Film Review: K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)
The relations between United States and Russia are so bad that it is very easy to imagine that they used to be much better than they are today. But, from today’s perspective, it is actually difficult to imagine that the relations, even in relatively recent times, used to be so good that Hollywood was allowed to make films in which Russian characters are portrayed not only as human beings, but actually protagonists. One such, now unfathomable, example can be found in K-19: The Widowmaker, 2002 historic action film directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
The plot, based on real events, is set in 1961, during one of the critical points of Cold War. United States has recently elected young, bellicose and staunchly anti-Communist John F. Kennedy for president and Soviet leadership fears that American nuclear submarines, which have recently appeared in Arctic, might send nuclear missiles to Moscow on moment’s notice. Nikita Khrushchev believes that the only way he can deter Americans from doing so is to send Soviet nuclear submarines with nuclear missiles in waters near main US cities. The problem is that USSR has only one such vessel as its disposal – submarine K-19. To make things even worse, submarine isn’t even finished and even less tested. Its commander, Captain Vladimir Polenin (played by Liam Neeson) doesn’t hesitate to warn his superiors about it, but instead of preventing the his submarine from sailing, he gets his command removed and given to Captain Alexei Vostrikov (played by Harrison Ford), officer who advanced in ranks through political connections. Polenin is kept on the boat as executive officer, but its crew soon finds huge difference. While Polenin cared about well-being of his men, Vostrikov is fanatic that tries to maintain iron discipline and wants to test the boat to its limit, regardless of the risks. Despite the tensions, initial missile test in Arctic is successful and Vostrikov sets the source towards Atlantic. But, just as they are about to pass near NATO base at one of Arctic islands, nuclear reactor cooling mechanism malfunctions. When the temperature in reactor rises to critical point, it will result in meltdown and thermonuclear explosion. Vostrikov is now faced with serious dilemma – whether to ask assistance from Americans, as Polenin suggests, or try fixing the reactor which could risk disaster and Third World War.
Like many Hollywood dramatisations of real history, K-19: The Widowaker displays scriptwriters tendency to sacrifice bits of historical accuracy for the sake of content that would look more exciting and attractive on screen. In this particular case, it is the conflict between two top submarine officers which looks too inspired with similar plot element in similarly-themed and completely fictional Crimson Tide. This is accompanied by series of pathetic cliches without which many Hollywood films can’t be without – like characters showing pictures of loved ones in their wallets or talking about bright future plans, which turns their survival before end credits all but impossible. There are also some mild attempts of criticism towards Soviet regime, embodied in defence minister played by Joss Ackland, dependable character actor specialised for the roles of villainous officials.
Despite those shortcomings, anyone watching The Widowmaker could notice that great talent was behind the camera. Kathryn Bigelow knew how to use claustrophobic submarine setting to maintain the suspense and turn otherwise dark and depressive story into exciting action film. But, what is most surprising is extremely benevolent treatment of the losing side in Cold War. Despite screenwriter Christopher Kyle condeming Soviet system, the individuals within it are shown with great sympathies. Submariners are treated as heroes willing to risk all to rescue their fellow man and defend their motherland from nuclear annihiliation. Harrison Ford, who only few years ago has played character exterminating evil Russian Communists in Air Force One, actually plays rigid Soviet Communist in this film who, despite everything, makes right decision at the end. Ford made this contribution credible despite somewhat unfortunate decision to speak English with heavy Russian accent. The rest of cast, made of relatively unknown Russian, Scandinavian actors with few Anglo-Americans, is also good, and Peter Sarsgaard stands out in the role of young, idealistic but inexperienced nuclear physics expert. Although film failed at the box office, the most relevant verdict was given by actual survivors of the incident. Despite noticing that many details had very little or nothing to do with their experiences, they liked the film. Audience that watches film now would probably agree.
RATING: 6/10 (++)
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