K-19: The Widowmaker
Screenplay : Christopher Kyle (story by Louis Nowra)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2002
K-19: The Widowmaker is loosely based on an actual incident that took place in the Atlantic Ocean in 1961. The cumbrous title refers to the name of the first Soviet ballistic nuclear submarine, which was set out to sea to shoot a test missile, the purpose being to show the U.S. that the Soviet Union could retaliate with nuclear weapons if attacked. The problem was that the bureaucrats and party leaders were so eager to make their point that they sent the sub out before it was truly ready, and the results were nearly catastrophic.
Like Roger Donaldson's Thirteen Days (2000), K-19 takes us into the heart of the Cold War by telling a story to illustrate "just how close we came" to you-know-what. Granted, this particular incident didn't have nearly the potential to launch World War III as the Cuban Missile Crisis did, but had the K-19 exploded, it could have destroyed a U.S. warship and a nearby NATO base, which might have very well been mistaken for a deliberate attack.
The K-19 is nicknamed "The Widowmaker" before it ever leaves port because 10 men died during the construction. When the film opens, Capt. Polenin (Liam Neeson) is demoted by party leaders because the K-19 has mechanical problems (issues that are clearly not his fault). Instead, he is put in the secondary position of executive officer while Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford), who happens to be married to the niece of someone high up in the Politburo, is made captain. Polenin takes this professional hit with dignity and good will, even though his men are less than enthusiastic about losing their captain. To make matters worse, Vostrikov proves to be a hard man to like, as he seems intent on testing everything and everyone by bringing them to the brink of death. He is hard, driven, and utterly uncompromising.
The mission gets off to a rocky start when Vostrikov fires the reactor officer because he is discovered to be drunk and has him replaced by Vadim Radtchenko (Peter Sarsgaard), a young man fresh out of the naval academy who has never been on a mission. Not only that, but the ship's medical officer is killed just before the launch and is replaced by a naval base doctor (Lubomir Mykytiuk) who admits to getting seasick. The rest of the crew is made up of a group of largely interchangeable eager young men who appear too youthful and innocent to be engaging in such a deadly mission. Needless to say, their mettle will be tested.
Although the test missile is successfully fired in the Arctic Circle, thus sending the needed message to the Americans, things start to go bad when the nuclear reactor's coolant system springs a leak, thus allowing the reactor to slowly heat up. Once it reaches the critical temperature of 1,000 degrees, it will likely melt down, causing an unstoppable chain reaction when the nuclear warheads on board begin to detonate. As this might be misconstrued as an act of Soviet aggression, solving this problem (in three hours, no less) not only involves saving the 120 men on board, but also averting World War III.
Director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, Strange Days) is above all a craftswoman, an artisan skilled in tension and violence. One of the few female directors who has worked exclusively in such male-oriented genres as horror, science fiction, and action-adventure, she brings to K-19 a taut relentlessness that is the hallmark of submarine movies, from Wolfgang Petersen's epic Das Boot (1981) to Jonathan Mostow's pulpy war adventure U-571 (2000). Working in the cramped, iron confines of the Soviet sub, she uses fluid tracking shots and intense close-ups to register the details of the life-and-death scenario and to keep the tension ratcheted up tight.
The film's tensest moments involve the quick-fix solution to cooling the reactor, which involves welding pipes together and rerouting the ship's 30 tons of fresh water. However, this requires that men go into the radiation-filled reactor room in nothing more than chemical suits (apparently, the warehouse was out of radiation suits), which, as Polenin points out, offer roughly the same protection as a raincoat. The most horrifying moment in the film is when the first set of workers emerge from the reactor room after only 10 minutes, their bodies crippled and their skin red and swollen from radiation poisoning, their comrades' forced lies that "You'll be alright" sounding hollow and desperate, rather than encouraging.
Troubles continue to mount as the radiation begins to leak throughout the entire submarine, making others sick and threatening the lives of all on board. Not only that, but there is dissention in the ranks, as some of the men feel more allegiance to Polenin than Vostrikov, especially because Vostrikov would sooner see his men die than surrender to a nearby American ship.
If K-19 has an immediate obstacle to hurdle, it is getting the audience to accept Harrison Ford, one of the most popular American actors of the last 30 years, in a complex role with a Russian accent. In all honesty, Ford's accent isn't very good (he never sounds like he commits to it fully), although the rest of his performance is wholly convincing. The amiable grin of Indiana Jones easily morphs into a perturbed scowl, although the fact that he is such a popular actor will undoubtedly aid the audience in accepting his character's mandated redemption at the end. Liam Neeson makes a strong foil for Ford's character, as we can see how these two men can both work together and butt heads with the same urgency and severity.
Many critics have pointed out that one of K-19's chief strengths is that it does not demonize the Soviet characters. That is, they are not portrayed as "evil" communists, but rather as human beings struggling to survive in a terrible situation. While this is true, it is also true that K-19 is a deeply nationalistic movie in that it takes part in one of the most popular forms of recent revisionist history, which involves taking a peak behind the fallen Iron Curtain and finding confusion, incompetence, and weakness that had for decades been disguised behind an elaborate charade.
The overall feeling one gets from K-19--which comes at the expense of the characters and the crisis at hand--is that the Cold War was really a bluff: The Soviets never had a chance and perhaps we were silly to have been so afraid of them. After all, the "flagship" of their Navy fleet was a poorly constructed, ill-equipped submarine forced into service too early by overeager bureaucrats, while the Americans already had numerous such submarines in position. Thus, despite not having a single American character, K-19, inadvertently or otherwise, works primarily to reinforce a sense of American (or at least Western-capitalist) superiority by showing how our greatest enemy was actually far weaker than we imagined and that their greatest accomplishment was not matching us step for step, but fooling us into thinking they were.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick