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.