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K-19: The Widowmaker (12A)



Review by: Jack Foley l Rating: Two

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary by director Kathryn Bigelow and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth; Making of K-19: The Widowmaker; Exploring the craft: Make up techniques, Breaking the Hull, It's in the details; Theatrical trailer.

HAVING ridden the crest of the wave with surfing thriller Point Break, director Kathryn Bigelow almost sunk without trace at the US Box Office when her latest, K-19: The Widowmaker, opened in the midst of the blockbuster season.

The submarine drama, based on true events and told from a Russian perspective, stars Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson as two captains trying to prevent a nuclear meltdown on board their vessel at the height of the Cold War, which could have been regarded by the Americans as a pre-emptive strike.

Yet while the movie is competently made and certainly exciting in places, it failed to generate the necessary buzz among audiences, while also sailing into troubled waters with veterans in the former Soviet Union.

Indeed, when it played at the recent Venice Film Festival, K-19 was criticised for portraying the sub’s crew as ‘a bunch of alcoholics and illiterates’, while seven crew members sent a letter to the festival organisers saying that they were saddened and surprised by the decision to show it.

It is a criticism largely dismissed by both Ford and Bigelow, but one which looks set to re-ignite the debate surrounding Hollywood’s tendency to take liberty with historical fact in favour of dramatic tension (especially with the likes of U-571 and The Patriot).

And to be fair, the portrayal of the Russian crew members isn’t as unflattering as some of the attacks have suggested, as K-19 does succeed in depicting the tremendous sacrifices eight of these men made in order to prevent the unthinkable.

It is during these moments, as the crew attempts to stave off a nuclear disaster following a leak in the sub’s reactor cooling system, that Bigelow’s film works best, becoming a sweaty, claustrophobic and downright harrowing insight into life on board a submarine that was ill-prepared for the task at hand.

The K-19 was an accident waiting to happen (its nuclear reactor sacrificed safety margins in favour of power and compactness), and eventually got into trouble while on routine exercise just 400 kilometres off the US coastline, at the height of the Cold War. The meltdown could have caused an intense radioactive explosion close to a NATO facility and occurred while the sub’s means of communication were disabled.

Given what was at stake, the dilemma also served to heighten the tension which already existed on board the vessel, between the sub’s deposed former commander (Neeson), who still had the respect of his men, and Ford’s ‘mission-orientated’ captain, who did whatever necessary to ensure the success of the mission.

Here, too, the film succeeds in portraying a believable conflict between two proud men - one a hard task master, the other a sensitive and honest second in command. Yet this also came in for criticism from veterans, who deplored Ford’s portrayal of Captain Alexei Vostrikov as a ‘soulless militant’.

Yet Ford, who turned down the chance to reprise the role of Jack Ryan in The Sum of All Fears to appear in K-19, is on good form as Vostrikov (evoking memories of Gene Hackman’s no-nonsense turn in Crimson Tide), while Neeson is just as effective as his second in command - even though both accents are dodgy.

However, K-19 remains a flawed film. For starters, it is way too long, while its first half - comprised of drill after drill - quickly becomes tedious.

Its final moments are also too sentimental, suffering from the same type of excess as the scenes which book-ended Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, while several of the crew members conform too easily to stereotype.

Bigelow’s ability to stage terrific action set pieces (such as the foot chase in Point Break or the climactic sequence of Strange Days) also feels restrained within the sweaty confines of the sub.

In spite of this, however, Bigelow should be praised for daring to tell a story solely from ‘the enemy’s’ perspective, while it is a chapter in history that deserves the attention finally brought to it.

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