Oddly enough, thoughts of “mutually assured destruction”—as a part of Cold War strategy—were meant to comfort Americans and Soviets.
We can nuke you, but we won’t, because we know you’ll nuke us back if we do. And you can nuke us, but we know you won’t, because you know we’ll nuke you back if you do.
The mutual feelings such logic afforded worked well enough. But history records more—much more—than humans acting logically. It records us acting illogically, selfishly, cowardly, ambitiously, as well as selflessly, courageously, heroically.
“K-19: The Widowmaker” is Hollywood’s take on a historical moment in 1961, when Soviet submariners risked all to keep a nuclear reactor malfunction from impeding on the brilliant logic the superpowers had established for themselves.
Harrison Ford stars as Capt. Alexei Vostrikov, put in charge of the nuclear missile submarine K-19 when Capt. Mikhail Polenin, played by Liam Neeson, fails to ready the ship and its crew to Moscow’s satisfaction.
Polenin stays aboard for his practical knowledge of the sub, and the two men clash repeatedly as Vostrikov puts the K-19 through its paces. He tests the ship, its men and the patience of Polenin, whose leadership style is less dictatorial than Vostrikov’s.
Moscow finally commands K-19 to assume missile control along the eastern seaboard of the United States, but that’s when things really get hairy. The nuclear reactor’s cooling system starts to leak, causing the reactor core to overheat.
Repairing the leak involves exposure to radiation, but it must be repaired to prevent a nuclear explosion—and World War III. So the men aboard K-19 have a serious problem, and how they handle it forms the backbone of a story hidden from the world until communism’s collapse in 1989.
Producer-director Kathryn Bigelow has an astonishing story to tell, and she tells it well, for the most part. The submarine feels appropriately claustrophobic; the mission resonates with a sense of doom; and opportunities for courage and cowardice play as gravely as they surely were.
The musical score underlines the drama, the effects are solid and the action remains focused on the crew. A cutaway to the Americans seems always in the offing, but it never comes and the narrative is tighter, better because of that creative decision.
But the movie reveals some weak construction, much like that of the motherland’s ship itself. Vostrikov is mired in a bit of back-story about his father, but it’s not explored enough for later references to resonate as purely as they could have.
And some of the dialogue hits too hard on the nose of the scene’s point. After a crew member puts himself in harm’s way to help save the rest of the crew, Vostrikov yelps, “He turned himself into a hero!” The end of the film finds Vostrikov speaking superfluously again.
Neeson infused Oscar Schindler with moral gravitas, and one wishes he’d been given a role here where his talents may have flourished. Unfortunately, his strengths remain submerged.
So “K-19″—the movie—runs a little too long, eschews subtext at times, and suffers a bit from dim characterizations.
But like the crew that manned the ship in 1961, it manages not to crack under pressure.
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for disturbing images
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writer: Christopher Kyle
Cast: Alexei Vostrikov: Harrison Ford; Mikhail Polenin: Liam Neeson; Vadim Radtchenko: Peter Sarsgaard; Pavel Loktev: Christian Camargo