K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER
directed by Kathryn Bigelow
with Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson
opens July 19 at Neptune, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, and others
The first impression one has of Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, and a sub full of actors speaking with round-voweled Russian accents is that of Chekov taking over the starship Enterprise. What's worse—everyone's gone Commie! Now one might've suspected such leftist political sympathies from Neeson, but Harrison Ford as stalwart defender of the U.S.S.R.? After playing the U.S. president in Air Force One, a C.I.A. agent in Patriot Games, and a character named for an actual God-fearing state of the union in the Indiana Jones movies, how are we supposed to cope with his sudden change of allegiances?
Don't worry: Ford is still Ford despite the Soviet garb, just as Hanks is still Hanks despite his gangster attire in Road to Perdition. Historical circumstances may change (here to 1961), but fundamental screen personas may not. With the Iron Curtain long fallen, patriotic male-bonding flicks can now be extracted from the annals of our former enemies. Moreover, Ford's Capt. Vostrikov is hardly a figure of the Stalin era. Ordered by Moscow to assume command of the new nuclear submarine K-19 and test-launch an ICBM (to impress JFK, no less), Vostrikov is more fatalist than fanatic. Perhaps wondering what happened to subs K-18, 17, and 16, he glumly sighs, "We deliver, or we drown."
Constructed with typical Soviet waste, haste, and shortcuts, the big tin can appears to be held together with duct tape and baling wire. Its reactor looks about as sophisticated as your leaky Krupps countertop espresso maker. In a shot director Kathryn Bigelow (Blue Steel) returns to repeatedly, the reactor has a certain ominous gauge that requires regular tap-tap-tapping to spring to its desired reading—until it doesn't! (Hmmm, could that be the Plot Tension-O-Meter? The Nerve-Racking Suspense Dial? The Imminent Histrionics Indicator?)
Given its Cold War and Space Race period, Widowmaker does have a certain gratifyingly retrograde quality. Things get fixed with wrenches and blowtorches. Circuits and switches make a substantial clicking sound; there are toggles to throw and big, beefy, man-sized buttons to push. It all amounts to the same nuclear apocalyptic apparatus of Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe—and pretty much the same plot, too.
Thus, after a few leaks, countless Klaxon-blaring drills, and a charming soccer game on the Arctic ice where the missile is successfully launched, all is going well on K-19's maiden voyage until that pesky reactor threatens to blow in the North Atlantic, creating the familiar threat of mutually assured destruction between superpowers.
Since Widowmaker isn't satire, don't expect the equivalent scene to Slim Pickens whoopin' and hollerin' astride a plunging missile. (Indeed, the dour Ford emits not so much as a whoop or a holler during the whole film, and he's stuck with a lumpy Russian fur hat instead of a dashing Stetson.) Nuclear Armageddon seems oddly beside the point here. Cold War tensions are invoked to drive the plot, and the crew watches a newsreel depicting America's follies—Selma, Hiroshima, and the Klan—to show the average Russian's view of us, but Widowmaker is fundamentally about families, not nations.
"The captain is the father," declares popular Capt. Polenin (Neeson), ordering his men to obey stern, unforgiving Vostrikov. Like Ahab, Bligh, Queeg in The Caine Mutiny, and Clark Gable's commander in Run Silent, Run Deep, Vostrikov stands in a long line of hard-assed, obsessive navy men. Perhaps all those deep-sea dives have left a few nitrogen bubbles in his brain; he listens to Beethoven piano sonatas to unwind yet won't betray an emotion in front of his crew. (Of course, he must ultimately be humanized and cry salty tears.)
Among the crew members, the only standouts are greenhorn reactor officer Radtchenko (Boys Don't Cry's Peter Sarsgaard) and his gaunt, pious chief engineer, Gorelov (Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson). "Get me the emergency manual!" squeals Radtchenko, never a good sign in a movie. A few bad seeds on board threaten to mutiny, appealing to Polenin to save them from a horrid death by radiation poisoning, which allows Widowmaker to trot out the usual themes of duty, loyalty, and sacrifice.
The film's finally like a hybrid of Apollo 13 and The Endurance (with Ford as Shackleton), a what-to-do manual of leadership when things go very, very wrong. Nobody will ever call it a classic of its genre (like Das Boot), but the dank, claustrophobic passageways and scarily creaking hull are so sufficiently unpleasant as to elevate Widowmaker to a new genre (alongside Black Hawk Down): the anti-military enlistment movie.