A Near Miss
In K-19: The Widowmaker, Harrison Ford, who played the President of the United States in Air Force One, switches gears by taking on the role of an iron-willed Soviet submarine captain during the height of the Cold War. And he’s just as convincing, even though the movie sabotages his efforts with unnecessary political gibes and a schmaltzy tacked-on ending. Inspired by a true incident from 1961, this dramatic thriller also stars Liam Neeson – doing his best to hide an Irish brogue beneath his Russian accent – as the more cautious captain Ford’s character replaces.
How well I remember teaching my students to "duck and cover" back in the early ‘60s. It became part of our daily classroom routine. At that time in history, everyone feared some nuclear catastrophe was about to take place. Both the United States and Russia had enough firepower to destroy the world, and they kept stockpiling more. K-19: The Widowmaker brings back painful memories of those dangerous days. Now that Soviet Communists are no longer a threat, the real-life story behind a potential disaster involving Russia’s first nuclear submarine can be told. I’m glad I didn’t know what was happening in that underwater Widowmaker on its test run. I’d have been scared out of my wits.
"The story had all the elements for a dramatic movie," says director Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days), who went to Russia prior to filming to talk with K-19’s survivors and their families. "It had a built-in ‘ticking clock’ suspense factor; that is, a nuclear submarine with an impending reactor meltdown that could cause catastrophic global reactions. It had, at its center, a ferociously dedicated and charismatic captain, whose bold decisions under pressure saved the boat and its crew. And, above all, it had the courageous young submariners themselves, who knowingly subjected themselves to a lethal dose of radiation to repair the damage and fend off disaster."
In other words, K-19 should have been a great film. What spoils it? Superfluous digs at Russian Communism, which come across like kicking a dead horse, are part of the problem. Scenes of Soviet bureaucratic incompetence and religious suppression appear at the oddest moments and seem out of place in a movie celebrating the heroism of this courageous K-19 crew. I was also put off by Ford’s character calling the U.S. rescue forces "jackals." And, the film’s ending looks suspiciously like an afterthought. I can just hear filmmakers saying, "Let's add a speech about how the sailors' bravery emerged in daring actions to help their comrades, not to support any political principles. That worked well for Black Hawk Down and We Were Soldiers."
Another disappointment to me involved my lack of feeling trapped in a submarine while watching the film. Most of the excruciating suspense in U-571 and Das Boot came from the sensation of actually being enclosed in an underwater craft. Perhaps K-19’s sequences depicting repair of a nuclear reactor detracted from the traditional submarine movie atmosphere I expected.
Nevertheless, Ford and Neeson (Schindler's List) soar above all these negatives by demonstrating considerable acting chops in their adversarial roles here. Ford’s Russian accent sounds quite natural – not a bit exaggerated. And his intense facial expressions say so much, he probably doesn’t need to talk at all. Neeson plays the more sympathetic role with a believable mixture of concern and passion.
It’s also difficult not to admire filmmakers for creating a movie about the courage it takes not to go to war. Unfortunately, K-19: The Widowmaker, a tribute to unsung Russian heroes who prevented a nuclear disaster, is far from perfect.
(Released by Paramount Pictures and rated "PG-13" for disturbing images.)