Mark Reviews Movies

Black Sea


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Cast: Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Bobby Schofield, David Threlfall, Karl Davies, Konstantin Khabenskiy, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Michael Smiley, Daniel Ryan, Branwell Donaghey, Sergey Puskepalis, Jodie Whittaker 

MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, some graphic images and violence)

Running Time: 1:55

Release Date: 1/23/15 (limited); 1/30/15 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 29, 2015

There must be a navigator to plot the course the submarine will take. There must be men running and checking the engines constantly to make sure the boat will run. There must be someone at the rudder and two men working the dive planes to steer the thing. There must be a man on the passive sonar system, listening for the sound of the engines bouncing off any undersea terrain and back to the sub, while doing immediate calculations in his head to "see" what obstacles may be in the vicinity of the vessel (There's an amusing joke in which the rookie is searching for windows he can clean). The skipper makes certain the orders come and are performed quickly. A miscalculation, a mistimed order, or a missed cue from any of these people could mean disaster.

Black Sea establishes the minutiae of operating a submarine, the degree of reason that every man onboard must maintain to perform his duties, and the necessity for teamwork to ensure that the process runs smoothly and safely. Then it throws a pile of gold bars worth millions upon millions of dollars into the mix. Money does a lot of things to people. Encouraging rational thought and engendering a climate of cooperation are usually not on that list.

There is an assortment of conflicts in the film—between and within individual men, one nationality against another, and, of course, the men battling the nature of the depths and trying to retain control of a machine that seems ready to fail at a moment's notice. The central conflict, though, is between two desires of self-interest: greed and survival.

After he's fired from his job at a marine salvage company, Robinson (Jude Law) learns of a sunken World War II-era U-boat somewhere in the Black Sea. The rumor is that the sub had been carrying gold from the Soviet Union—a loan from Stalin to Hitler in order to prevent the economic collapse of Nazi Germany. The company that let Robinson go knows about the gold but hasn't worked to recover it, due to an international dispute over the waters where the U-boat is.

Robinson decides to put together a crew of a dozen men—half British, half Russian, all hard-pressed for work. They'll take a decrepit Soviet sub, find the U-boat, recover the gold, and return to their homes as millionaires.

We get to know a handful of the crew members. Robinson is bitter about his life, having lost the job to which he lost his family. His wife (Jodie Whittaker) left him for a rich man who wouldn't be away for months at a time. Daniels (Scoot McNairy) is the representative of the mysterious man who's funding the mission, and nobody on the sub trusts him, dubbing him a "banker." Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn) is the world-class diver who'll explore the U-boat for the gold. He's also well-known for being a "psychopath." The rookie is Tobin (Bobby Schofield), a 17-year-old kid who has recently learned that he's going to be a father. The rest of the crew thinks he's bad luck.

We don't get to know the remainder of the characters, but it hardly matters. Director Kevin Macdonald has a smart way here of casting faces in the place of actual, developed characters. We may not know the names of the majority of the crew, but we can differentiate each of them. All of them share a work-worn visage that speaks as definitively about who they are as the salty dialogue that screenwriter Dennis Kelly provides them.

Robinson promises an equal share of the gold to each man. Daniels predicts that decision will cause some distrust, as well as some backstabbing when the men realize their portion increases if there are less men with whom to split the reward (Note how Robinson scowls at Daniels to stop him from talking before finishing the thought; there's a level of intrinsic trust he has in his men and in the belief that their anger against the system that has made their lives miserable will unite them). Indeed, the British sailors think it's unfair, given that the money will be worth more to their Russian counterparts. The distrust builds and builds, and after an act of sudden violence, the objective of the mission changes as the sub becomes trapped on the seafloor.

Pretty much everything one would expect from a movie set on a submarine is here: stranded not once but twice, a sequence of maneuvering through a narrow strait, and the inevitable scene of the sub reaching its crush depth. There's also, though, a tense scene as Fraser and two other crewmen try to navigate a salvaged rotor—along with something else that makes the package much heavier than anticipated—alongside the edge of a deep ravine.

The particulars aren't as important as the way the characters respond to them. Kelly's screenplay continually adjusts the stakes, but the changes are the result of decisions made by the characters. The theoretical promise of gold is one thing, but to hear that it actually exists or to see it with one's own eyes is enough to turn the most rational man on the sub into one who will go against his instincts. The crew's distrust switches targets. Survival on the sub is a matter of cooperation until circumstances demand that it becomes a mad rush of every man for himself. That's a form of greed, too, isn't it?

It's all somewhat predictable, but that seems to be the point. Black Sea is a chamber melodrama of sorts about the tragic predictability of human nature.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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