K-19 The Widowmaker

July, 2002, Thriller

K-19: The Widowmaker

I'll admit up front a weakness for submarine movies; they combine the promise of furious action, intriguing technology and just enough claustrophobia to endlessly appeal to my baser instincts. That said, this huge summer action picture was constantly entertaining without ever being memorable, despite a wonderfully fact-based story line, a substantial special -effects budget wisely used, and the presence of two first-rate actor/stars; Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson.

K-19 tells the story of the maiden voyage of a new category of Russian sub hurriedly put to sea in 1961 in response to U.S. superiority in the deployment of nuclear submarine capability following the Cuban missile crisis. From the vigorous but ineffective training drill that opens the action, the audience clearly understands that Russia's authorities were committed to rapid response, even at the cost of crew safety. Fatal mishaps begin even as the boat is being readied for it's initial trial run; hence the nickname given the vessel by it's crew before ever putting out to sea.

Neeson, the ship's popular captain, doesn't enjoy the full confidence of his naval superiors; they draft Ford, another senior officer, to command the all-important task of pushing the active service delivery date and test firing a missile with the capability of carrying a nuclear warhead. Since Ford requests Neeson's service as executive officer because of the latter's knowledge of boat and crew, the script neatly sets up a conflict between the hard task-master with strength of character vs. the popular but ineffective first officer. It's well done here, but we've all been on this voyage before-- think Mutiny on the Bounty (in any of its3 incarnations) or Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster in Run Silent Run Deep on the list of those predecessors who've done it better.

 Ford is quite credible as the starched, driven but unpopular leader, while Neeson, despite his considerable skills as a screen actor, (remember his turn as the Irish rebel of the same name in Michael Collins?) is curiously bland; as a result, the inevitable "will they or won't they mutiny under pressure" plot comes off without the emotional punch it deserves, especially since, in this case, it has the added benefit of being the depiction of what we now know to be an historical event. 

However, like it's German predecessor of 10+ years ago, Das Boot, (surely the best submarine film ever) K-19 manages to realistically convey the combination of reckless haste and technological shortcutting which combined to present a valiant crew with wholly inadequate resources to carry out their hazardous assignments, not the least of which turns out to be a total lack of crucial protective equipment. The challenges to ship and crew are clearly presented, but none of the characters beside Ford are given much development, so their respective fates, often presented with chilling effectiveness, don't carry the impact they should.

The physical feel of being underwater generates substantial tension here, not merely from the possibilities of on-board fire and the mesmerizing pressure put on the hull, but more frighteningly from the insidious nature of radiation sickness, which threatens the crew with the terror of the unknown, even as it poses a significant threat to the delicate political balance then in effect between the world's two super powers.

In many ways, this is a grim film--first in it's depiction of the lengths to which the Russian high command was willing to go in unhesitatingly risking the lives of it's naval crew while reserving to themselves the right to second-guess and punish those brave enough to survive. And Ford's persona, with it's leaden gravitas and propensity to greet every crisis with a combination of  brooding resignation and steely resolve, leaves the viewer with the question of why anyone would choose this line of work in the first place.  Indeed, one crew member explains his willingness to endure long periods of time in the sub's tightly confined space by informing his comrades that it's not too different from the coal mining job he intends to return to when his tour of duty is completed. 

The film's closing scenes suggest a level of internal discontent among the naval personnel involved which surely required the lapse of many years, (not to mention the fall of the USSR) before the tale could be freely and fully told. At two and a half hours, and accompanied by a soundtrack of sufficiently somber martial quality, this is a film best be enjoyed by those whose appetites mirror those confessed in the lead paragraph above. 

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