K–19: The Widowmaker (2002)
Review by Doc Ezra

Written by Christopher Kyle
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Starring Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, and Peter Sarsgaard


Rating: PG–13

Anamorphic: Yes

My advice: Rent it.

After Captain Mikhail Polenin (Neeson) refuses to jeopardize his crew during drills, he is relieved of his command, and made executive officer under hard-liner Alexei Vostrikov (Ford). Vostrikov is the kind of captain that most sailors have nightmares about: the drills are constant, the captain humorless, and the boat becomes a miserable place.

While still in drydock, sailors start dying in bizarre accidents. Backup systems aren’t being installed, due to budget shortfalls, and even the christening of the boat goes awry when the champagne bottle won’t break, and instead bounces harmlessly off the hull (sailors being a superstitious lot, this of course sets them even more on edge). The boat gains the dubious appellation "Widowmaker," and Polenin advises his new captain to be easy on the men, who are freaked out beyond belief.

Vostrikov, of course, is having none of it. He won’t delay their departure, and won’t lay off the men, insisting that the relentless drills are necessary to make the crew into a team. As tensions grow, and murmurs of mutiny spread through the ranks, the ship reaches its destination, and launches a test missile. The test, designed to show the Americans of 1961 that Moscow was capable of lobbing sub-based ICBMs into the heart of the United States, brings a moment of happiness and camaraderie to the crew. But then things start going wrong. A reactor leak (coupled with a complete dearth of radiation suits) leads to several deaths as the men struggle to repair it, and a U.S. destroyer encounters the submarine, making Cold War tensions mount.

K–19 is an entertaining movie, though not a completely novel one by any stretch. The tension between Ford and Neeson is a nearly direct lift of the character dynamic between Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington in Crimson Tide. The whole Cold War angle comes to us straight from Hunt For Red October. Despite the familiarity of some of the story, it’s still entertaining enough. The lukewarm reception when the film was released may have had more to do with watching Harrison Ford play such a complete arse, after all his years as our hero, than anything else.

The performances are outstanding all around, from both the two principals and the supporting cast. The conflict between Ford and Neeson, as well as their shared love of Mother Russia, creates an interesting dynamic. Great attention was also paid to the technical details of the film, with minutiae of the submarine’s construction and operation handled properly.

The extras are few but interesting. The commentary is decent, though I’m a little unsure about the inclusion of the cinematographer. The movie’s shot on a submarine, so there’s not a lot for the cinematographer to say (as I imagine there wasn’t much for him to do). He tries gamely enough, but his insight seems a bit limited. I’d have liked to hear Ford and Neeson before I’d have asked for these two, but some commentary is better than none. The featurettes are fairly standard fare, but interesting enough for fans of the film or of submarines.

If you’re the kind that has watched every submarine movie you could find since the day you saw the director’s cut of Das Boot, then K–19: The Widowmaker probably deserves a place on your shelf with the rest. If, on the other hand, you don’t have a love of all things submersible, this one still deserves a rental, but probably not much more.

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