K-19: The Widowmaker
2002, PG-13, 126 min. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Starring Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Peter Sarsgaard, Christian Camargo, Joss Ackland.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., July 19, 2002
In the wake of last August's Russian naval disaster -- during which 118 sailors aboard the nuclear submarine Kursk perished in the Barents Sea while the Russian navy refused offers of assistance from the U.S. and other countries in a position to render aid -- it's tempting to think that this Hollywood accounting of a real-life Soviet sub crisis that occurred at the height of the Cold War would gain some newfound poignancy and resonance. To a degree, it does, but more than that K-19, which is ably helmed by Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark, Strange Days, and ex-wife of director James Cameron, himself no slouch when it comes to the rigors of waterlogged filmmaking with The Abyss and Titanic) recalls Wolfgang Peterson's grueling sub classic Das Boot. With its careful representation of the claustrophobic life on-board a Sixties-era Soviet submarine and all the attendant peril therein, this is less a stereotypical actioner than it is a battle of wits and nerve over multiple mechanical failures. K-19 is the first film from The National Geographic Organization, and you'll be forgiven if, as I did, you expect a dry treatise on the sociopolitical and environmental ramifications of nuclear sub disasters in the icy northern seas. (“Let's watch now as Jim prepares to snare this irradiated mutant baby seal!”) There's none of the dry-as-ice pedantry of the National Geographic many of us grew up with; this is Bigelow's show all the way, and though her output has been rare of late, her skill at creating almost unbearable tension out of simple, escalating situations is profoundly disturbing. Ford, his face a mass of wrinkled culverts that mirror the shifting ice floes above, plays Soviet naval Captain Radtchenko, reassigned at the last moment to the Great Bear's newest super-sub, the K-19, after her original captain, Neeson's Polenin, has failed the Party by refusing to rush his crew and sub into the sea for her first mission: test-firing a missile off the coast of Greenland (the better to spook the Americans). Tensions mount between the sub's crew, who remain loyal to Polenin, and their new officer, who seemingly adopts a Queegean attitude toward his command and pushes both boat and crew to their limits with needless “crush-depth” dives and endless fire drills. When the K-19's reactor springs a coolant leak, leaving the ship nearly adrift and bathed in uncontainable radiation, the threat of mutiny on the high seas arrives in full, pitting Polenin's old sea dog against Radtchenko's party line. (It doesn't help matters that the ship was put out to sea before much of anything on board was in perfect working order -- radiation suits are nonexistent, and tools necessary to stem the flow of deadly steam are in equally short supply.) Bigelow and director of photography Jeff Cronenweth (Fight Club) manage to create a surfeit of grinding claustrophobia, and K-19's sound department does a bang-up job at recreating the eerie, clanking sonic ambience of deep-sea dives in what is essentially a very large coffin. (The film's Foley work induces tension headaches; it ought to come with an aspirin or two.) Ultimately, though, the film's unnecessary coda -- which recalls Stephen Spielberg's Schindler's List epilogue -- drags the film out by an additional quarter-hour and threatens to scuttle its momentum entirely. There's no need for it on top of Bigelow's previous nail-biting two hours. That aside, K-19 remains an above-average and affecting descent into both heretofore unknown Soviet naval history and the always popular submarine-in-peril genre.