K-19: The Widowmaker Movie Review

K-19: The Widowmaker is based on a true story about a Russian submarine sent to test a nuclear missile at the height of the Cold War. The boat is ill-equipped for its task, and Capitan Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson) loses his command by insisting that the sub won't be ready in time for its scheduled launch. Captain Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford) is given control of the ship, and his stern demeanor and commitment to military efficiency soon make him enemies onboard.

He runs the crew through relentless drills, offers little encouragement, and seems to take unnecessary chances. We soon learn that Polenin -- who remains aboard the sub -- is a father figure to the sailors, while Vostrikov aims to inspire fear. These opposing command styles lead to power clashes throughout the movie, a la Crimson Tide.

After testing the missile, the crew is ordered to sneak past NATO bases and assume a patrol along the eastern coast of the United States. Along the way, mechanical problems threaten to launch a chain of events that would ignite the boat's radioactive cargo. A nuclear explosion so near NATO bases would invite international conflict between the superpowers, but there's no way to fix the problem without jeopardizing the entire crew. The command structure and the sailors' lives are threatened as the captains try to prevent World War III.

The biggest obstacle in a war film is often giving the audience enough information about a swarm of soldiers to make you care when one of them is hurt. The screenwriter gives the characters sufficient depth and tweaks the familiar war movie characters -- green enlistee, world-weary buddy, surly commander with a heart of gold -- just enough to make them worthwhile. Not surprisingly, Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson have good chemistry, though it is jarring to hear an affected Russian accent on the steadfast American Ford.

The submarine, as usual, is a strong backdrop for suspense. The setting is so pregnant with imminent bad luck that the audience is on edge well before things get going. Director Kathryn Bigelow plays up the sense of foreboding with fantastic cross-section shots of the ship that show you exactly how close the sailors are to potential disaster.

My only real complaint is that the movie is too long, especially in its indulgent conclusion. After nearly two and a half hours, I was more than ready to leave. If Bigelow had simply produced a solid action flick and left behind aspirations to drama, it would have clipped along nicely. Still, it's a satisfying summer blockbuster and worth a look.

On DVD, K-19 proves itself a real showpiece for those interested in Soviet history. In addition to a commentary, there are tons of documentaries about the making of the film, including numerous behind-the-scenes and before-the-production shots of the movie, including numerous research trips to Russia. Intriguing if you're an aficionado.

All together now... PUSH!


K-19: The Widowmaker Rating

" Good "

Rating: PG-13, 2002


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