K-19: The Widowmaker

Reviewed By Andrew Howe
Posted 09/11/02 19:21:55

"An intermittently involving history lesson"
3 stars (Average)

The trials and tribulations of submarine life have spawned a number of memorable films, but the spatial limitations weigh heavily on anyone scripting a new entry in the genre. The opportunities for wide-ranging action are decidedly limited, and since everything else has been done before the only option is to write a character-driven narrative and hope for the best.

Australian playwright Louis Nowra (Cosi, Black and White) and director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, Strange Days) evidently agree, and while K-19: The Widowmaker sounds like a film about a man-eating robotic dog itís actually an unusually sober re-enactment of a Russian nuclear submarineís disastrous maiden voyage. In 1961 the Cold War was in full swing, and Soviet engineers were busy cutting corners in the name of keeping up appearances. None of this bothers Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford), a party man who thinks nothing of sacrificing an entire crew to the cause, and when the submarine of the title fails to pass quality control he takes it as an opportunity to give the crew a lesson in rising to a challenge. This brings him into conflict with his predecessor Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson), who knows that his boys would prefer a long life on the tundra to a watery grave, and before you can say ďDidnít I see this in Crimson Tide?Ē the stage is set for a showdown between madness and duty while the submarine falls apart around their ears.

Ford wouldnít have been my first choice for such a pivotal role, but anyone who remembers The Mosquito Coast will know that heís perfectly capable of playing single-minded martinets with the same passion he brings to his all-American heroes. For most of the running time Vostrikov sails perilously close to being the villain of the piece, and while it wonít endear the film to anyone expecting another personable Ford performance itís a considerably more palatable advertisement for his versatility than What Lies Beneath.

Neeson is his usual sensitive self, playing another good-hearted soul who comes up short in the charisma department, and once again he finds himself overshadowed by a comparatively vibrant supporting cast. None of the actors are particularly well-known, but their anonymity reminds us that most flag-draped coffins are occupied by the kind of people we see in our own bathroom mirrors (as opposed to good-looking and well-paid stars).

The film failed to recoup its considerable price tag in the US market, which wonít have come as a surprise to the PR departments charged with marketing the damn thing. Most of the money was spent on faithfully recreating the K-19, and while the fanatical attention to detail is an exercise in overkill (I doubt that many viewers will be in a position to nitpick the accuracy of the production design) the finished product perfectly captures the claustrophobic confines of a jury-rigged Soviet submarine. However, thatís not enough to sell a film about Russian sailors who canít see their way to firing a torpedo in anger, especially when the fireworks are replaced with the cinematic equivalent of a dirge.

Now that the Cold War is effectively over itís difficult to appreciate Vostrikovís inability to place human life above a hunk of metal, but in the early 1960ís a nuclear exchange was a very real possibility. The Russians werenít averse to re-educating their soldiers with a firing squad (or an extended holiday in Siberia), so the interior of the K-19 is drenched in an understandable atmosphere of oppression. Since it enhances the impact of the extended climax itís actually in the filmís favour, but itís not the kind of thing that entices casual viewers into the cinema.

The first half of the film fails to add anything to the genre, with Fordís Russian accent providing the sole source of amusement (itís not particularly bad, but it does take some getting used to). Vostrikov conducts a bonding exercise by taking her down to crush depth just to see how the old girl handles it, engineers a literal icebreaker for no better reason than because he can, drills the crew with the merciless abandon of someone who doesnít have to do anything more than hold a stopwatch, and deals with the prospect of mutiny on the high seas by making it absolutely clear that itís the gulag for anyone who questions his authority. All of this will be suitably diverting for anyone who hasnít seen Das Boot or U-571, but for the rest of us itís nothing more than an extended exercise in dťjŗ vu.

You might think that some of the extended lead-in would be devoted to character building, but the script is so intent on canvassing the interplay between Vostrikov and Polenin that it forgets to provide us with an investment in the supporting players. This is a perennial problem with the genre - since the characters are limited in their choice of activities itís difficult to communicate personal information without resorting to lengthy bouts of exposition, so Nowra simply shrugs his shoulders and consigns them to the status of ciphers.

Then, just when youíre thinking about asking for a refund, the film transforms itself into a gripping testament to the Light Brigadeís lingering legacy of duty and destruction. The crew of the K-19 have plenty of time to reason why, and this raises their heroism to almost mythic proportions (William Goldman noted that itís one thing to exhibit bravery in the heat of battle, but to witness the likely results of your actions and still place yourself in harmís way requires a very different brand of courage). The filmís emotional core resides with Vadim Radtchenko (a superb performance by Peter Sarsgaard), a reluctant reactor officer who wants nothing more than to live a long and happily married life. Few of us know how weíd react when called upon to risk everything we hold dear for the greater good, and his monumental (and wholly believable) internal struggle anchors several harrowing scenes that erase the memory of the uninspired events that precede them.

Itís difficult to unreservedly endorse a film that only delivers the goods for half its running time, but Nowra and co-writer Christopher Kyle make it their mission to give the pawns that bore the brunt of nuclear brinkmanship their due, and itís an absorbing and ultimately shattering indictment of the policymakers who were incapable of seeing the corpses behind the statistics. If you can ignore the first hour youíll be privy to a gut-wrenching and thought-provoking experience, and if nothing else itís worth seeing as a gesture of respect to the men whoíve waited three decades for the recognition they deserve.

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