K-19: The Widowmaker

We all live in a Red submarine...

Released in 2002, certified USA-PG13. Reviewed on 31 Dec 2002 by Craig Eastman
K-19 image

"We deliver or we drown" says Ford at the start of this tension-laden Kathryn Bigelow helmer. His statement pretty much sums up the panicked attitude of Mother Russia in the early cold war era, and when the inaugural bottle fails to break at the titular submarine's launch we get the distinct feeling the latter part of this statement may be the more pertinent...

K-19 is based loosely on actual events that took place in 1961. A demoted Liam Neeson plays second fiddle to Ford's tough captain onboard the K-19, Russia's newest and most powerful nuclear submarine designed to instill fear in the Americans. Keen to present their new toy to the American spy planes, those cheeky corner-cutting Russian senior officials pushed the untested sub out ahead of schedule in what amounted to a safety precaution designed to imply mutual destruction upon the Yanks should they ever launch an attack on the USSR. Needless to say things did not go according to plan...

Any submarine movie will always be compared to the epic Das Boot, which is largely unfair because few ever have a chance of nearing it's grandeur. Taken on it's own merits, K-19 is an extremely enjoyable and well-researched piece of drama. Filmed largely on location in Russia and partially onboard an actual Juliet class Russian submarine made once again seaworthy by the production crew, director Bigelow makes a solid job of conveying the tensions of the moment. Panic spreads among the crew as mishap follows mishap, eventually culminating in the meltdown of one of the boat's reactors. That these events are based largely on those which actually took place is one of the movie's strong points. It's quite unnerving to realise how close the world came to war as a result of the situation, and this works well in Bigelow's favour.

The cinematography is well executed also, and good use is made of the cramped interior locations, although we never quite reach the claustrophobic levels offered by Das Boot. The editing too is slick enough, and in actual fact the technical merits are largely without fault. The film has two problems, however. Firstly, director Bigelow is undoubtedly a talented lass, but she has still to reach her full potential. While she keeps the tension at a reasonable pressure, she never quite reaches full steam and it's frustrating to see her miss opportunities to capitalise on her cast and material.

Secondly, and most distracting to the casual viewer are the accents. Ford and Neeson are both actors with a potential for powerful performances, but here they are hindered by the necessity to adopt a Russian lilt. It should have been immediately obvious to the production team that they simply don't work in the film's favour, and it would have been a far better option to opt for natural accents albeit to the detriment of authenticity. As hard as the leads try to emote through the verbal fog this reviewer could not help but feel detracted from the emotion, despite the obvious interest everyone involved had in their subject matter.

There are, however, plenty of minor highlights to be had, in particular the emergence of the teams sent to repair the reactor. Irradiated and already dying from their exposure, their fortitude provides a poignant moment at the heart of the movie's message of heroism.

In summation, K-19: The Widowmaker is a thoroughly competent and enjoyable experience that shows moments of brilliance but ultimately fails to quite deliver on it's promise. Fans of mariner movies (and I count myself amongst them) will lap it up, but in the interests of justice I must judge fairly. The Disko has spoken, and he has awarded...

Three out of five Arbitrary Disko Units.

Kathryn Bigelow
Cast list:
Harrison Ford (Alexei Vostrikov)
Liam Neeson (Mikhail Polenin)