(director: Kathryn Bigelow; screenwriters: Christopher Kyle/story by Louis Nowra; cinematographer: Jeff Cronenweth; editor: Walter Murch; music: Klaus Badelt/Geoff Zanelli; cast: Harrison Ford (Cpt. Alexi Vostrikov), Liam Neeson (Capt. Mikhail Polenin), Peter Sarsgaard (Vadim Radtchenko, Lieutenant in Charge of Reactors), Christian Camargo (Pavel Loktev), Joss Ackland (Marshal Zelenstov), George Anton (Konstantin Poliansky), Ingvar Sigurdsson (Viktor Gorelov, Chief Engineer); Runtime: 128; Paramount Pictures and Intermedia Films; 2002-UK/USA)

“The secret is now out, but I doubt if we saw the true story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This submarine film about ‘the nuclear unthinkable’ that could happen, joins a long list of similar claustrophobic ones that are set inside a sub: “The Crimson Tide,” “U-571”, “Das Boot”, “The Hunt for Red October” and “Run Silent, Run Deep.” “The Widowmaker” is a standard Hollywood type of thriller, which usually means the film is below par. The catch in “K-19” comes with two novelties: there’s a woman, the 50-year-old British filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow (“Strange Days“), directing an action film (something she’s accustomed to doing) and it’s made from America’s enemy’s perspective.

Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson star as two conflicting submarine officers, who have their differences revolve over leadership style. Ford distinguishes himself by trying harder than Neeson to come up with a workable Russian accent, but despite the effort sounds more like a refugee from a hammy Acting Studio than a real Russian speaking English. They are both stalwart patriots who equally love their borscht and the Soviet Navy, and find themselves aboard the U.S.S.R.’s first nuclear submarine — a state-of-the-art nuclear submarine, the pride flagship of the Soviet submarine fleet. Even though the film is loosely inspired by real events that took place in 1961, it sinks not only from dullness but because it just does not develop character and instead relies solely on macho action scenes. The movie also puts itself in the precarious situation of being about loyal communists in a submarine — one that isn’t all it’s cracked up to be — who are in conflict with the inept bureaucrats back in Moscow responsible for this mess. That subplot is not that exciting and fails to hold one’s interest; especially, when the middle part of the drama seemed so watered down into conventional terms. “The Widowmaker” failed to create any emotional links to the politics of the true story it is based on. We are left for the longest possible time with a submarine story without even any wartime battles. Instead, there are all the familiar sub shots from previous films about repairing damage, water bursting in, and so forth.

“The Widowmaker” is the nickname the Russian sailors give their boat, as even while on dry-dock for construction the boat seems cursed — having ten men die. Even a champagne bottle at its christening fails to break. And, before it sails the ship doctor is run over chasing a truck down because they delivered the wrong supplies. He’s replaced by a doctor who gets seasick and is ill-prepared to treat radiation victims.

The film opens as Capt. Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson), the dedicated first captain of the K-19, is relieved of his command because he cares more about the men and his boat than in blindly obeying the Motherland. Polenin doesn’t think the boat is ready to take on its seafaring mission to patrol the U.S. eastern coast and launch a test missile so that the Americans would detect it with their spy planes and think twice before using nukes on Moscow. The crew is inexperienced, and the boat’s equipment is shoddy and the boat itself isn’t shipshape. Polenin is requested by the Soviet command, because of his great experience with nuclear boats, to be the executive officer to Cpt. Alexi Vostrikov (Harrison Ford). Vostrikov is an authoritarian figure who married into a politically connected communist family and rose to his high position quickly, and is anxious to prove he’s worthy of the command. Vostrikov believes his country comes before the men or anything else, and is determined to obey all Moscow’s orders no matter the cost. Vostrikov’s father was a hero of the Revolution, but later died in the Gulag. This old formulaic chestnut of rivals for the boat is played out for the first 100 minutes until the viewer is ready to abandon this ship any way he or she can, except if they remain aboard for the last part of the film it shows a marked improvement over what was previous. The film pulls itself together in a somewhat reasonable way from Hollywood’s point of view, though when more closely scrutinized these changes seem illogical that the Ford and Neeson characters would so drastically change. In any case, too much damage has already been done for the few surprises that come about to save this contaminated ship.

We see for an interminably long time the submarine shot from many different angles and their former captain Liam does not approve of the way the new captain Ford endangers their lives with unnecessary drills. Liam also differs with the replacement of the veteran reactor officer due to drunkenness on the job — as Harrison accepts from Moscow an untested student from the Naval Academy (Peter Sarsgaard). There are many heroic deeds underseas, a test missile is launched in the Antarctic simulating a real missile attack (the most exciting shot in the film), and there is a malfunction in the reactor causing a radiation leak and possible nuclear explosion more powerful than the one at Hiroshima. If the temperature reaches 1000F in the cooling system, the sub explodes. Therefore lots of shots of the gauge going either higher or lower, as the sailors sweat. The last malfunction becomes the film’s main plotline, as this danger could precipitate a nuclear war because the American destroyer nearby would be destroyed and the fear is that the Americans will retaliate and begin WW 111.

There’s a mutiny, though this doesn’t turn into a “Caine Mutiny.” The Soviet authorities swore the survivors to secrecy and thereby what really happened was kept a secret for 28 years, or until the fall of the Soviets in 1989. The secret is now out, but I doubt if we saw the true story. What we saw was a dull and conventional Hollywood one, scripted by Christopher Kyle from a story by Louis Nowra.

K-19: The Widowmaker

REVIEWED ON 7/27/2002 GRADE: C-   https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/