K-19: The Widowmaker

Movie Information

Genre: Drama
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Peter Sarsgaard, Joss Ackland
Rated: PG-13

“I sound more like Boris Badenov than you do!” “No, I sound more like him than you do!” That at least is what I like to think Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson argued about while watching the dailies on this soggy submarine story. Having been subjected to their fluctuating accents in the trailer for K-19: The Widowmaker, I was prepared for rough sailing. I was not prepared for just how rough this was going to be. Not only are the accents bogus and distracting, but Neeson’s efforts often seem half-hearted and Ford forgets his accent altogether on occasion. Making matters worse, some of the rest of the cast go the dialect route, while others do not. I’m not even sure why anyone felt that accents were necessary. But considering the mind-numbing credits for no less than 14 producers, executive producers, associate producers and co-producers, it must have been a committee decision. Even without the accents, there would still have been rough seas ahead. The warning signs are there from the onset. First off, we’re warned that the film is “inspired by true events.” In other words, there was a Soviet Union and they did have a submarine called K-19 (even if it does sound like a Kellogg’s product). Another deadly warning sign is the fact that the film starts off with title after title setting up the basic premise. Even at an overbearing 138 minutes, they couldn’t figure out how to tell the story without offering a Weekly Reader history lesson to get it going. And then there’s Christopher Kyle’s (The Weight of Water) screenplay. Kyle is apparently the Will Rogers of screenwriters — he never met a cliche he didn’t like, and he put all of them in this script. The opening sequence is a dead giveaway; the film opens on a tense scene of the submarine crew preparing to fire a nuclear missile … only guess what? Right — it’s only a drill! It gets worse and increasingly heavy-handed. The set-up is so obviously a set-up that it becomes almost comical. This is 1961 — the Cold War is raging — and the USSR and USA are doing all they can to impress each other with their military might, so the Soviets are all a dither about getting their first nuclear submarine in the water — more for purposes of propaganda than anything else. Everything that can go wrong with the rush-job does go wrong. The materials are all sub-standard. Since the government is out of radiation suits, they send them chemical-retardent ones. The nuclear expert is axed for being drunk on the job and his replacement is a wet-behind-the-ears student fresh from the university. When the wrong medicines are delivered, the ship’s doctor absurdly manages to get himself run over by the delivery truck, so that not only do they have inadequate medicine, they end up with a replacement doctor with no experience in matters of radiation, submarines or much of anything. When they try to christen the ship, the champagne bottle doesn’t break (“This ship is cursed!”). Take the sub underwater and it immediately starts leaking like a $10 motel room in a rainstorm. All the thing lacks is a screen door. Every time something else goes wrong, you expect a glum sailor to intone, “Ve’re all goink to die.” None of this matters to ultra-macho captain Indiana Joneski … er… Vostrikov (Harrison Ford), who proceeds to put the ship through its paces. “Take her to 300 meters,” he orders. “But that’s close to crush-depth!” he’s warned. (Yes, it actually contains dialogue like this.) Despite the fact that such a dive causes the sub to issue noises that would do credit to the possessed Linda Blair in The Exorcist, it manages to hold together. Unfortunately, the nuclear reactor doesn’t, and there’s where the real drama is supposed to kick in. Since we all know that this is vaguely historical, and no Russian submarine went up in a blast to outdo Hiroshima, it’s not hard to guess where this isn’t heading. What isn’t sunk by the storyline itself is scuttled by the dialogue. During the movie’s interminable tag scenes, I was seized by a fit of Rocky Horror and couldn’t help following up the line, “It vas 28 years ago today,” with, “Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play.” Everyone is unrelentingly grim and dour, though Neeson seems especially peevish. Possibly he saw the rushes and noticed that director Kathryn Bigelow kept putting him at the edge of her wide-angle lens, thereby distorting his face so that he tends to resemble Lon Chaney’s backside. It’s not that the movie isn’t competently made — Bigelow makes good use of the wide-screen format to emphasize the claustrophobia of the submarine –but to what end? Beats me.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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