K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)

2002, Paramount. Directed by Kathryn Bigalow. Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Peter Sarsgaard, Christian Camargo, Joss Ackland.

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?C+
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? +1-1
Age
Appropriateness
?Adults

External Ratings

MPAA ?PG-13 USCCB ?A-II

Content advisory: Disturbing images; brief rear male nudity; limited crude language.

By Steven D. Greydanus

How many different stories can be told about submarines? In principle, virtually any number. The number of different kinds of things that can go wrong on a submarine is presumably limited: enemy torpedos, crushing depths, mechanical failure, ebbing oxygen… at some point, surely, the list runs out. But the potential for human drama and conflict is without limit. Throw a bunch of characters into a confined space, whether a jury room, an apartment, a manor home, or a submarine, and there’s no end to the stories you can tell.

With the arrival of Kathryn Bigelow’s K-19: The Widowmaker, I can now state that previous submarine movies had not yet exhausted the possibilities of what could go wrong. To torpedos and pressure and mechanical failure, we may now add deadly radiation from a reactor leak poisoning the boat and its crew. This terrible crisis, and the measures the crew take to control the problem, drive the action in K-19. In this regard, the film accomplishes something new.

Unfortunately, these novel elements are tied to a human conflict between two antagonistic captains (Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson) that is not only hackneyed and uninvolving, but morally simplistic and finally flat-out insulting. It’s hard to be unmoved by what the men of the K-19 go through, but it’s equally hard to overlook the glaring flaws in the human drama — especially when the latter is directly related to the former. As an exercise in logistics and adversity, K-19 is compelling, but as a story about human decisions and moral issues, it’s full of holes and clichés.

The opening title for tells us the film was "Inspired by actual events." Although this phrase is one step up the fiction scale from "Based on a true story," the outline of the historical K-19 disaster offered on the film’s website roughly corresponds to the main events in the film.

The facts seem to be these. In 1961 a Soviet K-19 nuclear submarine suffered a reactor coolant leak, creating the risk of a reactor meltdown. Complicating this crisis was the submarine’s proximity to a NATO facility, harm to which might have escalated hostilities and led to open war in an age of mutually assured destruction.

The crew could have chosen to scuttle the crippled boat, allowing the reactor core to melt down on the ocean floor, and appealed to the nearby Americans for help. This, however, would have been an unthinkable disgrace for the Soviets. Thus, the crew had no alternative but to brave the deadly radiation in order to repair the leak, at terrible cost. Seven crew members died on the K-19, and 14 more died afterwards from radiation poisoning.

The principal fictional elements in the film seem to be (a) the submarine’s supposedly historic, politically crucial mission — to fire a test missile as a demonstration to the Kennedy-era Americans of the USSR’s nuclear submarine capability — and (b) the conflict between Cpt. Alexi Vostrikov (Ford), the boat’s current commander, and Cpt. Mikhail Polenin (Neeson), the crew’s longtime captain, presently serving as Vostrikov’s first officer.

Ironically, these are precisely the elements responsible for the movie’s dramatic shortcomings. What could have been made into a taut, effective movie had it focused on the event is marred by bloated, banal melodrama as a result of the filmmakers’ misguided insistence on turning the story of an event into a drama about characters.

Not that that would be a bad thing if it were a good character-driven story; as I said, there’s a potentially limitless supply of those. But the inspiration for this film was clearly what happened, not whom it happened to. The character issues were introduced, not because anyone felt strongly about them, but because too many filmmakers have no idea how to make a movie that isn’t about characters. (Examples of how to do it include Black Hawk Down and Thirteen Days. Examples of what goes wrong when character-driven drama intrudes into the story of an event include Pearl Harbor and Titanic.)

Polenin, the crew’s regular captain, is an approachable officer who believes that "a crew is like a family," and the captain should be like a father. Vostrikov, the new commanding officer, is a familiar Cpt. Bligh type who tells Polenin that "even my own father inspired fear more than he tolerated," and believes the crew is soft and undisciplined.

Over Polenin’s increasingly obvious opposition, Vostrikov works the crew to exhaustion with drill after drill, drops the boat below its maximum operating depth till the hull begins to buckle, and finally rams it through a layer of ice cover. "I took this boat and this crew to the edge," he tells Polenin, "because we needed to know where it was."

The problem with all of this is that Vostrikov’s mission is not to take the crew to the edge to find out where it is, but to fire a test missile to impress the Americans. It doesn’t matter how disciplined the crew finally becomes if their ability to complete their mission is threatened by damage to the boat. It would be different had their mission simply been exercises (like the real K-19, according to the movie’s website).

Even so, Vostrikov’s actions could make sense within the drama of the film if he were seen as an unstable antihero, like Humphrey Bogart’s Cpt. Queeg in The Caine Mutiny. Indeed, it begins to look as if, like Queeg, Vostrikov may face an attempt by his subordinates to relieve him of duty.

Yet the movie abruptly turns away from this course amid stunningly simplistic platitudes. The very idea of relieving a commanding officer of duty is rejected as simply wrong. Then why is there a political officer on board authorized to do precisely that? You can argue about when or whether a captain crosses the line that warrants relieving him, but it’s absurd to simply say "He’s the captain, we follow him no matter what."

Worse, in the end we’re asked to see Vostrikov not as an erratic Queeg but as a heroic commander whose leadership and discipline ultimately get the crew through the terrible crisis they face. The movie never asks whether the crisis would ever have happened at all if Vostrikov hadn’t been so rough on the boat in the first place.

These issues were better handled in Crimson Tide, Tony Scott’s action-thriller tale of mutiny aboard a nuclear submarine, which K-19 inevitably echoes. Bigalow’s movie makes some effort to diverge from the earlier picture by reversing the main characters’ positions: In Crimson Tide, it was the elder, imperious commanding officer (Gene Hackman) who was the crew’s familiar, paternal captain, and the younger, friendly first officer (Denzel Washington) who was the new, by-the-book officer nobody trusted. What really differentiates K-19 from Crimson Tide, though, is its lack of any moral nuance or thoughtful exploration of the issues it raises.

In spite of all this, K-19 has virtues to commend it. For all the failings of the human conflict, the drama of the event itself still comes through with affecting power, even though it plays more as a pathetic tale of a crew almost destroyed by blundering leadership than a grimly heroic tale of cold warriors surviving by fortitude and determination. (I understand that surviving crew members of the real K-19 disaster have expressed outrage at how the film depicts them as vodka-swilling, incompetent yahoos rather than the heroes they were promised they would be portrayed as. Nevertheless, the sacrifices of the crew members in the film does come across as genuinely heroic.)

I appreciated, too, a scene in which we see the boat’s political officer debunking American propaganda, juxtaposing footage of bourgeois American suburbia with burning crosses and white-hooded Klan leaders. And, after the boat heaves itself up through the ice (when did you ever see a submarine film generate tension from a rising depth gauge?), there’s a refreshing scene in which the crew plays soccer out on the ice, poses for a group picture, and even hangs out some laundry to dry.

The movie also alludes to the uneasy tension between the official atheism of the Soviet regime and the ineradicable Orthodox heritage of the Russian people. One crew member is reprimanded for having an Eastern-style cross in his possession, but that icon is later revisited in a genuinely moving scene; and even Vostrikov, in a terrible moment, dares to say to his men, "May God be with you." There are no atheists in nuclear submarines facing a core meltdown.

Ford and Neeson are both pretty stolid in their roles, though of course they’re meant to be, and each actor has his own ways of humanizing his character. Neither convincingly manages a Russian accent, a flaw that looms larger in our smaller world than it did a generation ago when most Hollywood roles went to American actors regardless of the character’s nationality. It was a while into the movie before I actually heard anything Harrison Ford said, because I was so distracted by how he was saying it. (Sean Connery, playing a Russian submarine commander in Hunt for Red October, wisely made no attempt to modify his Scottish brogue.) Still, I stopped noticing it after awhile.

In the end, whether you enjoy K-19 will depend in large part on your focus and expectations. If you’re hoping for an intelligent film about real characters defining themselves against a terrible crisis, you’ve come to the wrong film. But if you’re looking for a harrowing submarine movie that shows you some things you hadn’t seen before, K-19 may be worth your while.

Tags: Adventure, Drama

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