Paramount // 2002 // 137 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // May 5th, 2010
Fate has found its hero.
"We deliver, or we drown."
The year is 1961, and the Cold War is simmering to a boil. The Russians and Americans continue to build more nuclear weapons and create advanced military technology. Russia's latest effort is the K-19 nuclear submarine, nicknamed "The Widowmaker" due to its destructive power. The captain of the just-built sub is Mikail Polenin (Liam Neeson, Schindler's List), who is hesitant about taking the sub on a mission before he's 100% certain that it's ready. Nonetheless, the Russian government is intent on putting the sub in action ASAP, so they place Polenin under the command of the stern Captain Alexei Vostrokov (Harrison Ford, Raiders of the Lost Ark). Vostrokov and Polenin manage to get along well enough at first, but their distinctly different leadership styles soon begin to create tensions. To make matters worse, after the K-19 mission is underway, a radiation leak sets off a chain of events that endangers both the crew and the entirety of the civilized world. Will the two captains manage to resolve their differences? Will the crew survive their perilous mission?
Now that Kathryn Bigelow (every macho man's favorite female director) has won Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards for her intense war film The Hurt Locker, there's never been a better time to dig into the director's back catalogue and examine some of the works that preceded her groundbreaking achievement. Realizing this, the fine folks at Paramount have given Bigelow's K-19: The Widowmaker a Blu-ray release. The film never came close to the acclaim of The Hurt Locker, it's less popular than Point Break, and it's less respected than Strange Days, but it remains a very fine film that deserves a look.
The primary criticism leveled at K-19 is that the Russian accents on display are ridiculous (particularly from stars Liam Neeson and Harrison Ford). Granted, Neeson's Irish brogue occasionally slips through and Ford's accent makes him sound like Pavel Chekov's father, but the actors so persuasively inhabit the souls of their characters that I tend to quickly forget about the accents. I agree that a bad accent can be a damaging distraction, but I also believe that a performance can be strong enough to offset such a problem. If the actor can nail the character (see Anthony Hopkins in Nixon), the accent doesn't matter. If the actor can't fully slip into his character's skin (see Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), the results can be laughable. Fortunately, Neeson and Ford excel in so many ways that the accent issue becomes negligible.
It's easy to see why Bigelow and co. decided to cast Neeson and Ford in the roles rather than actors who might seem a bit more convincingly Russian, as the parts otherwise seem specifically written to play to the duo's strengths. Both actors are commanding and authoritative figures, but beneath Neeson's gravitas there is a certain warmth and kindness, while Ford seems to be masking a more cantankerous persona. In the film, both captains believe in running a tight ship to a point, but when the crew members are pushed to the edge their responses differ. Polenin wants to give them a break and ease up, while Vostrokov wants to keep pushing further to see how far the men can go. For a while, this relationship plays out in a manner very similar to the one between Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman in Crimson Tide, though the resolution that is ultimately reached is much different.
Despite the good turns from its two stars, the heart of the film lies in the tale of the young members of the crew being forced to act heroically under difficult circumstances. After the radiation leak occurs, small teams are sent into a room to work on the leak. There are no proper radiation suits on the ship, nor is there any medicine that can effectively counteract the effects of the radiation. As a result, only ten minutes inside the room can prove fatal or near-fatal. As each team leaves and the next team lines up, the young men watch in terror as they realize what sort of horror they're going to endure. To a certain degree, this is even more nerve-wracking than entering a battlefield. On a battlefield, there's always the chance that you'll make it through unharmed. In this instance, there is an absolute certainty that each man involved will be severely harmed. The only question is whether they'll actually live. The answer is "probably not" in most cases. These psychological terrors are best personified by Lt. Vadim Radtchinko (Peter Sarsgaard, An Education), who gets the opportunity to demonstrate more cowardice and courage than any character in the film.
The film is very sturdy on a technical level, as Bigelow creates an appropriate sense of claustrophobia and tension for long stretches of the film. There aren't really any "action" scenes in the traditional sense (no submarine battles this time around, sorry), but the movie nonetheless generates a great deal of tension and suspense. The attention to detail is exceptional, which may be partially due to the fact that the film was co-produced by National Geographic. Even so, the movie doesn't get too bogged down with sub-speak or equipment examinations. It provides us with just enough to convince us that the filmmakers know their stuff without damaging the dramatic flow. K-19 also does a nice job of touching on some of the politics of the Cold War, at least in terms of how they directly affected the beliefs of the men. The movie doesn't really take much of a stand on the matter (save for its quiet criticism of the absurd bureaucratic decisions made by the Russian government), simply observing what the men believe and how that informs their actions.
The film arrives on Blu-ray with a pretty solid transfer, boasting very deep blacks and excellent shading. Detail is pretty good, despite a few shots that look a little soft. Flesh tones occasionally seems a little lifeless, but not remarkably so. The film has a grim, overcast color palette that does a nice job of placing us in a specific time and place. Where the disc really excels is in the audio department. This is a great track that really gives your surround system a workout, as there are numerous sequences of powerful, well-distributed rumbling. The sound design definitely provides the viewer with a "you are there" experience, and the exceptional score by Klaus Badelt (easily one of the composer's best efforts) comes through with power and clarity. The extras from the DVD release are ported over to the Blu-ray: an audio commentary with Bigelow and cinematographer Jeff Cronenwreth, an EPK-style featurette called "The Making of K-19: The Widowmaker" (20 minutes), plus the more specific pieces "Exploring the Craft: Make-Up Techniques" (5 minutes), "Breaching the Hull" (5 minutes) and "It's in the Details" (12 minutes).
A moving, classy motion picture boasting strong performances and a compelling true story, K-19: The Widowmaker is one of Kathryn Bigelow's best efforts. The Blu-ray doesn't offer any new supplements, but the solid transfer and superb audio warrant an upgrade.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 137 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13