Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:18 - Released 7/19/02

I have mixed feelings about Kathryn Bigelow's K-19: The Widowmaker, a military thriller about a Soviet nuclear submarine which develops grave, life- and world-threatening problems at the height of the Cold War. On the one hand, it's definitely a well-crafted film; Bigelow and her director of photography, Jeff Cronenweth, have captured the cramped quarters and sweaty atmosphere of a military submarine (and of 1961 U.S.-Soviet relations), and her actors, Liam Neeson, Harrison Ford, and a capable cast of supporting players, are certainly able to make us believe in the desperation of the situation and the conflict between safety, honor, and international politics. But on the other hand, it's been done before. Between Das Boot, The Hunt For Red October, and Crimson Tide, the material has been covered, and more effectively. This version of the crippled sub story is long, tedious, and ultimately depressing, with almost every minute giving the sense of utter hopelessness, practically from the opening credits to the shallow attempt at an upbeat ending. It claims to be "based on true events" (which probably means huge liberties have been taken with the story), so that lends it a little more credence than if it were merely another Tom Clancy novel. But writers Louis Nowra (story) and Christopher Kyle (screenplay) could have imbued the script with a few more likeable characters and/or a little more upbeat dialogue to leaven the deadly atmosphere and plodding pace.

The K-19 is the flagship of the Soviet submarine fleet; it is the newest, most state-of-the-art nuclear sub in the world. At least it would be if it were properly assembled and had more capable crew members. It is not very well explained why the Communist Party chiefs in Moscow have cut so many corners on building the flagship of the fleet, or why the crew can't get the proper parts, or why some of the most critical officers are not trained properly. But as it is approaching the date of its maiden voyage, a few last-minute personnel changes are made: popular Captain Mikhail Polenin (Neeson) has been demoted to second-in-command, and the much more hard-nosed and less friendly Captain Alexei Vostrikov (Ford) has come on as commander. What's more, Vostrikov replaces the experienced nuclear officer with an untested man fresh out of military training, Lt. Vadim Radtchenko (Peter Sarsgaard). The not-really-ready ship weighs anchor (if you can do that on a sub), and the U-boat movie standard plot devices begin. There's the dive to crush depth. There's the threat of mutiny. There's the old, "if we're not careful, we could start a war" scenario. Soon there's a reactor leak, and guys start looking like cats who have been put in the microwave. Oh, it ain't pretty.

This movie has all the hallmarks of a well-made, dramatic film that takes itself just a little too seriously. I have nothing but esteem for the men who served on the real K-19, but I hope they were more like real people than this movie depicts them. Maybe it's because it's an American film about the Soviet Union, which was the "enemy" at the time, that makes director Bigelow think we shouldn't be able to feel sympathy for any of these characters. Maybe its out of respect for the sailors' families that she feels the tone should be so dark and the pace so slow. Her management of the thriller elements are adept and truly effective, but her character-building skills, and/or those of her actors, could use a little work. This is a movie where one's tastes in movies will greatly determine one's opinion of it. Some will love this film's stifling atmosphere. I found it a bit too stifling. ***½

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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