NOW PLAYING: K19: The Widowmaker

Posted: Sunday, July 21, 2002

What is it about submarines that make them the perfect vehicle for action dramas? You wouldn't really think that a small, cramped boat with an area that basically amounts to one long hallway could have inspired so many high octane summer thrill-rides, but the evidence is there. Hunt for Red October, Crimson Tide, U-571, and now, K19.

Part of what gives these movies an automatic edge is the very aspect that would, at first glance, seem to be a limiting factor: the tiny, cramped interior of the sub. Think about it: you're 1000 feet underwater, the ocean is trying with all it's might to crush you and the tin can you are floating in, and the entire crew is seemingly no more than six inches from you at any time. Talk about tension. And then there's the simple fact that one tiny leak, or engine malfunction, or nuclear reactor failure, and everyone's dead! There's almost no chance of being rescued if your sub goes down. Couple all that with the fact that submarines are not pleasure boats. They are generally trying to sneak up on someone to fire torpedoes or nuclear missiles at them. Add it all up, and it's a wonder more sub flicks haven't been foisted upon the summer moviegoing audience.

K19, a true story, by the way, holds up the submarine movie tradition admirably. The year is 1961. The United States has deployed several nuclear submarines with the capability of wiping out the USSR before they even knew what hit 'em. This, understandably, makes Moscow very nervous and they have rushed their own first strike boat into production: the K19. Though the K19 is nowhere near ready to deploy, the Kremlin, playing a deadly game of "keeping up the the Joneses", sends her out to perform sea trials, and then to sit off the east coast of the United States. Her captain, a Communist hardliner named Vostrikov, played with Soviet severity by our most American of actors, Harrison Ford, drills the crew incessantly, firing off fake emergency after fake emergency, always with the hope that no such training will be necessary. If only he knew the rule of foreshadowing.

Her sailors called K19 "the Widowmaker", and considered it a cursed boat. I suppose this could be true, but the filmmakers seem more intent on painting the Communist party as cursed, both by its pride, and its shortsightedness. I wouldn't call this movie anti-Russian, by any means, but if there is a villain, it is the group of nervous comrades at the top, laying down unachievable goals accompanied by impossible limitations. The Communists prided themselves on a system of personal accountability. Whenever something goes wrong, someone must be responsible. They want names. People are to be held responsible for their failures, but they were completely unable to see that it was the system that was really responsible. The K19 disaster had but one author: Communist ambition.

K19 (the film, that is) is anything but a disaster. It is genuinely thrilling; it keeps you on the edge of your seat and gives you plenty to think about as well. The acting is excellent. Harrison Ford, more icon than actor anymore, is able to almost disappear into his character, a strict communist patriot who is not accustomed to taking input, particularly from his crew. His concern is only for the Motherland; other considerations are secondary. Also very good is Liam Neeson, as the previous captain of the K19, only recently busted down to executive officer. Neeson effectively portrays fatherly concern for his crew mixed with a reticent, but necessary sense of patriotic duty. His demotion for, "putting his ship and his crew above the party" is just one more example of the party's essential flaw. Just about everything about this film is well done, and likely as not, the only thing you'll argue about on the way home is whether you agree with the captain's decisions or not.

K19 has everything you look for in a summer movie, and very little you do not. There is lots of action, but almost no violence. The characters are tense and emotional, but there's no language. Violence, language, and sex can be essential elements to certain movies, but it's gratifying when filmmakers don't add them in where they are not necessary. This movie hits all the right marks. If it weren't for the fact that nearly all submarine movies tell basically the same story, K19 would be a sensational success. As it is, it's a very good film that will play well across the board. In a summer that's been sink or swim for a slew of potential hollywood hits, K19 should stay afloat nicely. Grade: A-

K19: The Widowmaker is rated PG-13 for frightening scenes of underwater mayhem.

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