K-19: The Widowmaker (2002) *** 1/2
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Written by Christopher Kyle from a story by Louis Nowra. Photography, Jeff Cronenweth. Editing, Walter Murch. Production design, Karl Juliusson, Michael Novotny. Music, Klaus Badelt. Cast: Harrison Ford (Capt. Alexei Vostrikov), Liam Neeson (Capt. Mikhail Polenin), Peter Sarsgaard (Vadim Radtchenko), Christian Camargo, Steve Nicolson, Ravik Isyanov, et al. Producers, Kathryn Bigelow et al. Executive producers, Harrison Ford et al. A Paramount release. 138 minutes. PG-13.
It sounded to me like "canine teen" but it turned out to be a visually/technically impressive --nay, stunning --demonstration of Hollywoodianism at its big, big budget at its best.
I choose my words carefully: "Hollywoodianism" rather than plain "Hollywood," as the filming took place in Russia, in a wealth of Canadian locations, and in Iceland. As for my "at its best," it does not mean that "K-19" joins what is commonly understood as the holy company of "the best movies ever made," of "the classic pictures," or others in the top leagues. It means that the efforts and millions of dollars did give birth to something powerful within its category. In this particular case this submarine movie is one of the most complex and difficult to film. Think about it.
Back during the Cold War, and specifically in the Kennedy era, the confrontations between the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union were tremendous, horrendous and often on the brink of nuclear catastrophes. In our story, in 1961, K-19 was a new Russian nuclear submarine which the Soviet bigwigs (military and civilian) were anxious to test. Its Captain was Michael Polenin (Liam Neeson), a brilliant but cautious man beloved by his crew. Such leaders were (and I am sure, still are, world-wide) top-notch Navy people who also had to be scientists in their domain.
K-19 had a first trial which resulted in loss of crew members, hence the sobriquet "The Widowmaker." But the higher ups were in a hurry. They appointed the tough, fully qualified Capt. Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford) to be the the all-powerful new commander of K-19, with Capt. Polenin remaining as his second-in-command, in U.S. parlance, his Executive Officer.
Before what should have been a total state of readiness for the sub, in spite of the objections and misgivings of Capt. Polenin, the missile-armed K-19 puts out to sea. An ominous touch has a woman swinging the traditional bottle of champagne against the ship, but the bottle does not break. That was merely the first of several justified omens.
Harrison Ford as Vostrikov is an unsmiling, uncompromising boss. Not a martinet, but a totally strict leader, a man 200 % dedicated to his duty and his task. Significantly, we learn that his father had been a hero of the Russian Revolution Š but died in a gulag. That Vostrikov has become, and remained so strongly an important, unquestioning military cog within the context of the U.S.S.R. could have been made into a separate, psychological/political film by itself, or added one hour's flashback to this long movie. Wisely, nothing of the sort is included here.
The new Captain puts K-19 and its people to trial after trial, to test after dangerous test of the ship and its human components. Firings or demotions accrue. More bad omens: the drunkenness of the officer in charge of the reactor leads to his dismissal. He is replaced by a younger, inexperienced man (Peter Sarsgaard) fresh out of Officers' school. The ship's doctor is killed in an accident and replaced by a non-specialist. And on and onŠ A test missile is launched, successfully. Then the powers that be decree that K-19 must put out to the ocean, evade NATO bases, and patrol the waters at a relatively close distance of the American coastline between New York and Washington.
Within the unbearably claustrophobic sub huge demands are made on everybody. Confrontations escalate between the two captains. Risk-taking Ford keeps pushing the envelope to the point of alienating the more cautious Neeson as well as many of the crew. But the work goes on. And with it there soon comes a frightening, hair-raising mega-crisis when the atomic reactor goes bad.
The sub is a complex of machinery, chemicals, sweat and body odors. If movies came with realistic smells, this film's audience would flee the theaters.
The film belongs to three genres, two of them old and one born with the Atomic Age.
First there is the large group of films in which a motley set of people are within a limited space. Such as a ship (of Fools or not), a trench in wartime, an hotel (cf. "Grand Hotel"), a stagecoach (like the one that brought fame to John Wayne), an airplane, a desert islandŠ the list is huge. The formula is mainly to show interactions among very different persons. Then there is the World War III-by-mistake, as in "Fail-Safe" or the satirical "Dr. Strangelove."
Finally we have a wealth of submarine films.
One of the common features of all those genres is that the actors, from headliners to supporting, are shown as characters different from each other. This "personalization" can be found in "K-19" but, in a rather original way, quite limited and attenuated save for the two Captains. I appreciate this twist.
Then again, we have a submarine which looks almost like nothing put on the screen in previous movies. For the huge majority of us, subs, overwhelmingly American, are known from fiction films and documentaries. Especially where nuclear ships are shown, my own impression is one of complex neatness, cleanliness, orderliness. Not so in "K-19" where it seems that everything, from the conning tower, the periscope, the radar screens and all else has an unfamiliar, even puzzling look. (It also contains a great deal of techno-speak.)
A cascade of additionally problems develops and envelops everyone -- but I will not detail them. Cats of this kind should stay in their bags and allow the audience not to predict next steps or complications. However, I vouch that there's an abundance of surprises and nail-biters, all of them invariably factual and believable. Whatever its inventions and embroideries-- if any, which I doubt-- the movie is firmly based on and anchored to terrifying events.
The only aspects that require some suspension of disbelief are the come-and-go attempt at giving the two captains and the men a sort of Russian accent, and the several non- Russian faces. But those are negligible details which are mostly erased by everyone's top performance.
K-19 is what is commonly --and in this case, simplistically labeled "a guy's movie." Yet the director is a woman, Kathryn Bigelow. She is 50 or so, but from the one or two photos of her I located, she looks like an attractive thirty-something.
I have witnessed her vivid action-style in some films, notably "Blue Steel" (policewoman Jamie Lee Curtis in a breathless, relentless duel with a psycho), and "Point Break" ( F.B.I. rookie Keanu Reeves vs. a gang of surfers/bank robbers who wear the masks of U.S. Presidents.) If I had some reservations about those pictures, there are none concerning this excellently scripted, directed, acted and produced movie. Even the music score is impressive. What a pity that much of it is heard during the lengthy final credits, that is, when everyone in the audience barbarically stands up and goes to the nearest exit.
In K-19, as in her other work, the tough Ms. Bigelow pulverizes admirably all possible cliches, misconceptions and sexist distinctions about male vs. female filmmakers. Hers is a major egalitarian contribution to cinema's history. Bravo!