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K-19: The Widowmaker   B-

Paramount Pictures

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writer: Christopher Kyle (story by Louis Nowra)
Cast: Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Peter Sarsgaard, Christian Camargo.

Review by Rob Vaux

Paramount Pictures pulled a bit of a fast one with K-19. The ads suggest a submarine thriller in the vein of Red October, a crackling two hours locking the haunted Liam Neeson and the steely-eyed Harrison Ford in a tin can together. The reality is a little different. It has all the trappings of classic sub pictures, but its overall tone lies elsewhere. It's quieter than other sub films. More subdued. The threat comes not from the enemy or the crushing depths; there are no taut cat-and-mouse showdowns with an unseen foe here. Instead, the danger arises from inside the tin can itself, redirecting the energy from the space beyond the hull to the space within it. It doesn't always make for a smooth ride, but it's definitely different... and unlike the slam-bang shoot 'em up the commercials are trying to sell.

It also uses Soviet sailors as its protagonists, a dramatic shift from standard expectations. Stalwart communist heroes like Captains Vostrikov (Ford) and Polenin (Neeson) didn't exist in western film before the end of the Cold War, and it's refreshing to see them presented in such a fashion. Then again, considering the director, we shouldn't be surprised. Kathryn Bigelow, one of the most visually arresting filmmakers in recent years, has a knack for taking genre conventions and turning them on their ear. Her masterful Near Dark rewrote the book on vampire pictures, and subsequent films like Blue Steel and Strange Days have done similar wonders for police thrillers and science fiction films respectively. Submarine movies are full of meaty conventions to sink her teeth into, and you can smell the joy she takes in twisting them inside out. K-19 can't match her best work, but since it's her first film in nearly seven years, I'm not inclined to be picky.

The title refers to a Soviet nuclear sub -- the so-called pride of the fleet -- which puts to sea in 1961 and subsequently suffers a disastrous reactor failure. The incident threatens to trigger a nuclear war, and only the selfless courage of the crew can prevent a global catastrophe. It doesn't help that the two men in charge are often at each other's throats. When we first meet Polenin, he's drilling the crew during the sub's construction: a demanding but sympathetic and ultimately benevolent captain. Indeed, he's actually a little too benevolent. "He puts his boat and his men before the party," his superiors grimly note, demoting him to X-O under command of the indomitable Vostrikov. The vessel set sail under a horrendous schedule, missing equipment and supplied with all the engineering snafus that Soviet planning can provide. The crew considers the ship cursed -- several men died during construction and the inaugural champagne bottle failed to break on the hull -- and Vostrikov's impossibly high standards set everyone on edge. It comes as little surprise to this gloomy bunch when the reactor springs a very ominous leak.

Bigelow has a background in painting, and seems to regard the cinema screen as a great big canvas to play with. Her sensibilities are most apparent during external shots of the sub, traditionally the dullest parts of pictures like this. She uses the ocean and the ship itself like abstract textures, creating compelling images out of otherwise mundane visual effects. We're treated to a shark's eye view as K-19 submerges amid a sea of foam, and watch tensely as the hull buckles during the obligatory dive past crush depth. She also treats the plot with reverence and respect; the incident was inspired by actual events, as a handful of brave men had to overcome shoddy equipment and an uncaring bureaucracy back home to save their vessel. Bigelow's tone is one of quiet, unyielding pressure, rather than flashy histrionics. She allows her actors to convey the drama while using the visuals to support their performances: a good call that solidifies the film's strengths. Ford does a fine job in the lead, despite his insistence on a silly Russian accent, and Neeson is every inch his co-star's equal.

Yet despite all this, something feels a little off about K-19. In its effort to go against type, it drains the story of some of its impetus. We're told that the reactor leak has cataclysmic implications, yet we never feel the weight of such a possibility. The buildup lacks punch, and while Bigelow does a marvelous job with the crisis itself, she's not quite sure when or where to resolve it. The last few sequences seem to peter out, and the final scene lingers far longer than it should. Furthermore, while the film does a lot that we haven't seen in sub pictures before, it still can't shake some stale old stand-bys. The shadow of Das Boot is hard to escape, even for an endeavor like this. K-19's lack of an even tone keeps it from standing beside the truly great submarine movies of the past. Give it due credit for originality -- and for putting Bigelow back in the saddle where she belongs -- but try to forgive its rougher edges. Like the crew it depicts, its assets stand out amid some fairly choppy waters.

Review published 07.22.2002.

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