K-19 : The Widowmaker

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

K-19 : THE WIDOWMAKER

4/10

USA 2002 : Kathryn Bigelow : 138mins

Sub standard. not seaworthy. rapidly sinks to the bottom. Anyone writing about submarine movies can easily find themselves trotting out as many clichs as those who actually make them – critics and directors alike seem duty-bound to include at least one reference to Wolfgang Petersen’s seminal Das Boot, for example. Even so, in K-19 Bigelow adheres to the ‘sub sub-genre’ traditions with a military rigidity worthy of her main characters – Polenin (Liam Neeson) and Vostrikov (Harrison Ford), Captain and number 2 respectively on board the nuclear sub referred to in the film’s awkwardly portentous title.

It’s 1961, and the Cold War is taking chilly turns with the construction of the Berlin Wall and the Bay of Pigs debacle. K-19 is intended to be the pride of the Soviet fleet, but her construction is marred by a series of fatal accidents – hence ‘the widowmaker’. At sea, equipment shortages and technical glitches continue to plague the apparently ill-fated vessel – culminating in a full-on nuclear emergency when the reactor springs a leak.

An opening title informs us that K19 is “inspired by actual events” – ‘inspired’ giving scriptwriter Christopher Kyle (working from a story by Louis Nowra) much more leeway than ‘based on’. And the basic set-up isn’t entirely unoriginal: it’s refreshing to find any kind of war movie where there are no real external threats. K-19 never has to fire a torpedo in anger, though there is one test-firing of a nuclear missile where we’re shown the spectacular take-off but, oddly, not the eventual explosion. Instead, the dangers come from within – though again, not from any kind of predictably treacherous double agent, but more from basic technical incompetence.

The sub is part of a gargantuan military and propaganda strategy which doesn’t have the time or inclination to bother with details – but in a classic case of “for the want of a nail”, it’s these details that accumulate towards the point of catastrophe. It’s possible to see the sub as a metaphor for the entire Soviet state – a vast, technologically advanced experiment doomed to failure by human and mechanical imperfections (see also the Austrian documentary On The Seven Seas). And when the plucky crew members are ravaged by radiation sickness after trying to repair the reactor, it’s very hard to avoid thinking of the Chernobyl disaster: these disturbing scenes are by far the most effective in the film.

Because too often the rest of K-19 consists of Ford and Neeson glaring at each other and arguing in their distractingly phoney accents – typical of a big-budget Hollywood movie whose general faux-Russian-ness may well outrage and offend audiences from any ex-Soviet nation. The Hunt For Red October showed how to niftily get around the language barrier, and it’s surprising that Bigelow didn’t just steal the idea from John McTiernan – her woefully over-familiar direction shows little compunction about nicking bits from previous sub pics, including, needless to say, Das Boot: there’s a ‘last-night-on-shore booze-up’ sequence that’s an especially weak copy of Petersen’s made-for-TV classic.

K-19 also suffers greatly in comparison with 13 Days, Roger Donaldson’s account of the Cuban missile crisis which, like Bigelow’s movie, showed only one side of the Cold War conflict, but was sufficiently tense and tight to surmount the hurdle of the audience knowing in advance how the story ends. Bigelow and Kyle’s storytelling simply isn’t in the same league – one tell-tale is the fact that the film begins and ends with copious, idiot’s-guide on-screen titles to fill in the gaps. Even worse is the 1989-set coda with Ford and Neeson in the kind of ‘old man’ make-up that always looks borderline laughable on the big screen.

Despite all this, the ever-professional Ford and Neeson maintain their dignity – Ford is refreshingly unsympathetic as the hard-assed Vostrikov, though it’s absurd to have this supposedly committed Communist invoking God at one critical stage. Both stars are comprehensively upstaged, however, by Peter Sarsgaard as the ship’s nuclear expert Radtchenko – convincingly Russian in appearance and (mild) accent, Sarsgaard works wonders in a very thankless role. True to the conventions of all war movies, Radtchenko is doomed when we find out he’s got a pretty girlfriend waiting on shore to marry him on his return – and the nature of his demise (nerves then cowardice then heroics) is as predictable as everything else in the movie. So all credit to Sarsgaard – in a stunning change of pace from his volatile killer in Boys Don’t Cry – for somehow making Radtchenko such a compelling, complex, human character amid such a sea of raging cliches.