Paramount // 2002 // 138 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // February 11th, 2003
Fate has found its hero.
K-19: The Widowmaker is an ambitious movie grounded in a very real tragedy. This focus sets it apart from its action-oriented submarine movie brethren. If you want to see the requisite "nifty maneuvers to avoid depth charges" scene, or the "hide somewhere clever to escape sonar" scene, this is not your movie. Instead, K-19 examines a gut-wrenching premise and portrays true heroism. The details are faithfully rendered, and though it flubs a bit by adding Hollywood schtick, K-19 is a unique look at a near miss during the Cold War.
Russia has a big problem: an American nuclear-class submarine that can fire nukes into the heart of Moscow. The only defense is to build a similar craft that will threaten America in the same way. Their solution is the flagship K-19 submarine.
Built under intense time pressure (with the requisite short budget), the K-19 is barely seaworthy. Pipes leak, critical gauges are crippled by cheap components, and the proper medical supplies are not on board. Lots of people die on or near the ship before it even leaves port.
The captain of the K-19, Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson), is loved by his crew. Therefore, the brass give command to the unlovable Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford) and keep Mikhail on as executive officer. Alexei takes her out to sea and initiates an exhausting siege of drills and simulations. At the peak of the crew's unhappiness, he pulls a stunt that almost gets them killed.
K-19 fulfills its first mission, but instead of going back into port, they are given orders to head to America. Somewhere along the way, a pipe bursts in the reactor core and meltdown begins.
The rest of the film deals with how the men handle this crisis, how Alexei handles the men, how the brass handles Alexei's handling of the men, and how the men handle the government's handling of Alexei handling the men.
We are lucky to be here today.
In honor of the cold war, let me address old-fashioned male chauvinism. A woman directed this submarine movie, which raised some Hollywood eyebrows. As Kathryn Bigelow says in the commentary, cold-war era sub flicks are usually the domain of male directors. Fortunately, her résumé contains enough adrenaline to squelch anyone's inner James Bond: Point Break, Strange Days, Near Dark, Homicide: Life on the Street, et cetera. Equality triumphs here.
The absolute realism and high stakes maintain tension through most of K-19. The focus is different from other sub flicks. There is no war, and the sub isn't being hunted. The drama and poignancy come from the human element: sailors going to their own deaths to prevent world war.
K-19 is at its best when it shows the men responding to the crisis. This human tragedy is touchingly rendered. I have a heart of stone when it comes to movies, but a few of the scenes in K-19 moved me without being manipulative. In some ways it is a better movie than Thirteen Days because we see the direct impact of events on the crew.
Ford's fine portrayal of Captain Vostrikov is a change of pace for Mr. Nice Guy. While Alexei isn't a bad guy per se, he is unsentimental and brusque. You can never be sure whether his actions are in the best interests of his men, or the brass, or Mother Russia. Liam Neeson gives an equally fine performance, showing both anger and compassion. The two play off of each other nicely, although the relationship feels somewhat contrived. The submariners are well-cast international actors. The crew behaves as you would expect, deepening the realism. All told, the acting is convincing.
The submarine is the star in many ways. Ford, Bigelow, and the rest took great pains to ensure the accuracy of the sub's interior and exterior. The film feels cramped and claustrophobic. The surviving K-19 soldiers have praised this attention to detail. If you are a fan of military technology, you will be pleasantly surprised.
K-19 has a forbidding color palette. Shots primarily contain black, white, gray, and brown, with highlights of color. This subdued range of luminosity makes it hard to accurately judge picture quality. The blacks are deep but so pervasive that they dominate many scenes. I did notice healthy amounts of edge enhancement and ringing in certain scenes, such as the map scene in Moscow. Being a recent film, K-19's transfer is artifact-free and quite smooth.
The blacks aren't the only thing deep about K-19: The Widowmaker. There is a new standard in bass, ladies and gents. If you want a DVD to give your sub a workout and rattle your esophagus inside your ribcage, this is the one. Be sure your pictures are securely hanging on the wall and remove all glass knick-knacks from their shelves. If they can't bring you to the submarine, by golly they'll bring the submarine to you!
The "how to" featurettes are good examples of their kind. Watching the makeup crew age Harrison Ford was fascinating, and seeing how they depicted radiation exposure was harrowing.
Where K-19 fails is in the endgame. A shadow of doom hangs over the first two acts. The story is told without commentary, engaging us through this very restraint. But somewhere after history runs dry of intrigue, the tone of K-19 shifts to Hollywood Sentimentialism. Harrison Ford is put in front of an inquisition, and Liam leaps to his defense with a flowery speech about heroism and honor and decisions made in the field. Puh-lease! But it doesn't end there. We have Ford wandering the halls of Moscow a pariah, and a completely gratuitous "emotional" ending that cheapens the preceding heroism. Why must Hollywood stick the nose of blandness into every good story? The Internet Movie Database tells us the surviving Russians were "amused" by the Hollywood touches to the story. I was decidedly unamused.
Our esteemed Chief Justice, Mike Jackson, once remarked: "Note to Harrison Ford: You can't do accents." This truth was painfully evident throughout the film.
The extras are thorough, but the commentary track was unengaging. Bigelow spouts million-dollar malapropisms, lauding the mundane. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, well, umm, really has a hard, um, time getting his sentences ou-ou-ou-out. I am duly impressed with the submarine and the difficulty filming in such cramped quarters. But how many ways can you say it, over and over again?
K-19 is not your typical submarine flick. It has a historical backbone and compelling human tragedy. Near misses like this make me thankful we made it through the Cold War. If you can forgive the cheap Hollywood Sentimentality, you'll be treated to a powerful glimpse into heroism and duty. The acting by Ford and Neeson doesn't hurt either. Whether you're a steelworker in Pittsburgh or an art teacher in North Carolina, you should be able to find some entertainment in this tale of woe. The court recommends rental, purchase if you have a 5.1 system...this might become your new subwoofer demo disc. K-19: We put the sub in submarine!
For bragging about the size of her sub, Kathryn Bigelow earns a reprimand from this court. However, his honor is inclined to overlook this childish behavior in light of the powerful tale being told. Harrison Ford is fined $10 for making me listen to such a bad accent for two hours. His honor will use that $10 towards purchase of Raiders of the Lost Ark when it finally comes to DVD! Court is adjourned!
Review content copyright © 2003 Rob Lineberger; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 138 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Commentary by Director Kathryn Bigelow and Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth
* Theatrical Trailers
* "The Making of K-19"
* Three Featurettes: Exploring The Craft, Breaching The Hull, It's In The Details
* National Geographic: K-19: The History