Black Sea - a review

American Sniper and The Hurt Locker aside, it’s relatively rare for a film today to exude l’air de macho accomplished.  John Wayne bought the farm a while back.  Van Damme and company are on hiatus.  Liam is being re-Taken and re-re-Taken.

But Black Sea comes close to being a tough-minded, suspense-driven masculine welcome basket to moviegoers hungry for actors, not CG effects.  For tough-minded scripting, without PC rubbish leavening the text for the delicate microaggression-oriented.

Black Sea is that movie.  Directed by Kevin Macdonald, the story starts with the dismissal of Robinson, a vet submarine captain, played by a terrific, corpus-hardened Jude Law, who walks with the bowlegs and slight caveman predisposition of a long-time swabbie.  Sailors on land look always slightly untrusting of the ground beneath them, and they manifest a wide stance in case the terra becomes not-so-firma under them.  He’s being excessed by a maritime salvage company that is dry-eyed about its seamen, and not given to watches and lifted-pinky farewell parties.

Some 70 years ago, a German U-boat laden with $40 million or so in gold was lost somewhere in the Black Sea.  Recovering it is a scheme Law and his close mates come up with to generate money after they’ve been cashiered without much of an envelope.  Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

Outfitting the old sub they are given by a go-between, Daniels (Scoot McNairy), to accomplish the recovery of the gold bars means hiring a roughneck crew: half Russians, half Brits.  Much of the dialogue is in untranslated Russian, but when there are subtitles from the swarthy, often taciturn Russkies, they are mouthing wisecracking or typically no-bull grit the audience laughs with, though the British naveys have no idea about.  The movie might well gain if they were to subtitle the British dialogues, since they are fast, guttural, and often below the obvious comprehensible threshold.

The opening credits feature a montage of Stalin, WWII at sea with Germans and Russians in grainy perspective, and on land, with a wash of blood drenching the screens top to bottom.  These B/W and aged-brown photos and footage set the scene for the coming hours of risky scrimmage against Russian fleets; inter-ethnic, internecine pile-ons; and ever-present perils of being leagues deep in a Sargasso of oceanic dangers and unpredictable fails.  And a stunning betrayal even the savviest could not swallow.

Robinson/Law runs the Russian diesel sub, grizzled and believable.  There is a young guy, 18, Tobin (Bobby Schofield), who’s a last-minute hire, aboard for lack of one of the experienced submariners, and he grows with the part, learning the baffling wheels and pressure gauges mostly from the Russian orders, grunts, and directional hand-language – as well as from the fatherly interest taken by Law in him.  It is a humanizing affection that – each time it is exhibited in the midst of crises of increasing severity – makes you aware of the subtlety of Law’s work.  Often, such men have scant room for affectionate care of anyone, let alone newbies they are stuck with in battle conditions.

The Russians, superstitious and tough, call the young man dragooned into being their twelfth, derisively, The Virgin.  Men of the sea don’t think it propitious to travel with a virgin.  (In our experience a’main, sailors and such high-risk adventurers do not take kindly to women traveling with them in any capacity, either – even disguised as so-so effeminate men, with breasts squooshed.)  We see Robinson’s gauzy flashbacks to his once-happy family, gone consequent to his career choice.

In such circumstances, there is usually a split unequal in the divisions of the eventual haul, should they manage to find the sunken sub and extract the gold.  But Law’s skipper knows the men are all working equally hard, all under equal risk, and he rules that the gold is to be divided equally among all the men, leading to no small squalls of rage, envy, grumbling, and dissatisfaction.

The cinematography is fine, managing to convey the claustrophobia and ancientness of the craft, but capturing the man-to-man interactions in life and death encounters.  Viewers are gripped with each hair-trigger decision and crisis.

The story, taut as it is, is something of a relief, coming at a time of Angelina Jolie’s harrowing but true Unbroken, Hawking’s crippled presence in The Theory of Everything, and Turing’s cerebral, aristocratic Imitation Game.  It’s about the recovery of millions of dollars’ worth of undiscovered gold, not existential catastrophe and civilizational doom.

It’s a man’s movie, a relieving movie, like a trou Normand – it clears the too-brutal menu of realia from the average filmgoer’s palate.  It is a tense, manly engagement, revealing how men on their uppers handle cooperation, fear, competition for top dog, and...prime in such cases, greed.

American Sniper and The Hurt Locker aside, it’s relatively rare for a film today to exude l’air de macho accomplished.  John Wayne bought the farm a while back.  Van Damme and company are on hiatus.  Liam is being re-Taken and re-re-Taken.

But Black Sea comes close to being a tough-minded, suspense-driven masculine welcome basket to moviegoers hungry for actors, not CG effects.  For tough-minded scripting, without PC rubbish leavening the text for the delicate microaggression-oriented.

Black Sea is that movie.  Directed by Kevin Macdonald, the story starts with the dismissal of Robinson, a vet submarine captain, played by a terrific, corpus-hardened Jude Law, who walks with the bowlegs and slight caveman predisposition of a long-time swabbie.  Sailors on land look always slightly untrusting of the ground beneath them, and they manifest a wide stance in case the terra becomes not-so-firma under them.  He’s being excessed by a maritime salvage company that is dry-eyed about its seamen, and not given to watches and lifted-pinky farewell parties.

Some 70 years ago, a German U-boat laden with $40 million or so in gold was lost somewhere in the Black Sea.  Recovering it is a scheme Law and his close mates come up with to generate money after they’ve been cashiered without much of an envelope.  Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

Outfitting the old sub they are given by a go-between, Daniels (Scoot McNairy), to accomplish the recovery of the gold bars means hiring a roughneck crew: half Russians, half Brits.  Much of the dialogue is in untranslated Russian, but when there are subtitles from the swarthy, often taciturn Russkies, they are mouthing wisecracking or typically no-bull grit the audience laughs with, though the British naveys have no idea about.  The movie might well gain if they were to subtitle the British dialogues, since they are fast, guttural, and often below the obvious comprehensible threshold.

The opening credits feature a montage of Stalin, WWII at sea with Germans and Russians in grainy perspective, and on land, with a wash of blood drenching the screens top to bottom.  These B/W and aged-brown photos and footage set the scene for the coming hours of risky scrimmage against Russian fleets; inter-ethnic, internecine pile-ons; and ever-present perils of being leagues deep in a Sargasso of oceanic dangers and unpredictable fails.  And a stunning betrayal even the savviest could not swallow.

Robinson/Law runs the Russian diesel sub, grizzled and believable.  There is a young guy, 18, Tobin (Bobby Schofield), who’s a last-minute hire, aboard for lack of one of the experienced submariners, and he grows with the part, learning the baffling wheels and pressure gauges mostly from the Russian orders, grunts, and directional hand-language – as well as from the fatherly interest taken by Law in him.  It is a humanizing affection that – each time it is exhibited in the midst of crises of increasing severity – makes you aware of the subtlety of Law’s work.  Often, such men have scant room for affectionate care of anyone, let alone newbies they are stuck with in battle conditions.

The Russians, superstitious and tough, call the young man dragooned into being their twelfth, derisively, The Virgin.  Men of the sea don’t think it propitious to travel with a virgin.  (In our experience a’main, sailors and such high-risk adventurers do not take kindly to women traveling with them in any capacity, either – even disguised as so-so effeminate men, with breasts squooshed.)  We see Robinson’s gauzy flashbacks to his once-happy family, gone consequent to his career choice.

In such circumstances, there is usually a split unequal in the divisions of the eventual haul, should they manage to find the sunken sub and extract the gold.  But Law’s skipper knows the men are all working equally hard, all under equal risk, and he rules that the gold is to be divided equally among all the men, leading to no small squalls of rage, envy, grumbling, and dissatisfaction.

The cinematography is fine, managing to convey the claustrophobia and ancientness of the craft, but capturing the man-to-man interactions in life and death encounters.  Viewers are gripped with each hair-trigger decision and crisis.

The story, taut as it is, is something of a relief, coming at a time of Angelina Jolie’s harrowing but true Unbroken, Hawking’s crippled presence in The Theory of Everything, and Turing’s cerebral, aristocratic Imitation Game.  It’s about the recovery of millions of dollars’ worth of undiscovered gold, not existential catastrophe and civilizational doom.

It’s a man’s movie, a relieving movie, like a trou Normand – it clears the too-brutal menu of realia from the average filmgoer’s palate.  It is a tense, manly engagement, revealing how men on their uppers handle cooperation, fear, competition for top dog, and...prime in such cases, greed.