Before watching the movie:
I’m pretty sure my father recommended this to me some time ago, but it wasn’t in a comment on the blog and if it was an email, I don’t have it anymore. In going through old comments I realized I’d been remiss in adding suggestions to the list, but I’ve updated it now. As a reminder, any reader can suggest movies to me for review. You don’t even have to be related to me! The regular format of this blog limits it to films I haven’t seen before, but if I get enough suggestions that I have seen, I may be able to put together a Reader-Request Rewatch month.
This appears to be Cold War satire/farce concerning a Soviet boat in distress in American waters and the attempt by an unfortunate officer to try to solicit help in a small town without starting World War III. It puts me in mind of 1941, only I think that was a real invasion. For pretty much no good reason, it’s also got me thinking of The Ship with the Flat Tire and Jaws.
After watching the movie:
When a Soviet submarine captain deviates from his assigned course to get a good look at America for himself, he accidentally runs aground off the coast of Gloucester Island, Massachusetts. In order to get out of this predicament, Lt. Rozanov and a small team are sent into the small town to get a motorboat to pull them back out to sea. The plan goes awry almost immediately, New York writer Walt Whitaker’s family gets held at gunpoint, and a rumor spreads through town that Russian paratroopers are attacking, and law enforcement is too busy trying to contain the rowdy militia to actually find any Russians. Neither side wants bloodshed, and neither side believes the other is like-minded.
This is definitely funny, and satirical, but it wasn’t the farce I was expecting. It feels like two hours of setting up the climax, with some show-stopping comic sequences along the way. Rozanov’s team aren’t exactly bumblers, they just can’t quite reach their objective, which makes it feel more like padding than comedy.
Part of the point of the length is to build many, many characters as real people rather than caricatures. Rozanov is a desperate man who doesn’t want to hurt anybody but has few other options, Walt wants whatever’s going to keep his family safest, there’s a young pair who learn the other side isn’t anything like what they were taught and fall in love in the space of an hour together, and there are a lot of townspeople who are more character than people, but very character-y characters.
I guess I haven’t seen much of Carl Reiner as a young man, at least outside of playing Alan Brady. While Rozanov does more to drive the plot and is arguably a more sympathetic character, it stays closer to Walt’s perspective, so I consider billing Reiner ahead of Arkin correct (though it was clearly done by clout rather than story significance). The trailer features Arkin and Reiner doing a bit that might have been improvised in the style of Reiner’s roving reporter improv made famous by the 2000 Year Old Man sketches, rather than Reiner playing Walt. They’re supported by a whole range of character actors, though Jonathan Winters and maybe Brian Keith are the only names I recognize.
I think the anticipated similarity to 1941 greatly hurt my enjoyment of this film. The humor was a lot subtler than I expected, and the message much louder. It’s overstating it to call it a quiet satire, but it is when put next to what I thought it was. Everyone is funny, but only Arkin and some minor character actors are funny in the way I expected them to be. I’m disappointed right now, but I expect I’ll enjoy it more in the future.
I did recommend it, face-to-face I believe. I think it’s one of those stories where reasonably competent people find themselves faced with a situation that’s out of their depth, that draws them in and won’t let them out until much comedy (and fright, and frustration) has ensued. Maybe there’s a technical term for that.