‘Vigil’ launched the Cold War underwater thriller into the 21st century
In many ways, Vigil is a fairly standard TV. Take on a tough cop with unresolved trauma and a tumultuous family life; Plunged her into a dangerous situation while investigating a suspicious death. Launch a group of prominent actors, shoot them all through a blue filter. Collect a bunch of BAFTAs and Emmys the following reward season.
But what is it that fixes Vigil Except Real detective, Collateral, The slaughter, Easttown mare, Bodyguard, and so on, is its setting: a nuclear submarine.
Vigil Designer Tom Edge must feel like the man who invented the wheel, because this innovation is as revolutionary as it is obvious. Do you know what is best about a submarine? All. The constant turmoil of background activity, the innate tension of claustrophobia, the timelessness of a world where the sky disappears for three months in a row – everything is inherently dramatic under these conditions. We have known the glorious drug of the sea since Homer sent Odysseus before Charybdis. It’s astonishing that it took until 2021 for the peanut butter from the high-profile crime drama to mix with the chocolate from the submarine.
As much as Vigil Captivated British television audiences with his superb acting and thrilling twists and turns, his most significant contribution was to lift the submarine out of a 30-year journey into the depths of cultural uselessness. Once a bastion of television and cinema, submarines have struggled to find their place since the end of the Cold War. Corn Vigil is an underwater thriller for the 21st century.
In December 1991, the Soviet Union completed its multi-year collapse into 15 independent republics, ending the Cold War, restoring the balance of geopolitical power, and plunging the American entertainment industry into crisis. For the previous 50 years, the United States had competed with the USSR in everything from astronomy to athletics to weapon development. The latter posed a real threat of annihilation on daily life on both sides of the Atlantic. This type of world order had many societal, environmental, and humanitarian drawbacks, but it was not without its benefits: namely, that Hollywood ate this shit. Superpowers competing with each other have developed impressive machines – rockets, jet fighters, submarines, etc.
From the safety of a theater, millions of moviegoers could watch a handsome American actor – Frank Sinatra, Clint Eastwood, Patrick Swayze – thwart the threat of commie, sometimes while piloting the latest Lockheed Martin or Electric Boat releases like a costume. starry mech. In the 1980s, Western cinema had perfected this art form. A generation of writers and directors who grew up on Battle of britain and Run in silence, run deep swapped Axis powers for the Soviets and hit the dirt. In 1984, Red Dawn transformed the Brat Pack cast into Guerrilla Warriors of the Rockies. In 1986, Top Gun became the best recruiting ground the Navy could have dreamed of. And in 1990, the genre reached its peak with the film adaptation of The hunt in the month of red October.
But just as the Cold War thriller made its way, it lost its big bad. Since 1991, there has not really been a comparable credible military adversary. Throughout the 1990s, the instability of Yeltsin-era Russia was itself a credible nuclear threat; Top Gun Director Tony Scott responded to this reality by filling a submarine with legendary actors associated with the high profile music of Hans Zimmer in the 1995s. Crimson Tide. But that geopolitical thread has long expired – whatever there is to say about the Putin regime, it is more or less stable compared to what came before it.
The pressing issues of US foreign policy over the past 30 years – the conflicts in the Balkans, the war on terror, the surveillance state – have led to great fiction, but there is no real replacement. for the Soviets as a technologically advanced state actor. American elements political class and foreign policy blob might want to start a new cold war with China, a communist nuclear-weapon superpower, but that is not such a compelling foe.
Unlike the nuclear near misses that defined the early days of the Cold War, there is no real pervasive fear of nuclear war with China. Regardless of the ideological and material disagreements between the United States and China, the two countries make too much money trading to fight each other. And on a related note, American movie studios make a lot of money exporting their films to China, which doesn’t like to be portrayed as the bad guy. For this reason, the 2012 remake of Red Dawn with Chris Hemsworth was sidelined for two years as the invading country moved from China to North Korea.
This illustrates the other problem with making Cold War-type films in a unipolar world. Inside the insanely weird brain of the original Red Dawn director John Milius, the Soviets could organize an invasion of the United States. Maybe China could do it in 2012. But not North Korea. Neither the Yugoslavia of Slobodan Milosevic, nor the Iraq of Saddam Hussein, nor Al-Qaeda, nor Iran. America will continue to wage war, but these wars are fought by infantry in the streets of the city, not by technical wizards in the cockpit of a stealth fighter or the control room of a submarine.
As with most aspects of Cold War thrillers, no one exemplified this void better than Tom Clancy. After writing The hunt in the month of red October, The red storm is rising, and The Cardinal of the Kremlin in the 1980s, Clancy spent the 1990s fumbling in the dark for a villainous equivalent. He never really found one. He tried the Colombian, Chinese and Japanese drug cartels. By the time rainbow six came, protagonist John Clark was battling the world’s real existential threat: environmental activists.
So how do you do these movies and tv shows now? How do you give to the public Top Gunthrilling aerobatics or The hunt in the month of red Octoberthe complex orders to flood the torpedo tubes and engage the silent command?
What Vigil fact, and what other hit dramas based on submarines of the 2010s look like Black Sea and Call of the wolf have done, is to separate the cadre from traditional adversaries. Which does not mean that the Russians are absent; they are still the nominal villains in both Vigil and Call of the wolf, although the enemy’s motive is so opaque that the Russians might as well be Martians. Black Sea also takes place on an old Soviet submarine with a half-Russian crew, but this generation of submarine movies isn’t about the crew coming together to fight an opponent. These are conflicts within the crew itself.
Black Sea is unusual for a submarine-based film in that it’s not a military thriller, but essentially a heist film, thus combining two of the coolest subgenres in cinema. Corn Vigil and Call of the wolf, a 2019 French film about a conflict between Russia and a NATO without America, follows in the footsteps of the great Cold War underwater thrillers, including tropes and beats.
Both films feature sweaty sonar operatives bathed in the green glow of computer screens. Both feature flooded compartments, dive and surface orders, and the rhythm of weapons exercises. you will recognize The hunt in the month of red Octoberred-lit missile rooms, scenes of boarding a boat suspended from a helicopter, and Crimson TideThe life-changing discussions of the power to kill tens of millions of people with the flick of a switch.
Here it becomes important that both Vigil and Call of the wolf are not American productions, but European ones. (so are Black Sea and 2018 The command, on the sinking of the Russian submarine Kursk in 2000.) The change in national perspective not only opens up a host of new intrigues and machinations, but it frees the production of the American military party line. An absurd black comedy like that of Stanley Kubrick Dr Strangelove might get away with questioning the effectiveness or morality of nuclear deterrence, but anyone who wants to Top Gun– The Defense Ministry’s support for a blockbuster must represent those billion dollar warships if necessary.
Corn Vigil and Call of the wolf are prepared to question the usefulness and safety of nuclear deterrence: Vigil portrays its titular submarine as old and creaky, its crew as dangerously flawed, and its mission as of dogmatic importance rather than a practical necessity. (Vigilthe representation of the Royal Navy has been the source of some controversy in the UK) On the other hand, the missile submarine of Call of the wolf, Appalling, is so stealthy and his crew so well trained that he cannot be stopped once the (wrong) command to shoot is given. In other words, it’s dangerous because it works too much well like Dr Strangelove‘s Doomsday Machine.
Meanwhile, America’s Greatest Underwater Film of the Past 10 Years, 2018 hunter killer, starred the beleaguered but admirable Gerard Butler and a team of heroic Navy SEALs on a mission to save the fallen Russian president. It was not awful– it’s hard to make a truly horrible submarine movie – but with its rote and dated plot, hunter killer bombarded both critically and commercially. There was very little to hunter killer that seemed timely or genuine.
It remains to be seen whether an American production can relive the thrill of the great blockbusters of the end of the Cold War – the rising music, the dashing heroes, the childish fixation on cool machines – and make that formula relevant in 2022. A film like Top Gun: Maverick either power through the ambivalence of the waning American empire, or can it at least nod to contemporary problems and anxieties in American foreign policy? It’s less difficult than you think, even Iron Man successful, sort of, but it still requires adapting the film’s point of view beyond just finding the next Soviet analogue.
Vigil is part of a growing body of evidence that it can be done. By reducing conflict and using the setting to increase interpersonal tension, it’s still possible to create a compelling and intelligent popular drama using the Cold War techno-thriller toolkit.