Suffice it to say, any new submarine film is going to have to come up with something pretty good to distinguish itself in such esteemed company and Wolf’s Call, whilst it may not reach the top of that list, certainly earns itself a place on it. The clever thing that this movie comes up with is the ‘golden ear’ of sonar operator ‘Socks’ (Francois Civil) whose expertise in underwater acoustics enables him the ‘see’ what’s out there in a way that most others can’t. In particular, during a close encounter with an unidentified, possibly enemy submarine, Socks identifies that it’s powered by four propellers not three which is so unusual that it sets in motion a sequence of events that discredits Socks and brings France and Russia to the brink of nuclear war. Of course Socks is our hero so there must be a way that he can redeem himself and much of that comes down to the question of whether his ‘golden ear’ is attuned enough to identify that a missile sounds ‘light’ because it probably doesn’t have its nuclear payload. Or does it?
The other clever thing The Wolf’s Call does is give itself a ‘breather’ (pun intended) with a sequence of the story that happens on land between missions. It’s here that Socks (the character’s real name is Chanteraide) meets Diane (Paula Beer) which gives us something that most submarine movies don’t have; a sweet and engaging love story that is not just a diversion from the tension below the waves, but delivers us both a deeper level of character for Chanteraide as well as a smart ending with a nice little twist.
In addition to Civil and Beer’s strong performances, the film also boasts a cast of French heavy hitters including Omar Cy, Mathieu Kassovitz, Reda Kateb and Jean-Yves Berteloot. They suffer at times from the way the cramped quarters require them to stand around and look heroic rather than pursuing heroic actions, but their acting chops and a pretty good screenplay mitigate the stasis the environment imposes on them. The film’s writer-director is Antonin Baudry whose rare combination of skills as a diplomat and comic book author meet his screenwriting and directorial abilities in a way that allows him to pull together a pretty neat thriller with some strong political undertones, some nice comic touches and enough suspense to keep us glued to the screen. Baudry’s most recent movie was the political farce-comedy The French Minister (2013) which seemed to tickle a lot of movie-goers’ funny bones but somehow didn’t reach mine. Here’ though’ he feels to be on top of his game knowing when to hit the accelerator and when to hit the brake.
The Wolf’s Call is hardly an original story. It owes a lot to movies like its fellow submarine flick, The Crimson Tide as well as Sidney Lumet’s 1964 political thriller, Fail Safe and even has a touch of Lewis Gilbert’s 1977 James Bond outing The Spy Who Loved Me (mercifully without Roger Moore’s cod acting). What these movies all have in common is that element of the blind leading the blind; stories that rest on the decision makers being unable to verify that what their technology is telling them might not be true, and facing the dilemma of whether to believe the human element in the equation or not. Often that’s an argument based on reason and logic, but here the dilemma is whether the human element (Sock’s ear) is superior in its ability to the technology that protocols dictate should determine the fate of the world.
PS: Curiously, as the only film in this year’s French Film Festival to already have been released on Netflix, it ended up being the only film in the programme to make it through to the advertised final date of the festival after the FFF had to be truncated due to the Covid19 emergency.
2018 | DIR: BEN LEWIN | STARRING: PAUL RUDD, MARK STRONG, TOM WILKINSON, CONNIE NIELSEN, JEFF DANIELS, GUY PEARCE, PAUL GIAMATTI, SIENNA MILLER, PIERFRANCESCO FAVINO, GIANCARLO GIANINI, HIROYUKI SANADA, SHEA WHIGAM | REVIEW BY CHRIS THOMPSON
And so, Moe Berg leaves behind his very odd relationship with Estella Huni (Sienna Miller) and with the aid of intelligence from science boffin Samuel Goudsmit (Paul Giamatti) and the support of a gung ho army officer, Captain Furman (Guy Pearce) he is smuggled into Switzerland via war torn Italy and convinces Heisenberg’s colleague, Paul Scherrer (Tom Wilkinson) to arrange a meeting after Heisenberg’s lecture there. Berg’s moral dilemma that sits at the heart of this story is whether or not Heisenberg might actually be sympathetic to the American cause and, if he is, should Berg ignore his mission and let him live.
See what I mean?
Hands down, this is a great story with a cracker of a cast, a solid director in Australian ex-pat Ben Lewin (Paperback Romance, The Sessions, Please Stand By) and a seasoned screenwriter in Robert Rodat (Fly Away Home, Saving Private Ryan, The Patriot) working from Nicholas Dawdidoff’s biography of Moe Berg.
So why isn’t it a truly great movie?
That's certainly something that perplexed me as I watched this film. It has an intriguing premise with a provocative quandary at its core, some very good performances (most notably from Rudd and Strong), and some quite suspenseful scenes (the battle sequence in Italy where Furman must get Berg past the German squad defending the town where their contact Professor Amaldi (Giancarlo Giannini) lives is gripping and expertly staged). So why does this movie come off feeling somewhat less than the sum of its parts?
Perhaps it’s the string of high-profile cameos that is ultimately frustrating in the way it tantalises us with some great actors who are there and gone on the blink of an eye. Perhaps it’s the fragmented story that precedes the main game of the confrontation between Berg and Heisenberg that undermines the potential for a more powerful, cohesive through-line. Perhaps it’s that Ben Lewin’s television background that seems to tame the telling of the story so that feels more like a telemovie than a feature (Lewin’s feature film career has been punctuated with stints on the mini-series The Dunera Boys and series-TV like Rafferty’s Rules, Sea Change and even Ally McBeal).
Or, perhaps the answer lies in the impenetrable character of Moe Berg. He’s a bit of an enigma, depicted here as bordering on genius, bisexual (something that’s been disputed), uncomfortable with intimacy, capable of sudden acts of violence, and a well-known, if not celebrated, baseball player. There’s a lovely scene where, during his spy training, he’s drawn into a friendly baseball game with a group of soldiers and is eventually recognised and feted by them for being part of the great American pastime. But even in this most human of moments, we still don’t get
to see inside his character and so, despite Rudd’s best efforts, the enigma of his character is never revealed enough to us to fully warm to him and that’s a problem when he’s the engine of the story.
The film is nicely shot by Andrij Parekh, has great production design by Luciana Arrighi and a Howard Shore score to boot, which should all come together to be the icing on the cake. But it doesn’t. In the end, the most frustrating thing about this film (to me, at least) is that there is no single reason that serves an as impediment to it rising above the pack and yet, it remains an entertaining, informative but not entirely satisfying experience. I’m not sorry to have seen it. I’m really happy to know this fascinating story that I’d never heard before. I just wish I felt like recommending it more forcefully. I guess sometimes, despite having great ingredients, the cake just fails to rise.