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‘Vigil’ Launched the Cold War Submarine Thriller Into the 21st Century

As much as ‘Vigil’ captivated British TV audiences with its superb acting and exciting twists, its most important contribution was bringing the submarine out of a 30-year voyage to the depths of cultural irrelevancy

BBC/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In most respects, Vigil is pretty standard television. Take a hardscrabble cop with unresolved trauma and a tumultuous home life; thrust her into a dangerous situation while investigating a suspicious death. Cast a bunch of A-list actors, shoot them all through a blue filter. Collect a bunch of BAFTAs and Emmys the following award season.

But what sets Vigil apart from True Detective, Collateral, The Killing, Mare of Easttown, Bodyguard, and so on, is its setting: a nuclear submarine.

Vigil creator Tom Edge must feel like the man who invented the wheel, because this innovation is as revolutionary as it is obvious. You know what’s better on a submarine? Everything. The constant bustle of background activity, the innate tension of claustrophobia, the timelessness of a world where the sky goes missing for three months at a time—everything is inherently dramatic under those conditions. We’ve known about the glorious dopeness of the sea since Homer sent Odysseus past Charybdis. It’s astonishing that it took until 2021 for the peanut butter of the prestige cop drama to mix with the chocolate of the submarine.

As much as Vigil captivated British TV audiences with its superb acting and exciting twists, its most important contribution was bringing the submarine out of a 30-year voyage to the depths of cultural irrelevancy. Once a bastion of TV and film, submarines have struggled to find their place since the end of the Cold War. But Vigil is a submarine thriller for the 21st century.

In December 1991, the Soviet Union completed its yearslong collapse into 15 independent republics, ending the Cold War, resetting the balance of geopolitical power, and throwing the American entertainment industry into crisis. For the previous 50 years, the United States had competed with the USSR in every arena from astronomy to athletics to weapons development. The latter baked a genuine threat of annihilation into everyday life on both sides of the Atlantic. There were many societal, environmental, and humanitarian drawbacks to this type of world order, but it was not without its advantages: namely, that Hollywood ate that shit up. Superpowers in competition with one another developed awesome machines—rockets, jet fighters, submarines, and so on—that in real life are wasteful at best, but in fiction kick unfathomable amounts of ass.

From the safety of a theater, millions of moviegoers could watch a handsome American actor—Frank Sinatra, Clint Eastwood, Patrick Swayze—outwit the commie menace, sometimes while piloting the latest from Lockheed Martin or Electric Boat like a star-spangled mech suit. By the 1980s, western cinema had perfected this art form. A generation of writers and directors who’d grown up on Battle of Britain and Run Silent, Run Deep swapped out the Axis powers for the Soviets and hit pay dirt. In 1984, Red Dawn turned Brat Pack actors into Rocky Mountain guerrilla fighters. In 1986, Top Gun became the best recruiting pitch the Navy could have ever dreamed of. And in 1990, the genre hit its pinnacle with the film adaptation of The Hunt for Red October.

But just as the Cold War thriller was hitting its stride, it lost its big villain. Since 1991, there hasn’t really been a credible like-for-like military adversary. Throughout the ’90s, 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 paired with top-tier Hans Zimmer music in 1995’s Crimson Tide. But that geopolitical thread expired long ago—whatever else there is to say about the Putin regime, it’s more or less stable compared to what came before.

The pressing issues of American foreign policy through the past 30 years—conflicts in the Balkans, the War on Terror, the surveillance state—have led to some great fiction, but there’s no genuine replacement for the Soviets as a technologically advanced state actor. Elements of the American political class and foreign policy blob might want to set off a new Cold War with China, a communist superpower with nuclear weapons, but it doesn’t make for quite as compelling an enemy.

In contrast to the nuclear near-misses that defined the early days of the Cold War, there’s no real omnipresent fear of nuclear warfare with China. Whatever the ideological and material disagreements between the U.S. and China, both countries make too much money trading with each other to fight each other. And in the same vein, American movie studios make lots of money exporting their films to China, which does not like being painted as the bad guy. For this reason, the 2012 remake of Red Dawn with Chris Hemsworth was shelved for two years while the invading country was changed from China to North Korea.

This illustrates the other problem with making Cold War–type movies in a unipolar world. In the excitingly weird brain of original Red Dawn director John Milius, the Soviets could marshal an invasion of the United States. Perhaps China could in 2012. But North Korea couldn’t. Neither could Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavia, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, nor Al-Qaeda, or Iran. America will keep going to war, but those wars are waged by infantry in city streets, 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, nobody illustrated this void better than Tom Clancy. After penning The Hunt for Red October, Red Storm Rising, and The Cardinal of the Kremlin in the 1980s, Clancy spent the 1990s groping around in the dark for an equivalent villain. He never really found one. He tried Colombian drug cartels, China, and Japan. By the time Rainbow Six came around, protagonist John Clark was fighting the world’s true existential threat: environmental activists.

So how do you make those movies and television shows now? How do you give audiences Top Gun’s thrilling aerobatics or The Hunt for Red October’s intricate orders to flood torpedo tubes and engage the silent drive?

What Vigil does, and what other successful submarine-based dramas of the 2010s like Black Sea and The Wolf’s Call have done, is divorce the setting from traditional adversaries. Which is not to say that the Russians are absent; they’re still the nominal bad guys in both Vigil and The Wolf’s Call, though the enemy’s motive is so opaque the Russians might as well be Martians. Black Sea is also set 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 adversary. It’s about conflict within the crew itself.

Black Sea is unusual for a submarine-based movie in that it’s not a military thriller, but essentially a heist film, therefore combining two of cinema’s coolest subgenres. But Vigil and The Wolf’s Call, a 2019 French film set against a conflict between Russia and an America-less NATO, are very much in the tradition of the great Cold War submarine thrillers, right down to the tropes and beats.

Both films feature sweaty sonar officers bathed in the green glow of computer screens. Both feature flooded compartments, orders to dive and surface, and the patter of weapons drills. You’ll recognize The Hunt for Red October’s red-floodlit missile rooms, scenes of boarding a boat while dangling from a helicopter, and Crimson Tide’s scenery-chewing discussions about the power to kill tens of millions with the flip of a switch.

Here it becomes important that both Vigil and The Wolf’s Call are not American productions, but European. (So are Black Sea and 2018’s The Command, about the sinking of the Russian submarine Kursk in 2000.) Not only does shifting the national perspective open up a host of new plotlines and machinations, it frees the production from toeing the American military party line. An absurdist black comedy like Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove could get away with questioning the efficacy or morality of a nuclear deterrent, but anyone who wants Top Gun–style Defense Department support for a blockbuster has to portray these billion-dollar warships as necessary.

But Vigil and The Wolf’s Call are willing to question the utility and safety of a nuclear deterrent: Vigil portrays its titular submarine as old and creaky, its crew as dangerously flawed, and its mission as one of dogmatic importance rather than practical necessity. (Vigil’s portrayal of the Royal Navy has been the source of some controversy in the U.K.) On the other hand, the star missile submarine of The Wolf’s Call, Effroyable, is so stealthy and its crew so well-drilled that it can’t be stopped once the (erroneous) order to fire has been issued. In other words, it’s dangerous because it works too well, like Dr. Strangelove’s Doomsday Machine.

Meanwhile, the biggest American submarine movie of the past 10 years, 2018’s Hunter Killer, featured an embattled but admirable Gerard Butler and a team of heroic Navy SEALs on a mission to rescue the deposed Russian president. It wasn’t awful—it’s hard to make a truly awful submarine movie—but with its rote and dated plot, Hunter Killer bombed both critically and commercially. There was very little to Hunter Killer that felt timely or genuine.

It remains to be seen whether an American production can bring back the thrill of the great late Cold War blockbusters—the soaring music, the dashing heroes, the childlike fixation on cool machines—and make that formula feel relevant in 2022. Can a film like Top Gun: Maverick either power through the ambivalence over the waning American empire, or can it at least nod toward the contemporary issues and anxieties in American foreign policy? This is less of a tall order than one might think—even Iron Man pulled it off, kind of—but it still requires adapting the film’s viewpoint beyond just looking for the next Soviet analog.

Vigil is part of a growing body of proof that it can be done. By shrinking the conflict and using the setting to heighten interpersonal tension, it’s still possible to make a compelling, smart popular drama using the Cold War techno-thriller tool kit.