, however, have always fascinated me, the way someone with a fear of heights might really enjoy watching Mission Impossible movies -- just for the safe, vicarious thrill of watching people endure what we know in our hearts we could not.
In this, I'm certainly not alone. Meeting director Kevin Macdonald inside the SS Becuna, a decommissioned Balao-class sub first launched during World War II in 1944 and permanently docked on the Delaware as part of Philadelphia's Independence Seaport Museum (most definitely a publicist's inspiration for a meeting spot), it's clear he feels largely the same way.
I meet him, appropriately enough, in the engine room, where enough dials, tubes and old diesel lines still exist to crowd us into a small center area, more or less clear of debris. To get here, I've had to climb down the narrow ladder, through a torture test of tightly constricted hallways -- roughly the size of the air ducts in your standard action flick -- and had to swing myself through various manhole-size door portals. By the time I finally make my way to the meeting spot, Macdonald is already comfortably ensconced in a chair looking, it must be said, quite a bit at home amid the clutter of ancient engine hubs, though he, too, admits to being claustrophobic and scared of the things.
But, as a filmmaker, he's drawn to them for precisely the same reason as the rest of us: "It's just the location," he explains. "It doesn't matter what you do in that location, just being in a submarine is tense. It's suspenseful. It's terrifying. The closest thing is a spaceship. Submarine movies and space movies have a lot in common, actually. They both share the idea that you're living inside a machine, and without the machine, you're going to die because the environment outside is so inhospitable."
His film, Black Sea, out on DVD this week, is somewhat unique in that the film takes place in the present day, not during a war real or imagined. Instead of combat, the ragtag crew, headed by professional sub Capt. Robinson (Jude Law, sporting a fine Scottish brogue), a longtime company man recently laid off and looking for a big score, is seeking a potential gold mine in the form of millions of dollars worth of German gold bricks that went down with a Nazi U-boat somewhere in Russian-patrolled waters off the Georgian coast. The plan is to sneak into the area, find the sunken sub, plunder its stash of gold and sneak out again without anyone on the surface any the wiser. Naturally, there are dozens of obstacles they face along the way, not the least of which, the international mixed crew of Scotsmen and Russians who don't trust each other a toss, and the state of the derelict, ancient Russian sub they've been forced to pilot due to the secret nature of their mission. Screenwriter Dennis Kelly brings in every conceivable sort of obstacle to throw at the hapless Robinson and his increasingly belligerent crew, to the point where the tension mounts in the film like the air pressure in their rickety boat, plunging far deeper than its hull can withstand.
For verisimilitude's sake, Macdonald, the accomplished, Oscar- winning documentarian (for years, he has been alternating between narrative and documentary with each new project) of such well-received fare as Touching the Void and One Day in September, knew he had to actually shoot on a sub itself, not some grandiose set on a high-tech sound stage. He dragged his actors and crew onto a vintage Russian sub and had them learn what it's like to work in a cigar-shaped can that scrapes at the deepest parts of the world for weeks at a time.
And compared to the intensely spare and uncomfortable Russian subs of the era, even the cramped, dingy boat we're sitting in now seems luxurious, Macdonald explains: "This is really comfortable and well-designed. It's more spacious, there's more order to it. But it shares with the Russian subs all these pipes, cables and dials. You're living inside a giant washing machine or something like that, filled with moving parts." Man, it seems to indicate by the design, is more or less inessential.
It certainly doesn't help matters as far as the narrative goes that Robinson is also something of an unreliable hero. His intentions seem perfectly honorable at first -- he insists that every man on board receive an equal share of whatever treasure they can unearth -- but after a while, you realize, he, too, has an agenda, just maybe not the same one as everyone else. It's a tricky move in a film, to create a hero and then slowly plant seeds of doubt in your audience, but it's something Macdonald and screenwriter Kelly planned. "To me," he says, "that's what makes it interesting. That's what I've tried to do in some other of my movies: Have characters who aren't strictly heroic. Robinson is heroic, but he's also deeply, deeply flawed, and we only realize that as we go on. There is a tradition of that in submarine movies, in Run Silent, Run Deep or even Crimson Tide, there are captains, like Ahab, who are obsessive."
In the role of this obsessed, slightly twisted captain, Law is absolutely a marvel. He gained weight and muscle for the role, according to Macdonald, and they decided he needed to speak in a lower voice than his natural tone, to better convey the character's natural authority. But it also helped that Law was actually in prerehearsal for a production of Shakespeare's Henry V, which just so happens to be about an irresponsible boy-prince whom no one takes terribly seriously having to suddenly ascend to the throne and assume authority over his subjects, a transformation eerily similar to Law's progression of his Robinson character. "We realized it's the same journey as to get Jude to work on this role, so that fed into it," Macdonald says, and the end result is startling. For an actor who has made his reputation largely on the strength of his gorgeous leading man roles, it's particularly impressive.
Still, for all its subverting of the genre and novel exploration of unreliable hero figures, it remains a "submarine picture" through and through, not at all a bad thing in my book. According to Macdonald, there's a very tangible reason for the genre being so resilient and, if you will, seaworthy: "With a sub movie," he says, "there's only a certain number of moves you can make on the board. Like any genre, there's pleasure in seeing how those bits are going to be used."
MovieStyle on 05/08/2015
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