THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


K-19: The Widowmaker is based on true events that occurred during the Cold War. A Russian sub called K-19 was deployed to a location in the Atlantic Ocean between New York and Washington, DC. It was nicknamed "The Widowmaker" because a handful of men died before the sub ever even left dock. Before its mission would come to an end, several more men would be on the verge of death as well.

Harrison Ford plays Alexei Vostrikov, the newly assigned captain of the sub. Almost immediately, he clashes with the former captain, Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson). Their leadership styles are different; Vostrikov believes he should inspire fear in his subordinates whereas Polenin thinks that the crew should adopt a more familial attitude. As an example of his authority, Vostrikov imposes a series of emergency drills upon the crew, making them repeat the procedures until they are unflappable during a crisis.

Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson duke it out in the submarine thriller K-19: The Widowmaker
His lessons turn out to be a good idea when the sub encounters a serious problem. Vostrikov has authorized the use of an untested nuclear reactor to run the sub. It malfunctions, threatening not only to blow up the submarine but also to cause a dangerous ripple effect. If it blows, it might also take out the American subs in the region, which could lead to an American retaliation against Russia. The only way to fix it is to send teams of crew members into the radioactive area for repairs. Each team is ordered to spend only ten minutes in there to minimize exposure to what is already a dangerous level of radiation.

It's a basic fact that submarine movies tend to look a lot alike. By the very nature of their setting, there's only so much that can be done. There's always a long tracking shot through the sub, showing how claustrophobic it is. And a scene in which fire engulfs one of the compartments, requiring the crew members to seal it off. And a scene in which the exterior water pressure causes it to creak and bang while the crew members stare at the walls in silenced awe. K-19: The Widowmaker has all of the scenes, which makes it feel very familiar. I understand that this is based on a true story, but that doesn't change the fact that we've seen these elements in other movies like Das Boot, The Hunt for Red October, Crimson Tide, and U-571. There's not enough new here to make these cliches seem like anything other than what they are.

I had some problems with the human factor of the film as well. The characters feel very underdeveloped. Harrison Ford is a fine actor, but he's given just one note to play: tough-as-nails. Neeson's character has a transformation mid-way though the story that feels false because there's no justification for it. The minor players don't fare much better. The screenplay tries to sketch in little character details, but they don't add up to much. No one makes a particularly strong impression. Poor characterization is the same criticism that some people had with another recent military thriller, Black Hawn Down. I defended that movie for one simple reason: it didn't spend much time on the people, choosing to make the mission its focus. K-19, in contrast, interrupts the mission for little character scenes that go nowhere. It would have been a tighter film had it focused exclusively on the reality of the drama.

After all, the story of the K-19 is an incredible one. In its way, this is a story of heroism above and beyond the call of duty. Had the submarine exploded, it could have had disastrous repercussions for the whole world. The men on the crew knowingly exposed themselves to dangerous radiation to prevent that from happening. Director Kathryn Bigalow (Strange Days) effectively captures both the danger and the fear of this situation. The inherent drama of the situation was enough to keep me involved - when the movie concentrated on it, that is.

I left K-19: The Widowmaker with mixed feelings. Yes, it's an amazing true story and you can't deny the power in that. On the other hand, the film often feels like a scripted story. Too many of the submarine movie cliches are there, and they detract from what's really important or interesting. I admired the movie to a degree, but I couldn't escape the feeling that K-19 should have been more than it is.

( 1/2 out of four)

K-19: The Widowmaker is rated PG-13 for disturbing images. The running time is 2 hours and 17 minutes.

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