Unlike the other films, K-19 - The Widowmaker is about a real incident (like the supposed Red October incident) in which a Russian nuclear submarine's reactor nearly had a catastrophic meltdown just off the eastern coast of the United States in the 1960s. Scary stuff.
As a result of this gritty reality, K-19 is powerful in a way that Titanic was powerful. It doesn't matter if the movie isn't quite realistic - the events are so horrible that tension is rife throughout the film. Or at least, it should be.
K-19's initial launch is a debacle. In short, the submarine never has a chance to be successful - the men are inexperienced and costs are cut, such that K-19's crew is lucky that it even works at all. Add in the ship's doctor getting run over by a truck, the failure of the christening bottle to break against the sub's hull, and the firing of the chief engineer and it's hard to disagree with the notion that the ship is cursed.
The new captain aboard Alexei Vostrikov, played by Harrison Ford, pushes the sub to its limits. The tension rises as he forces the crew to do random drills, forces it to dive to near crushing depths, and rise right through the arctic ice. This by far is the most exciting part of the film - there is no enemy except Vostrikov, and it's nail biting after witnessing the poor construction of K-19. Ultimately, K-19 fires its test missile, signaling a message to America that the Russians could launch a nuclear strike if they wished.
Then the sub is pushed to its limits once again, beyond what even Alexei could have feared. They are to patrol the eastern seaboard, right near a NATO base. The ship's original captain, Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson) disagrees. Indeed, he disagrees with everything Vostrikov does because he puts the men at risk. I couldn't help but feel contempt for Polenin, who seems so attached to his crew that he no longer has the stomach for war. I'm not sure if that was the director's intent.
Unfortunately, the second half of the film drags. The ship's engines begin to overheat and the inexperienced chief engineer concocts a plan to pipe coolant into the system from the ship's freshwater tanks. Failure means a nuclear explosion "a hundred times worse than Hiroshima."
And so we have a long, slow, miserable, sometimes disgusting foray into the effects of radiation poisoning on the human body. The men who go in have naught but chemical suits rather than radiation suits to protect them. That is, they have no protection at all. So they are exposed for 10 minutes a time in an attempt to minimize the radiation poisoning.
Not only doesn't that tactic works, the radiation leak spreads throughout the submarine. Alexei's choice: accept help from the Americans and save the men or sacrifice his crew to retain Soviet secrets. This decision takes a loooong time to resolve. The movie loses a lot of its momentum, almost becoming a different film that's a lot more like The Andromeda Strain.
What was most striking about this part of the film was how it's been cribbed in other genres. I couldn't help but be reminded of Wrath of Khan, my favorite Star Trek film. Similar to K-19, an officer takes it upon himself to enter the highly lethal radiation chamber in order to "sacrifice the few to save the many." It's chilling to imagine that real human beings had to make that choice. It certainly changed my perspective on Wrath of Khan. I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing.
Ultimately, the Russians on board were treated like traitors instead of war heroes. The men weren't fighting any enemy but the politics of Russia itself, and as such they could never leave the disaster of K-19 as heroes. The movie wraps up with what happened to them afterwards, after the fall of the U.S.S.R. At least 27 of the crew died from radiation poisoning.
K-19 is a depressing movie that is torn between being an action submarine flick like U-571 or a disease epidemic battle for survival like Andromeda Strain. It's not as good as either film, but the fact that it's based on real-life events leaves a chilling reminder that sometimes reality is far worse than anything Hollywood can dream up.
I thought both Harrison Form and Liam Neeson did outstanding acting jobs, and yes they even made believable Russians.
I also thought the film did a good job of portraying the Russian military as human beings, rather than just the enemies we learned to despise during the Cold War.
So see this movie and leave all expectations of a history lesson at home.
Based on the events of a true story, the film explores the emotional drama that unfolds around Captain Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford) who in 1961, at the height of the... Read more