Mark Reviews Movies

K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Cast: Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Peter Sarsgaard, Christian Camargo, Joss Ackland

MPAA Rating:  (for disturbing images )

Running Time: 2:18

Release Date: 7/19/02


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Review by Mark Dujsik

At the beginning of K-19: The Widowmaker, we learn that the Soviet government suppressed the truth of the actual K-19, most likely to prevent the possible damage to national morale during the Cold War. It was not until the fall of Communism and the Berlin Wall in 1989 that the surviving crew was able to tell the story of an ill-fated mission in 1961. In reality, though, the tale can just now be widely known, forty-one years after it occurred. K-19 is actually a bit of a daring film; it’s the second movie in as many years to focus on Communist Russia during times of war. The first was last year’s World War II drama Enemy at the Gates, but during that time, America and Russia were fighting on the same side of the war. Here, Hollywood has gone out on a limb, presenting the story of the heroes on the enemy’s side, and the result is an intense and occasionally powerful film that is unfortunately conventionally executed and stumbles in its overblown climax and denouement.

The K-19 was the first Russian submarine to carry ballistic nuclear missiles. As the film starts, the military and government want to get it up and running as quickly as possible, even though its captain Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson) notes that in the rush basic and complex safety precautions have been drastically overlooked. For his criticism, Polenin is replaced by Captain Alexi Vostrikov (Harrison Ford), a harshly by-the-books and strongly political officer. The mission: travel to the Arctic Ocean to fire a test missile. Before the ship even sets to sea, ten of its crew members have died (accounting for the ship’s nickname "The Widowmaker"), the man officer in charge of the nuclear reactor powering the ship is caught drunk on the job and replaced, and, on its christening, the bottle of champagne doesn’t break, leading most of the crew to believe that they are cursed. After the rough start, Vostrikov shows his dedication to improving the men from the onset of the mission by running drills until performance meets his satisfaction. Tension builds among the crew, and many voice to Polenin that they still consider him their true captain.

A conflict of power would be too simple, though, and the film wisely keeps the struggle in the background—although the devastating chain of events that slowly unfolds leaves almost no room for bickering. The focus of the film is camaraderie. Vostrikov and Polenin are both after the same goal; they simply have different approaches to and philosophies for obtaining it. Both hold loyalty in the highest regard. Polenin emphasizes loyalty to each other, while Vostrikov emphasizes loyalty to the state. Both believe that their methods will result in the best soldiers. Vostrikov is strict, but he is not antagonistic towards the crew. In a short but important scene, he blames the officers, not the crew, for the lack of high standards, saying that they have not set a good example for the rest of the ship. His ambition and harshness are merely shells and characteristics developed to both match and save the reputation of his family name (his father was a revered captain until he was arrested as a traitor). Polenin is given a choice throughout the mission. The political officer on board is willing to exercise his authority and give command of the ship to Polenin. In this choice, dealt with throughout the film, Polenin displays the fiber of his character, and the film is given another element dealing with the theme of conflict vs. camaraderie.

The challenges that lay ahead for the crew of the K-19 are the kind common to movies that take place aboard submarines. For a good length of time, the tension is built in sequences involving Vostrikov incessant drilling. This is especially true in one sequence in which he brings the ship to "crush depth" only to order an incredible fast surface into a solid sheet of thick ice. The missile launch itself follows, and there’s one incredible shot (obviously done with computer graphics) in which the camera starts close and pans hundreds of feet back to see the launch from a distance. What isn’t part of the story and thankfully not added in the film is any sort of battle sequence. Suspense isn’t built using the explosions of missiles or depth charges. Instead, the latter part of the film focuses on the harrowing account of a leak in the core of the nuclear reactor. The resulting scenes are exhausting as the inadequacy of the ship is ultimately proven, the tension within the crew finally starts show outwardly, and the fear radiation poisoning becomes a horrifying realty.

Until the final twenty minutes, K-19: The Widowmaker only suffers from a feeling of familiarity, but at that point in the film, there’s a sudden, ineffective shift in perspective. Suddenly the entire movie becomes bogged down in patriotic speechmaking. For two hours, we have seen and experienced how heroic the characters are when placed in overwhelming circumstances, but for the remainder of the film, we are given multiple speeches about their heroism. These scenes do lessen the effect of the film and prove that jingoism in any country is still jingoism, but the rest of the story works too well for them to do too much harm.

Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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