K-19: The Widowmaker

2002, Movie, PG-13, 138 mins


Part of the awful tragedy of the doomed nuclear submarine Kursk, which sank in 2000 with 118 men aboard, was the terrible knowledge that it was just the latest in a long string of accidents involving Russian naval vessels. In their Cold-War haste to build a navy powerful enough to compete with the U.S., the Soviets routinely launched ships before they were seaworthy, resulting in inevitable catastrophes that were quickly covered up by the Soviet government. Nearly 40 years before the sinking of the Kursk, the submarine K-19 faced a crisis that could easily have ended in a nuclear disaster. Oddly enough, director Kathryn Bigelow's desire to tell the long-suppressed story of K-19 and its brave crew led her into the realm of fiction. Bigelow and screenwriter Christopher Kyle invented characters, fabricated events and generally turned the unbelievable-but-true incident of July 4, 1961, into a passably interesting, Tom Clancy-style thriller. After an embarrassing test exercise results in the demotion of K-19's original captain, Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson), no-nonsense Captain Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford) is brought aboard the brand-new but seemingly cursed sub; spooked crewmen have already dubbed it "The Widowmaker." Polenin warns Vostrikov that the sub isn't seaworthy, but Vostrikov is under orders to get the sub out of dry dock, pilot it through the Bering Sea and shake up the Americans by launching a test missile through the polar ice. After a series of harrowing exercises designed to test the mettle of both men and machine, Vostrikov and his crew do just that. But as the K-19 changes course for new coordinates, the worst-case scenario becomes a terrifying reality: The primary coolant tube designed to keep the nuclear reactor that powers the sub from overheating springs a leak. The temperature inside the reactor quickly climbs, and the only way for Vostrikov to prevent a devastating nuclear explosion is to send a repair crew into the now highly radioactive reactor chamber — a mission no one could possibly survive. Bigelow ups the suspense by situating a U.S. destroyer close by, thus introducing the risk of a nuclear confrontation, but she needn't have bothered: The facts of the actual incident would have been enough, and the film might have served as a greater tribute to the men who served and died aboard K-19. She makes much of the difference between the leadership styles of the two fictitious captains — Vostrikov puts the Party before his men and faces a near mutiny — but the truly heartbreaking sacrifice of a few extraordinarily heroic men is lost under the ponderous score and a series of even heavier speeches. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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