Review by: Jack Foley l Rating:
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
Indeed, when it played at the recent Venice Film Festival, K-19
was criticised for portraying the subs 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 Hollywoods
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 isnt
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 subs reactor
cooling system, that Bigelows 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
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 subs 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
subs deposed former commander (Neeson), who still had the
respect of his men, and Fords mission-orientated
captain, who did whatever necessary to ensure the success of the
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 Fords 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 Hackmans 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 Spielbergs
Saving Private Ryan,
while several of the crew members conform too easily to stereotype.
Bigelows 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 enemys perspective,
while it is a chapter in history that deserves the attention finally
brought to it.