At the Movies with Alan Gekko: K-19: The Widowmaker “02”

MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Historical Drama/ Stars: Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Peter Sarsgaard, Joss Ackland, John Shrapnel, Donald Sumpter, Tim Woodward, Steve Nicolson, Ravil Isyanov, Christian Camargo, George Anton, James Francis Ginty, Lex Shrapnel, Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson, Sam Spruell, Sam Redford, Peter Stebbings, Shaun Benson, Kristen Holden-Ried, Dmitry Chepovetsky, Tygh Runyan, Jacob Pitts, Michael Gladis, Peter Oldring, Joshua Close, Jeremy Akerman/ Runtime: 138 minutes

Run Silent Run Deep, Das Boot, Crimson Tide, U-571, and The Hunt for Red October. (TIME!) I think it is safe to say that if you ask either a casual movie goer, avid lover of cinema, or film reviewer to give you the names of at least 4 films involving submarines in 30 seconds, the odds are in your favor that among them you will not hear the title “K-19: The Widowmaker” and to be honest that isn’t that surprising to me. That is because even though this film isn’t exactly treasure that has been under the waves for a long time, it is still a wonderful enough slice of cinematic pie that manages to firmly place those watch it in the midst of a Russian submarine assignment in the 1960s going horrifically amok whilst also ensnaring fairly well the anxiety, terror, and even humanity of an on-edge crew on a respectable level for a sub film that does NOT go by any of the names listed at the start of this review. Indeed operating more as a drama than an outright entry in the action genre, this slice of cinematic pie actually has more than a fair amount of similarities to perhaps the best Submarine film ever made, Das Boot from film helmer Wolfgang Petersen, than to a film like Crimson Tide or U-571. Yet when you make a period film that chooses to concentrate on a very little-known to the casual movie goer incident onboard a little known Russian sub, and have it feature an intriguingly cast Harrison Ford in the lead role with no torpedoes ever being unloaded into an enemy vessel and the whole cinematic package is this put in the middle of blockbuster mine field….I honestly don’t see this ending well. A guess that actually is made right when you discover that this slice of cinematic pie from noteworthy film helmer Kathryn Bigelow at the time actually lost the studio at least 33 million dollars (yikes). Be that as it may be, I am still willing to defend the film and say that should you look at it for the kind of movie that it turns out to be, K-19: The Widowmaker is actually a fairly good and well-constructed slice of cinematic pie that, though void of action beats, is nevertheless a solid, riveting, and often quite intriguing movie that is worthy to be part of the subgenre of movie magic to which it belongs.

The plot is as follows: The time is the long gone year of 1961, the place is what was at one time known as the Soviet Union and the global event known as the Cold War is going on in full. Indeed in this era we witness as nukes and a concept known as Mutually Assured Destruction have become the main forms of deterrence in avoiding a possible global conflict between America, the Soviets, their allies, and their sponsored nations as well. Yet even though both parties in this have managed to acquire enough bombs to annihilate the world more times than one can count, this film really gets underway as we see that the Soviets have managed to construct their first nuclear sub, christened the K-19, and soon she is ready to head out and engage in covert surveillance ops of the Eastern American Seaboard. However just before she is ready to head out, we soon see that the K-19’s Captain, one Mikhail Polenin, is to be replaced at the helm by one Captain Alexei Vostrikov, though Polenin is permitted to stay on as Vostrikov’s Executive Officer. Incidentally it is also worth noting that the crew of this particular sub are a fairly superstitious lot and think their vessel to be cursed: not just by the number of people who died building her, but also because a bottle of champagne failed to break across the hull during the sub’s dedication ceremony. Thus as the ship heads out into open water and the crew challenged with a series of trying tests and/or drills to keep them sharp and focused, things soon take a turn for the horrific when the sub  manages to acquire a coolant leak in one of its reactors. A leak that incidentally will soon place everyone on board in jeopardy, but just as crucially severely cripple the sub’s performance thus increasing unease on board and putting in a sling the Russian’s ability to be successful at challenging the United States’ nuclear sub program that was being worked on at the exact same time….

Now being in possession of a fair amount more of positives rather than negatives, this is one slice of cinematic pie that makes for a decent time spent under the waves even if it’s not your typical submarine fare in that this is one entry in that iconic subgenre that doesn’t have any genuine action beats to it. By this I mean this is not a film where we see torpedoes gliding under the water, a crew in silence looking up as an enemy destroyer tries to find them and eliminate them or any of the “typical elements” for a film such as this. Rather, film helmer Kathryn Bigelow instead decides to give us a narrative that might not have much in the way of action beats, but it is potent on pathos both as it revolves around the narrative and in how the film conjures up genuine human beings that go through absolute agony for both their Captain and their country which they love with all their hearts. Indeed this film is something of a depressing yet also restrained film that puts a distinct wrinkle on a group of human beings that is usually seen as one-dimensional villains rather than genuine people. It is in that respect that this slice of cinematic pie manages to be quite similar to a movie like Das Boot which also showcases that those we think to be our “enemy” are just as human as you and I are. Indeed make no mistake: the cast of characters at the heart of this film are presented to us as real human beings who not only comprehend, but also wholeheartedly accept the ideals of honor and patriotism, but are also capable of showing genuine pathos including terror which goes a long way toward making this film a tale worth showcasing no matter what country these men are soldiers of.

Now when looking at this slice of cinematic pie from a style point of view, it’s worth noting that despite her best attempts, Bigelow sadly is not able to completely pull off the same amount of unease in tight quarters that Petersen managed to achieve in Das Boot. Yes there is a fair amount of tension throughout the runtime, but that downright vibe of being stuck in such close quarters day in and day out just simply does not show up. Along with that, those of you who choose to view this film should know that whilst you may not ever feel like you are an unseen crew member, this slice of cinematic pie manages to make amends for that especially when you take into account the astonishing degree of pathos the movie has garnered by the time the screen cuts to black and the credits start to go. To the credit of the film’s helmer though, this is one slice of cinematic pie that doesn’t feel like too much even when taking into account a runtime that goes way past a couple of hours. Indeed Bigelow manages to garner as much as she can from what is a quite straightforward and simplistic narrative to the point that she is able to keep you riveting and make sure that the unease and pathos are front and center and also hide the fact that there are no major action beats in terms of typical sub vs sub kind of material. Finally it is also worth pointing out that the cast assembled for this particular outing all do wonderful work. Yes Harrison Ford’s Russian accent in this doesn’t seem to go beyond the concept of “at least he is trying to make an effort”, but in terms of the physicality of the role and his comprehension of what he is working with however, Ford is top-notch and manages to showcase for us the captain of a sub that is in equal measure proud and testing, but at the same time decent and able to understand the needs of the men under him as well. We also get terrific support work from Liam Neeson who does great as the XO as well as a young Peter Sarsgaard before he moved on to much bigger roles. Ultimately though there may be issues with the film, but the performances within should not be viewed as one of those things.

All in all it may have been hit with the quite deadly torpedo at the box office when it was first released all the way back in the now-long gone year of 2002, but if you should take the time to give it a second look with the benefit of hindsight, I think you will pleasantly relieved to discover much as I did that K-19: The Widowmaker manages to actually prove itself to be a decent, actually emotional, and quite intriguing submarine slice of cinematic pie that might not be full of action, is also a film that is worthwhile thanks in large part to concentrating more on the human pathos and agony of the true story that the movie is regaling us with. To that end, it should be noted that I am really not that astonished to learn that this slice of cinematic pie didn’t even manage to make enough money to cover its initial budget. An opinion I am choosing to ground in the evidence that this film’s midsummer release and the void of a filmmaking approach akin to something like that seen in U-571 honestly affected this way more than it should’ve. Yet while this slice of cinematic pie might not have initially intrigued you when it first came out in theaters all the way back in the long-gone year of 2002, I do feel that enough time has passed that perhaps you should consider giving this film a second chance. Indeed I feel that doing so and being patient with it, you will be treated to a quite riveting film with some truly emotional pathos ingredients in the mix that even though they don’t help the film surface to the top of the pile of this iconic subgenre (pun intended) don’t at the same time permit the movie to sink all the way down to the bottom either. On a scale of 1-5 I give K-19: The Widowmaker “02” a solid 3.5 out of 5.