“K-19: The Widowmaker” is a horrible title. Harrison Ford admitted as much on a recent appearance on “Late Night with Conan O’Brian” where he asked, probably only half-jokingly, “why’d they call it K-19, and why did they have to be Russians?” From the get-go that is two strikes against this movie in the eyes of most Americans; at least “U-571” (another horrible title) had the good sense to substitute an American crew for the British one in the actual events upon which that movie was based. For anyone who grew up on this side of the Cold War, it’s hard not to snicker when the actors talk in a “wink-wink” fashion about being good Communists.
But if you forgive the movie its title, and realize that the characters being Russian is essential to the story – which, by the way, was inspired by actual events – “K-19” is actually a taut, well-acted and strangely intense thriller. Most of the tension of a movie of this sort is sucked out by what we already know – surely a thermonuclear war will be averted before the end of this “inspired by true events” story. Instead, the tension comes, for the most part, from an invisible beast that haunts the second-half of this movie. The beast is radiation from the nuclear reactor and it begins spreading after a coolant leak. In the confined spaces of a submarine, it is impossible to escape something that cannot be seen, felt or heard.
Further tension is supplied by Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson (both sporting passable Russian accents), who play the sub’s captain and executive officer. The two men have widely varying leadership styles, Neeson’s character believing a sub should be like a family, while Ford’s believes that a captain should push his men hard and expect nothing less than the best. This conflict is furthered by the fact that Ford took over the command from Neeson, who Moscow considered less than capable.
The movie essentially tells the story of K-19’s maiden voyage, which, like the Titanic’s, was fraught with complications. The sub, the Soviet Union’s first that was nuclear powered, had been nicknamed “The Widowmaker” by its crew because 10 men died during its construction. Another sign of impending disaster came when the champagne bottle failed to break at the ship’s christening, causing one crewmember to cry out “We’re cursed.”
Indeed it seems they are, as the crew struggles to repair the damaged reactor, deals with the ever-present threat of radiation poisoning and looks on as the two leaders of the boat continually butt heads. The tension is kept up for the most part by the sure direction of Kathryn Bigelow, and even though the ending may leave something to be desired, it, like the rest of the movie, feels true. The performances by the leads, and those of the mostly unknowns playing the crew, along with the unobtrusive special effects, further the realistic feel of this movie.
A title card at the beginning states that “for 28 years this story could not be told,” I for one am glad that once they could tell it, they did it in a way that does the story justice. *** stars
Side note: A story on CNN.com said that the survivors of the real-life K-19 were unhappy with the script, which Harrison Ford brought for them to peruse, because they said it portrayed them as drunks. On the contrary, to me it seemed that they were portrayed as heroes. It will be interesting to note their reaction when the film opens in Russia next month.