K-19: The Widowmaker (2002) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for disturbing images
Running Time: 138 min.
Cast: Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Peter Sarsgaard, Christian Camargo, Joss Ackland
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Screenplay: Christopher Kyle
I had an anecdote written for the opening paragraph of this review, but after reading it, I decided that it spoiled the movie somewhat. Many viewers will probably be so wholly unfamiliar with the real-life events of the voyage of the K-19 that even if I were tell you that there are survivors or not would probably be seen as a spoiler to a good many of you, and I know that as someone who watched this not knowing either way, I appreciated the suspense. Not that this film is a truly accurate account, as it is only inspired by real events, and features a very Hollywood-ized take. Regardless, Hollywood fabrication or not, there are still enough moments of genuine drama and suspense to recommend K-19: The Widowmaker as a solid submarine adventure flick, even if artistic license is heavily employed.
Of course, the real-life events took place in 1961, at the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The K-19 was Russia's first ballistic nuclear missile submarine, which was plagued with mishaps even before leaving to sea. Captain Alexi Vostrikov (Ford, What Lies Beneath) was the stern commander, perhaps more concerned with image than in the welfare of his crew, or at least it seemed so by the men under his command. The most damaging of accidents occurs when the nuclear reactor on board begins to break down, leaking radiation to all parts of the boat, and if uncontained, would result in a nuclear explosion that would dwarf Hiroshima's in terms of power. Vostrikov must ask his men to do the unthinkable in order to salvage the sub, but the men are in a mutinous mood due to his frequent challenges to their honor.
Director Kathryn Bigelow continues to break barriers for female directors in the genre of action films. She's made quite a few notable flicks in this area already, including Near Dark, Blue Steel, Point Break, and Strange Days. K-19 falls right in line with these others, because in every case, whether or not the film was good or bad, you couldn't tell it wasn't directed by a man from Bigelow's no-nonsense style. This is probably her most ambitious project, with an all-male cast regarding events that women weren't privy to in that era, yet Bigelow sees the drama for what it is, and good results follow.
It also takes some time to become accustomed to Harrison Ford's attempt at a Russian accent, which would seem needless considering the film is entirely in English. Just a minor quibble here, but there are very few people who would not pick up the fact that the actual men spoke Russian, even if everyone were to speak in perfect English. By giving them all Russian accents, it actually might confuse more people, because it sounds like Russians attempting to speak English! Despite the gripe, Ford does well in the role, giving the necessary stoic but stern inflections necessary throughout. Liam Neeson (The Haunting, The Phantom Menace) and the rest of the supporting cast all add quality performances as well.
K-19: The Widomaker is a good action film, much overlooked here in the United States, probably because we aren't used to watching films with Russian heroes, and are especially skeptical with American and British actors portraying them. However, for those who do venture to watch it, you will be rewarded with tense drama and intrigue, and a gripping true account of an event where the fate of humanity hanged in the balance.
©2005 Vince Leo