With Kathryn Bigelow's latest film, DETROIT, opening wide recently, I am revisiting this project that I sadly left unfinished several years earlier. This installment has been edited here and there, including some updates that account for changes in the film landscape since I first did this write up.
The Film: K-19: The Widowmaker
The Year: 2002
The Plot: The Cold War is in full 60’s swing and the Russians are launching their first nuclear submarine, the K-19, on its maiden voyage. While the men are used to answering to Captain Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson), his inability to drive them to meet the increasingly over the top Soviet standards results in Captain Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford) being given the helm. Vostrikov is a well-respected figure in the Soviet Navy but he is also the scion of a well-known “traitor” who ended his life in the Siberian Gulag and thus seems doubly dedicated to the party line.
While the new captain’s ways do get results, they also breed resentment. That resentment is stoked by the close quarters and sent into a boil when the nuclear reactor malfunctions. As radiation fills the sub, Vostrikov seems hellbent on not giving an inch even several men become very visibly sick from radiation poisoning. Mutinies on top of mutinies ensue as the two captains struggle for control all while American destroyers watch offering possible salvation or doom.
The Issues: Communism v. Capitalism from the Communist side- There’s actually not a ton of this, but early on, viewers are treated to instructional film strips that depict America as decadent in a way that suggests more the 1920’s Gilded Age than the relatively staid early 60’s. We also see the power of the “Party” on the lives of Russian citizens and the ways in which the submariners embrace it or try to circumvent it, especially in regards to religious observation.
Loyalty and to Whom?- With the Party looming so large, it is hard for the film not to consider the individual’s loyalty to the state. The movie also toys with where that should end and a loyalty to one’s fellow naval men, friends, even one’s self should begin. It’s hard to say if that is fueled by a Westerner making the movie (and thus being more interested in the individual v. collective) or it says something about human nature—that our interests in those near and dear will often trump our more “high minded” philosophical principles and stands.
Honor- Essentially an off-shoot of loyalty, the focus here is on whether it is more honorable to remains dedicated to principles in the face of certain doom or to chuck one’s higher ideals to ensure that others (and perhaps the wider world) might survive.
The Opinion: The submarine genre has, essentially, been split into two separate sub (no pun intended) genres at this point and K-19 wades into them both. On the one hand, we have the tense battle between commanders for control (see: CRIMSON TIDE) and on the other we have noble Russians battling their corrupt political ideology below the waves (see: HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, PHANTOM). Being both does not necessarily improve the final product.
For one, the story lacks the nasty snap of a good villain that, say, David Duchovny brings to the underrated PHANTOM (yeah, I said it!). The “system,” when not personified, is simply too abstract to give a viewer the same kind of intensity. Harrison Ford’s Vostrikov could, theoretically, be that villain, but he seems less than wicked, per se, and more just stubborn and not open to others’ ideas.
This also somewhat undermines the war between captains for control. Without the bluster of Gene Hackman’s Captain Ramsey in CRIMSON TIDE, there is not much for Neeson’s Polenin to dig in against. He comes across as more nagging, even as the tension ramps up, rather than righteous or heading towards furious.
That said, the performances are actually strong. The script and plot, I think, are what bleed some of that interpersonal tension out, not the actors. Ford famously commented on set when asked where he was locating his soul that it was “under a big pile of money” but he actually seems to give a damn on-screen. A quick look through his filmography suggests that maybe this was the last time (that great line reading of “And now I’m standing on your neck!” in PARANOIA excepted). [Writer’s Note: His aged soulful Han Solo would now make the list as well, but when I wrote this initially, THE FORCE AWAKENS was not even a rumor.]
His Russian accent is not great, per se, but it is subtle and grew on me as the movie progressed. Other actors might try to really tear into it to cover up their lack of authenticity, but Ford instead opts to nail the mannerisms and posture and let the accent be the least showy thing about his acting.
Neeson, on the other hand, goes kind of Connery with it, mostly just using his native tongue and hoping American audiences will go “oh, right, foreign, accent, nothing wrong here.” Thankfully, he plays wounded very well and a late speech to the Party is a bit of a showcase piece in an otherwise large (in terms of lines) but limited (in terms of notes to play) role.
The cast from there down also acquits themselves well including, unsurprisingly, Peter Sarsgaard as one of the sacrificial scapegoats. In fact, the film is never better than when it just “lives” in the boat with the crew.
In terms of cultural understanding, the movie is strange. The Russians in the sub are largely shown as good, decent people and even Vostrikov eventually comes out looking good. Communism as a whole, and the party officials as an avatar of the system, are pretty one-note “bad” but never in a dynamic or interesting way.
America, on the other hand, comes across fairly well. They offer aid, never attack or seize the sub, and the most overt Cold War action they engage in is taking pictures from a helicopter as the Russians continue to refuse help. It’s odd. It suggests that, even from the Russian perspective, the Americans are good guys and Communists are bad. I mean, I buy that as an American, but if we are viewing them through Russian sailors’ eyes, shouldn’t the Americans’ presence carry some feelings of dread or danger with it? Or at least resentment?
As a piece of Bigelow’s filmography, it is a lesser film, but, interestingly, feels like the most Bigelow Bigelow movie possible. Men and manhood is not a concern, it is the concern, the driving force of the film. Women are nearly entirely absent. Even while the men prepare to depart at the start of the movie there is only one line spoken by a woman and when the men gather at the end for a memorial ceremony none of them bring wives, girlfriends, daughters, sisters, etc. The only reminders beyond that of the existence of women is a photo Sarsgaard carries with him, both Captains’ wedding rings, and a brief glimpse of what I would swear was a flapper dancing during the anti-America film strip.
Granted, this is a submarine movie so, by design, it is going to be male heavy, but compare it to, say, Red October, Phantom, or Crimson Tide and even amongst its peers, this is a movie that seems to exist in a particularly woman-free world.
At the end of the day, K-19 is not a standout, but it also does not violate my “Submarine Movie Law” which states, simply, that there has never been an actually bad submarine movie. Yes, even Down Periscope.
The Conclusion: The plot and script are not great, but the acting is strong. The movie is best when it lets the viewer feel like he or she is actually in the sub alongside the crew and lets the capital p PLOT slip into the background.