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USA 2002
Directed by
Kathryn Bigelow
138 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

K-19: The Widowmaker

There are elements of the Cold War paranoia of John McTiernan’s Hunt for Red October (1990) and the on board power struggles of Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide (1995) evident in director-producer Kathryn Bigelow’s K-19: The Widowmaker.

Set in 1961,the film tells the true-ish story of the Soviet Union’s first nuclear submarine which was sent to the Barents Sea to test the capabilities of launching a ballistic missile and then to America’s eastern seaboard as a deterrent move in the escalating hostilities. 

From the get-go there are problems. In the race to beat the Americans to nuclear readiness proper safety checks have not been made, the boat is not adequately supplied and multiple lives have been lost in its construction (hence the nickname “The Widowmaker”).  Then, just before sailing popular but too independent Capt. Mikhail "Misha" Polenin (Liam Neeson) is replaced by the more orthodox Capt. Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford). Not long after sailing it is discovered that the boat’s nuclear reactor is leaking meaning that not only will the crew all die but World War III will follow.

Although the depiction of the claustrophobic interior of the sub is not as skillfully handled as Wolfgang Petersen’s tour-de-force Das Boot (1997) the race to save the ship and the lives of its crew as the battle of wills between Polenin, for whom his men come first and Vostrikov, a Party hard-liner liner for whom the State is parmount, are well-integrated. Whilst obviously totalitarianism is treated as a political evil and at times one feels the depiction of events is more generically Hollywood than Russian, Bigelow and scriptwriter Louis Nowra do not demonize anyone individually but rather adhere to a more humanist point-of-view of events particularly with the character of Lieutenant Radtchenko (Peter Sarsgaard). Even Vostrikov wants to repair the reputation of his disgraced father who died in the gulags.

Ford sheds his familiar All American Hero image (crystallized as an American President single-handedly taking down a gaggle of Islamic terrorists in Air Force One,1997, which coincidentally was also directed by Petersen). He adopts a “Slavic” accent for what is probably his most challenging and distinctive career performance as the humourless and readily-unlikeable Vostrikov. Neeson doesn’t even try to lose his Irish accent but as ever he turns in a solid performance with the interaction between the two men always watchable. 

FYI: The film tanked, taking only $65.7 million on a $90 million budget ($25 of which went to Ford).  Bigelow took a six-year break from directing returning with her Oscar-sweeping war film The Hurt Locker.




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