It’s 1961 in the USSR, and the Russians are launching their first nuclear-powered submarine. Armed with nukes, the construction of this war machine is a rush job with fatal compromises along the way, resulting in a number of accidental deaths.
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Captain Polenin (Liam Neeson) recommends delaying the launch until the vessel is better prepared, but he’s overruled by the Soviet admiralty – who place veteran hardliner Captain Vostrikov (Harrison Ford) in command, demoting Polenin to an executive officer role (reminding me of the last-minute command replacement on the refitted Enterprise in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, 1979), a decision that leads to severe consequences for all concerned. During the K-19’s hastily planned sea trials, which include diving to ‘crush depth’ before surfacing at speed to test-fire a missile, a fault develops with the sub’s reactor core, causing a radiation leak that claims several lives, and threatens to detonate the onboard stock of bombs…
Kathryn Bigelow’s fascinating but rather unexciting Cold War thriller strives for a documentary style and its flashy ILM-style effects shots are thankfully kept to a minimum, making this a kind of underwater equivalent to Apollo 13 (1995). There’s also a welcome emphasis on characterisation and authenticity of setting, reminiscent of the claustrophobic detailing of Das Boot (1961). Despite lacking a chase sequence, in the manner of The Hunt For Red October (1990), K-19: The Widowmaker does feature a tense mutiny like Crimson Tide (1995), and being based on a true story ensures Bigelow’s film carries even greater dramatic weight.
Basically an intriguing story about the struggle for survival against a repressive political system, where the crew’s lives are readily disposable for the greater glory of the Motherland, K-19 offers a telling portrait of unsung heroism (it seems they really did avert WWIII) yet, while both Ford and Neeson are good value here as the Russian captains in idealistic conflict with each other and their superiors, it’s a shame no Russian actors could have been found to play these somewhat iconic roles. Then, at least, we could have been spared the stars’ slightly dodgy accents.
Since reading Jules Verne’s classic 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and seeing the spectacular Disney adaptation as an impressionable teenager, I have always liked submarine movies. Sadly, K-19 is simply not as good as it should have been. Bigelow seems to have lost her ability to orchestrate energetic and thrilling action scenes – a skill demonstrated at close-quarters in both Near Dark and Blue Steel (1990), and on a more extravagant scale during Point Break (1991) and Strange Days (1995) – so even the hectic crew drills and hurriedly improvised repair jobs on the malfunctioning reactor lack a sense of immediacy or risk. Still, any fans of movies like the wholly restrained Ice Station Zebra (1968) or the rescue mission of Grey Lady Down (1978) will enjoy this.
The DVD offers a fine anamorphic transfer with Dolby digital 5.1 sound in English and French, plus English, French and Dutch subtitles. Disc extras include four behind-the-scenes featurettes – Making Of K-19, Exploring The Craft (about special makeup techniques used for radiation burns), Breaching The Hull (visual effects work), It’s In The Details (designing and lighting the sets), a trailer, and a commentary (subtitled in English and French) by Bigelow with cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth.