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A.J.'s Rating: 3.5 Submerged Soviet Stars
K-19: The Widowmaker
Directed By:  Kathryn Bigelow
Written By:  Louis Nowra (story) / Christopher Kyle (screenplay)
Starring:  Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson
Rated:   PG-13  (language / disturbing images)
Running Time:  138 Min.
    It is 1961, the height of the Cold War.  The nuclear-powered missile submarine K-19 is to be the flagship of the Soviet fleet and its first line of defense in the North Atlantic.  However, pressure from the Kremlin has forced her and her crew to leave port before many of the revolutionary ideas that went into her design can be adequately tested.  
    Fueled by President Kennedy's defensive stance and continued support of spy reconnaissance, the Soviets are desperate to show that they have the technical capability to launch an equally devastating nuclear attack upon the United States, were they ever the target of a first strike.  The concept is known as 'mutually assured destruction', or MAD (ironic acronym!).  The U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. seek to deter each other from beginning World War III, by perpetually escalating the quantity and effectiveness of their military arsenals.  Now, these superpowers have enough armaments to destroy each other many times over.  Unfortunately, stockpiling massive amounts of nuclear weaponry also translates into massive opportunities for this Cold War to accidentally heat up, and 1961 was a banner year for that!  K-19: The Widowmaker seeks to tell the true account of one such incident.
    Harrison Ford plays Captain Alexi Vostrikov, the stern new commander of K-19.  His second in command is Captain Mikhail Polenin, K-19's original Captain during testing.  Polenin, played by Liam Neeson, has developed a bond with the men who were once his crew, but Vostrikov will have none of it.  He knows that a man's service is to the State, not to other men, and certainly not to himself.  Vostrikov is dedicated to this Communist ideal, and will train his crew to become just as dedicated, or have them die trying.  When a reactor coolant leak threatens to destroy K-19, along with a trailing U.S. destroyer and nearby NATO base, that crew gets more testing than any of their new submarine systems ever received.
    While this movie was inspired by actual events, it seems that much fictionalization has gone into telling the story for the big screen.  I have a difficult time believing that a Soviet submarine crew could ever be as clueless about their own vessel as the crew portrayed in this film.  The success of K-19 was vital to the U.S.S.R.'s strategic defense plan, and I doubt that its crew was not comprised of the finest, most qualified men for the assignment.  K-19 includes many unfortunate moments of screenwriter-induced suspense.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but most of the fictional elements in the film occur at the expense of the real-life heroes portrayed.  These brave men deserve more respect than that.  However, historical embellishments aside, as a pure military thriller, K-19 is quite good. 
    Something that is accurately represented in K-19 is the Soviet military motivation and mindset of the time.  There are many fascinating discussions between Vostrikov and Polenin, as the two captains argue the best course of action, even though at a deeper level, they both agree what must be done.  Also, there is an enlightening scene featuring the sub's political officer, as he instructs the crew not to believe in American propaganda.
    As for adventure, K-19 has plenty of that!  Director Kathryn Bigelow succeeds in finding new and interesting camera angles for telling the story and creating believable tension.  This is an incredible achievement, considering that the action takes place primarily within the restricting confines of a submarine.  As a result, tight quarters make for a very tight thriller!
    So, while it's not entirely accurate, if you enjoyed The Crimson Tide or The Hunt for Red October, K-19: The Widowmaker is well worth a look.
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Review published
July 22, 2002
A.J.'s Movie Reviews
K-19: A Historical Perspective
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