K-19

k191

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Written by Christopher Kyle

Starring
– Harrison Ford as Cpt. Alexi Vostrikov
– Liam Neeson as Capt. Mikhail Polenin
– Peter Sarsgaard as Vadim Radtchenko
– Christian Carmargo as Pavel Loktev
– This one French looking guy with a moustache

Jonny likes Soviet history

The only thing worse than being in the Russian Army is being in the
Russian Navy. The only thing worse than being in the Russian Navy is
being in a Russian submarine. K-19: The Widowmaker
tries to illustrate exactly this point. It tries really hard. So hard
in fact, that I think most of the good stuff will go over most folk’s
heads and the bad stuff will appear larger than necessary and more
boring than need be. Let’s start with the bad.

Harrison Ford isn’t aging well. He looks old, ragged, worn. Aside from his looks though, he manages to ham his way through K-19 sporting the worst accent I’ve heard since The Phantom Menace. Liam Neeson is in both movies, and in this one he sounds Russian/Irish. The Hunt For Red October
did it best. The first ten minutes of the movie were subtitled, and
then all of a sudden the actors started speaking English in their
natural voices. It worked great. Here you’ve got two Hollywood heavy
weights screaming at each other for two hours in fake accents, the
severity of which tend to fluctuate. It’s not just them, though.
Director Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days) forces the entire cast
to speak in strange slavic-like accents that do nothing but distract
the viewer and detract from the film.

Cut the drama. K-19 is “inspired by real events.” In 1961, a Russian
sub did almost meltdown. It might have started WWIII. A super-duper
captain and a great crew saved not only the sub, but maybe the world.
Of course, while all this was actually happening, the Captain and his
crew were not constantly telling any and every sailer who would listen
how “heroic” they all are and how important everything that they were
doing was, not just to “Mother Russia,” but to the world at large. The
movie goes into emotional climax mode for the last hour solid. It gets
old and tiring. Most of the dialogue is telegraphed and obvious. Many
of the scenes are heavy handed. Like when Neeson explains to Ford that
the men are starting to call the ship “The Widowmaker.” He explains
that ten men have already died while the boat is still in dry dock.
Also at the christening the champagne bottle failed to break. The men
see this as a “bad omen.” Duh. To which Ford does nothing but grimace
and talk about duty. Honestly, if it had been any other actors I might
have began laughing.

I guess anytime you have a submarine movie you have to compare it to Das Boot, which is totally unfair. It would be like comparing all teen flicks to Bring It On or all other movies to Dr. Strangelove. There is no comparison. K-19 is a good submarine flick, but next to Boot
it might as well have been about two kids playing navy in a bathtub.
However, there are some similarities that I should point out.

For one, both boats are essentially sent on suicide missions dictated
not so much out of military necessity as they are by political
expediency. I still get chills when I think about Jurgen Prochnow
riding atop his boat, racing through the Straight of Gibraltar towards
certain doom. In The Widowmaker
much of what could have been great tension is ruined by constant
on-the-nose observations and a bunch of self-important speeches. I know
it’s bad when radiation levels rise. Only morons don’t understand that
point. So, having all the characters constantly mention that the
captain is “trying to cook us” and having a dude walk around with a
geiger counter for half an hour only served to make me groan.

Das Boot also gets it right with gauges. In fact, in Petersen’s movie, the depth gauge is basically another character. In K-19
the depth gauge has been replaced by the reactor temperature gauge.
Most of the movie’s drama stems from the fact that a pump in the second
reactor broke and that if the core temperature reaches 1000 degrees
(Fahrenheit? Celsius? They never say. I’ll assume the metric) then
something bad will happen. Maybe “another Hiroshima” Reactor Lieutenant
Radtchenko (Sarsgaard) informs Ford. Except that there are only 120 men
on K-19, not 70,000. More on that later. Anyway, we watch the gauge go
up and down as the crew struggles to cool the reactor down. There is no
tension though, because Bigelow has Demichev (Steve Nicholson) barking
out the temperature the entire time. “Captian it’s 750! Captain it’s
760! Captain it’s 763!” Etc. In Das Boot the men sat grimfaced, watching the depth gauge in absolute horror and as the viewer you felt they might die at any moment. In The Widowmaker,
it began to feel like Scotty was telling Kirk that the photon torpedoes
were jammed. You knew the whole time that somehow they’d get out of it.
There was no subtlety, instead there was too much action for any real
suspense or drama.

Petersen also managed to turn the insides of the Boot
into one of the most memorable sets in cinema. The ship seemed to come
alive whenever the men would go tearing through its belly. I give the
cinematographer Jost Vacano all the credit in the world. Bigelow and
principle cinematographer Jeff Croenweth obviously try and duplicate
what Vacano accomplished. Here is why they fall short; the sub is too
active. The camera is everywhere, capturing every angle. In Das Boot you had desperate sailors rushing through the innards of a monster. In K-19
you have desperate sailors rushing through a labyrinth. The viewer is
left as confused as the crew. Also, Bigelow spends much too much time
trying to ape David Fincher by having the camera literally move through
every solid object in its way. Many of the shots were more gratuitous
than Panic Room.
After a while, I was expecting to see the camera go right through a
whale. Hey, she did make it go through a school of fish. Twice.

Isn’t there anything I liked about The Widowmaker? Yeah, there was lots of stuff. First, the shots of the sub moving through the water were pretty good. In fact, Das Boot’s
sole shortcoming in my eyes is the wretched use and reuse of stock
submarine footage and blue screens. Of course it was made over twenty
years ago when TOGO was the hot graphic language. K-19 gets the
underwater and exterior boat shots right. Especially when the damn
thing is just cruising around on top of the water. Good stuff.

Also, it is a great story. As one of the most over educated people
writing about movies today[Ed Note: Fuck off, you conceited bastard], I
worry that the modern movie-goer has no clue as to what the Cold War
was actually about. Specifically how important the arms race was. In K-19
the Soviets realize that they have to fire an ICBM from a sub deep in
the arctic circle to show the Americans that Russia is just as advanced
militarily as the good old USA. The truth of course is, that the USA is
and always was not only superior to the U.S.S.R., but that we could
have destroyed Russia several times over before they even got a missile
out of a silo. General LeMay personally saw to that.
However, the Russians kept US Military intelligence fooled. There was a
famous case where during a Soviet Military parade, a US spy reported
seeing eighteen long range soviet bombers fly overhead. The truth was
that the Russian air force knew the Americans would be watching, so
they took their only working bomber and made eighteen passes. Why
eighteen? It ran out of fuel after eighteen runs.

My point is that because of MADness,
the captain and crew of K-19 were forced into one of the direst
situations in the history of the world. I just doubt that your typical
American audience will understand why it was so very important for the
K-19 to fire off that test missile. (I also doubt that the average
American even knows what communism is.) The Soviets had to fire that
missile – in their minds, the future of their country hung in the
balance. Bigelow fails to get this across in plain terms. For most of
the movie, we are led to believe that Captain Vostrikov (Ford) is
cruel, crazy and unthinking. That he was given the helm simply because
he is a “party” man. However, in the film’s second best scene, we learn
that the Captain is actually not only brilliant, but that he has had
his men’s and his nation’s and the world’s best interests in mind the
entire time. The movie almost redeems itself once Neeson takes Ford out
of the handcuffs.

By far, the best part of the movie is when six crew members have to go
into the reactor itself to weld a new cooling system together. Because
of typical Soviet inefficiency, somebody forgot to pack radiation
suits. Neeson puts the men in chemical suits instead, telling them that
it will help. Which is like saying you can piss AIDs out. One after the
other the men emerge from the reactor burnt and vomiting. If that
reactor would have gone critical and blown up, not only would all the
men on board have died, but there is a good chance that a US destroyer
in the vicinity would have been destroyed. Meaning that World War 3
would have started in 1961. These men literally killed themselves to
prevent that.

K-19: The Widowmaker is one of the few movies in recent memory
that started out pretty bad and got progressively better. It thrashes
around for the first third trying desperately to find its own voice,
goofy accents not withstanding. K-19 borrows greedily not just
from other submarine flicks, but from other war movies. Try and tell me
that Radtchenko’s disobedience and subsequent heroism isn’t directly
modeled after Jeremy Davies character’s cowardice and eventual
redemtion in Saving Private Ryan and I will disagree with you.
Even so, by the end of the film I was a little stirred. There is a
great story buried beneath all that bluster. You just have to know what
you are looking for.


Ruthless Ratings

  • Overall: 6
  • Direction: 5
  • Acting: 7
  • Acting After Stupid Accent Penalty: 5
  • Story: 6, but it could have been a 10
  • Re-watchability: 6

Special Ruthless Ratings

  • Number of times you felt the plot moved too quickly in the beginning: 12
  • Number of times you wondered what the hell was on Harrison Ford’s chin: 11
  • Number of times you wanted to slap Liam Neeson for being so damn earnest: 14
  • Number of times you figure that Neesem played his character more earnestly than he was written: 15
  • Number of times you felt like joining the navy and applying for sub duty: 1
  • Number of times you wished that Ford’s character would have had more depth in the beginning: 18
  • Number of times you were sure David Fincher was directing: 6
  • Number of times the oppressive soundtrack made you reach for your knife: 103
  • Number of times you wished you were watching Das Boot instead: 7
About Jonny Lieberman

Jonny was the site’s co-founder and helped carry the place in the early years. There was a falling out with Erich and he left the site for good, but a lot of his reviews live on. He has moved on to a successful career writing about cars. Look him up.