It's not that Hollywood doesn't know a good story when it sees one, it's that it doesn't trust that others will be equally discerning. For proof of that movie business theorem, look no further than "K-19: The Widowmaker."
No, the system hasn't completely wrecked this "inspired by actual events" story of undersea heroism in the face of near nuclear catastrophe. The tale is too potent, and the talents involved, from stars Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson to director Kathryn Bigelow, are too strong for that.
Rather it's that "K-19's" determination to push hard for self-congratulatory morals and convenient resolutions undercut the film's strengths and make it more conventional. Compared to the gold standard of submarine dramas, the crackling German "Das Boot," "K-19's" self-consciousness stands out in unfortunate relief, especially because the potential for something better is definitely there. "K-19's" story of the unthinkable nearly happening on Russian nuclear submarine K-19 in 1961 is chilling enough that the Soviet Union kept it a state secret for nearly 30 years. The cooling system on the ship's nuclear reactor malfunctioned, causing the core to ominously heat up. Unless the process could be reversed, a disastrous thermonuclear explosion would result, and, given the state of U.S.-USSR tensions at the time, that would probably trigger a world war.
Bigelow, one of the top action directors of her generation, has been trying to get this story filmed since 1996. It's been a while since the director of 1987's "Near Dark" has had something on American screens, and you can feel the pleasure she takes in moving cameras and men through the constricted spaces of a Soviet submarine re-created with so much authenticity you can almost smell the borscht in the galley.
As written by Christopher Kyle from a story by Louis Nowra, "K-19" opens with Mikhail Polenin (Neeson) as the captain of the brand-new submarine, the pride of the Soviet navy and capable, like America's Polaris, of firing nuclear-tipped missiles. As a commanding officer he's the caring father type, determined to put the welfare of his men ahead of the dictates of the state and party. And, almost alone in this picture, he has the nerve to speak without a Slavic inflection.
The Soviet hierarchy, however, in the interest of establishing mutually assured destruction with the U.S., needs the K-19 to go on its maiden test voyage before Polenin thinks it's ready. When your boat's in trouble, you need a captain willing to speak with a Russian accent, and that would be Alexei Vostrikov.
As played by Ford, Vostrikov is a somber martinet who last smiled at the liberation of Stalingrad. With Polenin still on board but demoted to executive officer, Vostrikov is determined to get the sub's missile test done on time.
Never mind that the men think the boat is cursed because the champagne bottle didn't break at the christening, never mind that the ship's doctor gets seasick and their reactor officer (Peter Sarsgaard) is brand-new, never mind that so many men have died before this mission that the men nickname the boat "the widowmaker." "We deliver," the new captain tells Polenin, "or we drown."
Vostrikov, ever the demanding type, turns out to be a bear for drills, putting his men through more turmoil than a fraternity pledge-master during Hell Week. This leads to some high-decibel conflicts with predecessor Polenin as the two men engage in a Harvard Business School colloquium about leadership styles.
Is the captain recklessly endangering the men as well as scaring the heck out of them, or is he building their self-confidence by setting high standards? Vostrikov may seem like one dour dude, but with Ford in the role, there's a limit to how badly we can think of him.
Pleasantly old-fashioned for the most part, "K-19" frankly spends more time than is necessary on these preliminaries. It becomes another, better movie when the nuclear crisis begins; scenes of the men risking horrific radiation sickness as they attempt to fix the problem generate a grim kind of power.
But, unwilling to let the audience draw the appropriate conclusions about these men's heroism, "K-19" throws in signpost dialogue, artificial plot complications and melodramatic character changes that cheapen rather than enhance the drama.
Interestingly enough, at least according to the History Channel, some of the still-living real-life K-19 survivors felt an early draft of the script portrayed them as "incompetent and undisciplined drunks." As a finished film, however, "K-19" has the opposite problem. It celebrates heroism with such a zeal for conventional emotional closure it might as well have been made under the old Soviet system that created K-19's problems in the first place.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for disturbing images. Times guidelines: intense dramatic situations and horrific scenes of radiation poisoning.
'K-19: The Widowmaker'
Harrison Ford...Alexei Vostrikov
Liam Neeson...Mikhail Polenin
Peter Sarsgaard...Vadim Radtchenko
Intermedia Films present a National Geographic/Palomar Pictures/First Light/IMF Production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Kathryn Bigelow. Producers Joni Sighvatsson, Christine Whitaker, Edward S. Feldman. Executive producers Harrison Ford, Noel Sinclair, Moritz Borman, Guy East. Screenplay Christopher Kyle. Story Louis Nowra. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth. Editor Walter Murch. Costumes Marit Allen. Music Klaus Badelt. Production design Karl Juliusson, Michael Novotny. Art director Arvinder Grewal. Key set decorator Carol Lavallee. Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes.
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