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K-19: The Widowmaker

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: K-19: The Widowmaker

Starring: Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 138 Minutes
Release Date: July 2002
Genres: Action, War

*Also starring: Joss Ackland, Steve Nicolson, Peter Oldring, Peter Sarsgaard, Donald Sumpter

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Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

Next time you go to the dentist for x-rays, note whether he serves you red wine. This could be just a way to relax you or to keep you as a patient, but chances are he saw "K-19:The Widow maker." See, one of the things we learn from this often tense, generally solid melodrama (inspired by real events that took place in 1961) is that red wine can absorb some of the impact of radiation poisoning. The stuff didn't help ten fellows on the submarine appropriately called The Widowmaker maybe because all they really had on board was vodka, since everything else was screwed up quartermaster-wise but the film does help the career of its director-producer Kathryn Bigelow, one of the few women to helm movies that are anything but chick-flicks.

The fifty year old Bigelow's major previous effort "Strange Days" about a hustler who sells mental recordings of real-life experiences is likewise macho fare. Her current picture recalls in our minds such action-adventure tales as "Crimson Tide" (a power play aboard a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine which almost plunges the U.S. into war against Russia), "The Caine Mutiny" (two officers mutiny against an unpopular captain), and of course the classic "Das Boot (German U-boat on a mission during World War 2). "K-19" lacks the hip dialogue of the first and, in that the story takes place in the absence of a hot war, the nail-biting tension of the third.

Christopher Kyle's screenplay sets up a conflict between the newly appointed Captain Alexi Vostrikov (Harrison Ford) and his chief executive officer, Captain Polenin (Liam Nelson) by opening on a mission to test a sub's capacity to deliver nuclear missiles. When the U-boat under Polenin's command fails to deliver, the honchos back in Moscow demote Polenin, putting him under Vostrikov's helmsmanship, which annoys the men on board as much as Polenin particularly when the word gets out that Vostrikov got his commission for political reasons.

Eager to see how the K-19 and its crew can execute emergency functions, the hard-knuckled captain keeps the sailors hopping with drills, some threatening the security of the vessel itself. When the ill-equipped K-19 called The Widow maker because ten people died in its very construction develops an serious radiation leak which could not only lead to the deaths of all aboard but could trigger a nuclear explosion and World War III, Polenin sees his chance to overthrow Vostrikov's command and assume control of the sub himself.

The picture is marred by strictly serviceable dialogue. For example, when handsome but fearful Vadim (Peter Sarsgaard) tells Polenin that he was expecting to get married, Polenin replies simply, "You will." (Wouldn't Vadim know that whenever someone in a story says "you'll be fine," it's time to say your prayers?) Nonetheless "K-19" has several positives going for it. One is the occasional tension generated aboard this claustrophobic setting as we watch the men conquer their fears and in some cases agree to heroic acts that they probably knew would lead to their painful demise. Another is Klaus Badelt's pulsating, original music, which augments the emotions captured by Jeff Cronenweith's ever-moving camera. Finally there's the drama surrounding the growing antipathy between the boat's two honchos as they struggle for power, making us admire the always trustworthy acting of Harrison Ford and Liam Nelson. Ford, who gets more chances to display his signature half-smile, is just fine as the patriot worthy of the Order of Lenin as he grimly determines never to betray the motherland. While the more rational people on the sub backed by Neeson's character are ready to accept the offer of help from Americans on a nearby naval vessel, Vostrikov refuses to bend a knee to "the enemy," even if his rigidity could lead to the deaths of all his men.

"K-19: The Widow maker" stands out as one of the few Hollywood movies that show the other side in this case the Soviet military at a time of increasing hostilities between them and the U.S. as human beings who can be as die-hard patriotic and, even more, to be loyal to their comrades as we Americans to our own. We in the audience can't be blamed if we feel like cheering Vostrikov's decision to say "no thanks" to the forces in our own country who would win a propaganda victory and a chance to examine the Soviet sub if the offer were accepted. "K-19," then, is well-acted, reasonably tense, yet another entry into the field of movies dedicated to showing how lucky we are that nuclear war has not broken out purely by accident.

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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