Despite falling off the cinema radar at the time, upon reflection Kathyrn Bigelow's 'K19: The Widowmaker' comes off as a near masterpiece of its genre – certainly one of the best in the narrow genre of submarine/u-boat movies.
K19: The Widowmaker (2002) dir. Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Peter Sarsgaard
By Alan Bacchus
Kathryn Bigelow weaves some cinematic magic within the confines of a Soviet Cold War nuclear submarine, which has been launched as a means of frightening the American government into a full nuclear stalemate. It’s 1961 and the height of the Cold War. With the Cuban Missile Crisis, both Soviet and American governments have their fingers on the trigger. The latest submarine built for nuclear deployment is K19, dubbed the ‘widowmaker’ on account of the number of its crew members who have died. Capt. Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson) is the people’s captain with a deep connection with the crew; unfortunately, he’s been relegated to #2 when the Soviets assign their hard-line veteran, Capt. Vostrikov (Harry Ford), to command their first mission. Despite the crew and the ship not yet battle ready, K19 ventures off into the Atlantic.
Vostrikov is immediately a hard-ass, drilling his crew to death and coming into major conflict with Polenin. But when their nuclear core goes haywire the two adversaries must work together to ensure the safety of the crew, avoid the Americans and prevent pre-emptive nuclear war in the process.
The story beats ring out all the same dramatic situations we’ve seen in other submarine flicks. The Capt. vs. Capt. battle is the stuff of mutiny films like Mutiny on the Bounty, Run Silent Run Deep and or Crimson Tide. Neeson and Ford square off admirably with neither actor trumping the other. Neeson’s large presence feels like Burt Lancaster’s heroic performance in Run Silent Run Deep. Harrison Ford, who has phoned in virtually all of his roles since the '80s, arguably gives his best performance in the last 25 years. His subtle Russian accent is not great, but it's good enough for us to believe he’s not an American.
Bigelow’s staging of the claustrophobic close-quarters action is typically superb, and as good as the top drawer work of Wolfgang Peterson, Tony Scott, Robert Wise et al. But it's the character work that stands out and makes us believe wholeheartedly in the survival of these sailors. Peter Sarsgaard as the cowardly nuclear technician uses his sleepy eyes to great effect, generating sympathy for his inability to man up and risk his life for his work. And the real-life tragic heroism that befalls the crew members who fight to stave off the radioactive leaks in the ship is heartbreaking.
The film runs a good 20 minutes past its climax, giving us a lengthy denouement, which under anyone else’s watch would be agonizing to sit through. But the landlocked scenes in the aftermath of the disaster, as well as the present-day scenes, remarkably add even more emotional depth to the story. I went to town on Steven Spielberg’s use of present-day bookend scenes in ‘Saving Private Ryan’, yet in the case of K19 the same device is used to infinitely greater effect. Why does Bigelow’s scene work at the end of K19 and not in Saving Private Ryan? For one, Spielberg blows his load early when he opens his film with that scene, whereas Bigelow’s scene comes as an unexpected surprise. But really it comes down to the fact that Bigelow is a better director now than Spielberg is now. Hell yes, I said it!
K19 lingers substantially as the credits role. There’s a speech early on from Liam Neeson when he explains the little known fact that Yuri Gagarin was NOT the first Soviet in space, but rather another man whose death in space was covered up in the name of political pride. It’s a great piece of foreshadowing and a prophetic tragedy, which makes us wonder what other kinds of tragedies occurred behind the Iron Curtain and how many forgotten heroes suffered at the hands of its stifling government.
K19: The Widowmaker is available on Blu-ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment.