K19 the widowmaker is a 2002 film directed by the legendary Kathryn Bigelow (director of, among other things, Strange days, Near dark – and Oscar winner for The hurtlocker) starring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. Set almost entirely in the narrow spaces of a submarine and with no actresses on the screen for more than thirty seconds (bye bye Bechdel test), it bombed heavily at the box office barely collecting one third of its 100 million dollars budget.
But after all, submarines’s movies have never been that popular. Did this movie deserve greater success or should it remain among the forgotten films of the American director? In my opinion this movie has lots of ups and downs: it excels in many respects, for example the sets, some memorable scenes, and the dynamic direction by Bigelow. On the other hand, the story is a bit too crazy to be credible, although it’s vaguely based on real facts, and, let’s face it, Harrison Ford’s acting is borderline ridiculous. I don’t know why the actor decided to use an accent that he thought was Russian but which instead comes out as… silly. It’s very distracting to hear him speak like that, and even more when compared with Liam Neeson who, quite sensibly, speaks in his normal English accent!
But let me summarize the plot briefly. In 1961, in the midst of the Cold War, the Soviet Union launched its first nuclear-powered submarine, the K19. The problem is that everything was done in a hurry so the vessel’s conditions were far from optimal. It managed to carry out its first mission and demonstrate to the United States that the Soviets could launch missiles armed with nuclear warheads from the ocean, but then due to a breakdown in the reactor the submarine was forced to return prematurely to friendly waters experiencing numerous problems. And these are the facts as they really happened.
But the writer Louis Nowra and screenwriter Christopher Kyle (and it seems that the great Tom Stoppard worked on the dialogues, but not on the story) came up with a lot of additional imaginary details! These include: the conflict between Captain Vostrikov (Ford) and Captain Polenin (Neeson); the mutiny of the second officer and the political commissar; the series of accidents on board (the real K19 had a reactor malfunction in 1962 and a big fire in 1971, not everything happened in the first mission); and the almost suicidal behavior of the captain who pushes both the submarine and the crew to the limits from the first minute of the mission.
I understand that the conflict between officers is an easy narrative device in a film like this (also used in The hunt for Red October and Crimson tide, to name two examples, and even in Star Trek: The motion picture, to get into science fiction territory), but here was it really needed? I’m thinking about the best submarine movie ever shot, Das boot, directed by Wolfgang Petersen in 1981: its plot is both credible and compelling, with the setting offering a thousand interesting stories without the need for invent them completely. The problem of the conflict in K19 is that it creates tension but in the long run it’s tiresome and it’s not sustainable: no captain would accept such a level of insubordination on board!
But leaving this aspect aside, what remains of K19: the widowmaker? The most memorable scenes are those of the crew repairing the failure in the reactor, especially because they’re dramatically realistic. Seeing the crew members facing certain death due to radiation to make sure that the rest of the comrades could be saved is heartbreaking and Bigelow did an amazing job in order to make it unforgettable. Surely these are the best scenes in the film, along with those with the real submarine used to recreate the navigation scenes at open sea (various vessels of the Canadian military fleet were used in the movie). And Liam Neeson’s performance is great, but perhaps only because it’s natural to compare it to Ford’s painful acting…
In short, if you like war movies, this is one certainly deserves to be seen, but don’t expect anything extraordinary. Kathryn Bigelow has done better movies in her long career. Ciao!