Under Water, by David Bax
Kevin Macdonald’s Black Sea kicks off with a montage detailing Germany’s World War II U-boats, the Cold War tensions between Britain and Russia that followed, and one or two other things leading up the present day and culminating in the movie’s first real scene, in which our protagonist, known only as Robinson (Jude Law), loses his job. This prologue tactic is nothing new but it’s indicative of Macdonald’s focus-and ultimate weakness-as a director. His preoccupation with literal and straightforward presentations of information have made him a great documentarian (Touching the Void) but a middling dramatist (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play). Macdonald is more of a journalist than a filmmaker.
Robinson’s job, before he lost it, was submarine captain for a private salvage company. Having also recently lost his marriage and custody of his child, he finds himself down the pub with a couple other newly unemployed submariners. One of them blurts out a secret. There’s a U-boat at the bottom of the Black Sea carrying tons of Nazi gold. A secretive organization wants to retrieve it. They will fund the expedition in return for a sizable chunk of the profits. The rest will be divided up among Robinson’s hand-picked crew of Brits and Russians.
They make use of a rickety, old sub. Scoot McNairy (he’s the Paul Reiser from Aliens of the expedition) declares, “This wreck’s gonna sink!” “Useless sub if she doesn’t,” replies one of the craggy seamen. Right away, Macdonald gets to work dutifully laying out the conflicts to come. A lack of escape suits, a broken radio, the notion that the equal shares of the booty get larger the more the crew is depleted. It’s easy to see Macdonald and screenwriter Dennis Kelly setting up all the things they’ll later knock down.
Programmatic as Black Sea is, Macdonald does find room to stretch out when it comes to tone. Submarine movies lend themselves naturally to sustained tension but, in one of the film’s best sequences, when a few unlucky souls put on diving suits and walk across the seabed, things take a welcome turn nearly into pure horror.
Less welcome is Robinson’s third act transformation into a reckless obsessive. Thematically, it makes sense for this working class casualty to become fixated on besting the “bankers” and those who “get us to make them fucking rich.” But, from a character viewpoint, it comes out of nowhere. That’s Macdonald, though, making a point instead of telling a story.