“K-19: The Widowmaker” is a cold war thriller told from the Russian point of view which gives it the appearance of having more credibility and dark truth than if this were an American story. We suspect that this story might have a grim and messy ending, maybe like “Das Boot,” the brilliant 1981 submarine epic which was told from the German point of view.
The film opens in 1961 as the Soviet leadership races to send its own armed submarine into action to counter the momentum of the Americans who have just displayed the famed Polaris. The USSR believes that the Americans are planning a deadly strike. Enter the “K-19,” the pride of the Soviet submarine fleet. It’s being rushed into action and the sub looks creaky and wobbly. Maybe the Soviet leadership has a more diabolical motive for wanting to send it away.
Enter Captain Polenin(Liam Neeson)who’s a breath of fresh air, a maverick within the Soviet command. He cares about the men and their safety and he has grave doubts about the “K-19″’s durability, and no wonder. There’s leaks everywhere and a symbolic champagne bottle fails to break when it hits the ship on the eve of the starcrossed voyage. Suddenly, Polenin is replaced by a much sterner Captain named Vostrikov, played by Harrison Ford, which causes a stir amongst the men, as Neeson’s relegated to being second in command. Vostrikov doesn’t ask questions.
As the sub makes its dive, Vostrikov shocks us, and his crew, by pushing the unsteady machine to its limits. The sub makes a dangerous dive down to crash depth followed by a meteoric rise through the surface, and the men go through various drills, moving like ants to carry out Vostrikov’s orders which begin to seem more and more chaotic. Meanwhile, the “K-19″ marches towards the American eastern seaboard where the Soviets believe they can stymie the Americans.
It’s here that “K-19: The Widowmaker” settles comfortably into the conventions of the standard thriller. We know there’ll be tension between Ford and Neeson and that they’ll eventually develop a grudging respect for each other. The tortured sailors have divided loyalties and the big “crisis” in the film, in this case a massive radiation meltdown, will throw the whole contained situation into chaos. How could you be in one of these submarines and not feel you were in a tomb?
“K-19: The Widowmaker” hits all of those familiar story points, including a grisly scene where the men’s skin starts to peel as they take turns trying to fix the faulty nuclear reactor, but what’s interesting about the film is that it doesn’t follow a conventional point A to point B storyline. There’s nothing to kill at the end, because the film is all about survival.
I really enjoyed Harrison Ford’s performance as the gruff commander. He plays the captain with a cryptic sense of humor and a certain madness that really makes you question what he’s going to do. There’s a great scene where Ford’s character refuses to enlist help from the Americans, even at the point of death, even as his men suffer the horrible ravages of radiation poisoning. The scene ends with Ford explaining what it means to be Russian and how death can be noble. Again, this feels like Soviet thinking, not American.
There’s a certain predictability in World War thrillers like “K-19: The Widowmaker,” “Crimson Tide” and “The Hunt for Red October.” For one thing, World War III hasn’t happened which makes you strongly confident that it’s not going to happen in any of the films. That’s why the Russian point of view is so much more fresh and interesting, as if this time we might see an alternate reality of the war, like maybe World War III. That’s what “Das Boot” did. “K-19: The Widowmaker” convinces you that it has that freedom.