K-19: The Widowmaker: Dark film offers tribute to unsung heroes

Posted: Thursday, July 18, 2002

The Cold War submarine adventure ''K-19: The Widowmaker'' is a well-made movie that many people just won't like.

On the plus side: It offers excellent performances by Harrison Ford (despite a miscalculated effort to cop a Russian accent) and Liam Neeson; artful direction by Kathryn Bigelow, who delivers a palpable atmosphere of cloistered tension among men under extreme duress; and a much smarter-than-average sense of history than the typical summer thriller.

On the down side: ''K-19'' is a Cold War relic told from a Soviet perspective, not terribly palatable for an egocentric American audience; it's well over two hours, a tough sell at multiplexes awash in brisk 90-minute popcorn flicks; and for all its suspense and selfless heroics, it's a bleak, dark story of misguided patriotism, supremacy at all costs to the point of self-destructive fanaticism, not exactly a mood-lifter in a post-Sept. 11 world.

All that said, this review's siding with the pluses, ranking ''K-19'' as a creditable lesser cousin of ''Das Boot,'' the greatest of sub flicks.

''K-19'' is based on a real accident that befell an early Soviet nuclear submarine in 1961. Rushed into service and plagued by shoddy workmanship, the real K-19 came close to a Chernobyl-like meltdown in the North Atlantic when its reactor-cooling system sprang a leak.

The film begins with the Soviet Navy's frantic push to launch the K-19 as a show of force to counter the threat of new U.S. subs that could carry nuclear missiles close to Russian shores.

Dissatisfied with K-19 Capt. Mikhail Polenin (Neeson), Soviet leaders demote him to executive officer and bring in hard-nosed Capt. Alexei Vostrikov (Ford) to ensure the vessel's readiness to fire a test missile on schedule in the Arctic Ocean.

Good soldier Polenin graciously pledges obedience to Vostrikov. But the crew, already whispering that K-19 is a cursed ship because of dry-dock mishaps, resents the switch.

Once at sea, Polenin tussles with Vostrikov when the new captain puts the K-19 through reckless drills.

All in all, not a happy boat.

Then, K-19 springs a reactor leak, sending the core temperature skyrocketing and threatening a meltdown. Vostrikov makes the painful decision to send men into the reactor room in 10-minute bursts to rig a makeshift cooling system, the men emerging burned and vomiting from fatal radiation exposure.

The crew ultimately reaches the point of mutiny when the ferociously patriotic Vostrikov seems to put Soviet honor and party submissiveness ahead of his men's lives.

Bigelow wisely holds Soviet politics to a minimum, keeping the film rooted in the claustrophobic personal story of men fearfully but bravely focusing on what's five feet in front of them.

She and her talented cast, including Peter Sarsgaard as an untested reactor officer, strike a graceful, understated balance between doom and duty, devotion and despair.

In one of his best performances, Ford personifies the steely demeanor expected of a Soviet naval commander, though the Russian accent he adopts fades in and out and borders on caricature at times.

Neeson is terrific in a role that lets him rove from chipper to furious as he tries to shield the men from the hazards posed by his replacement.

The filmmakers meticulously reworked an old Soviet sub to create striking exterior shots of K-19. Some of the film was shot in Moscow, lending authenticity to scenes depicting the Soviet bureaucracy.

The real survivors of the K-19 disaster were ordered to keep mum for fear it would reflect poorly on Soviet might. The story did not come out until the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The greatest achievement of ''K-19: The Widowmaker'' is as a testament to the crew members and the perils they faced, which went unsung for decades and has been generally unknown to most, until now.

''K-19: The Widowmaker,'' a Paramount release, is rated PG-13 for disturbing images. Running time: 138 minutes. Three stars out of four.

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