Based on a true story, K-19: The Widowmaker tells of the Soviet Union's attempt in 1961 to not fall behind the United States in the Cold War. The United States had just launched the Polaris-class nuclear submarines. K-19 was a Russian sub retrofitted for nuclear capabilities. The Soviet crew's assignment was to take the sub into the Arctic and test fire an Intercontinental missile. The Americans would monitor the test as a part of routine surveillance--the test was done relatively close to a NATO outpost for one, and it would notify them that the Soviets had equal capabilities to the American Navy, helping to either stave off war, sustain the Cold War, or both, depending on your interpretation.
As the film begins, K-19 Captain Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson) is running his crew through a routine simulation. The nuclear reactor ends up having a problem, as it had on previous simulations. Polenin says they're not ready to run the mission yet. Instead of listening to him, the Soviet military powers that be install a new Captain--Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford). Vostrikov is a hard-ass, which doesn't help him go over well with the K-19 crew, who were used to being chummy with Polenin. To make matters worse, Vostrikov has a questionable reputation--many believe that he's only in his position because of familial influence, and this despite the fact that his military father ended up in the gulag. After a number of bad portents, the sub is off on its mission and Vostrikov tries to get the crew into respectable and responsible shape so they can complete their task and get back home. As foreshadowed by the prologue, the K-19 eventually has a crisis with its nuclear reactor. The bulk of the film tells of this dilemma, attempted solutions, and various problems it causes.
K-19 is incredibly suspenseful and emotionally poignant. But it's perhaps amazing that it creates such nail-biting tension when we consider that on the surface level, it is simply a drama about a piece of machinery. Most of the plot is about trying to fix a broken gadget.
That might not sound very exciting, but there's much more to the film that a superficial glance at its plot would indicate. Director Kathryn Bigelow makes K-19 a combination of extended character portraits--primarily of Vostrikov, but also of a handful of other K-19 crewmembers, and a subtextual exploration of formal organizations and hierarchies in general.
Of course, the film is also a tribute to the real-life sacrifices and heroism of the K-19 submarine crew, who couldn't tell their stories for many years due to the Soviet government's official squelching of the incident. And on that end, the film is also a remarkable and perhaps somewhat controversial (politically and even artistically/philosophically) attempt to tell a serious, "balanced" historical story from a perspective "within" another culture.
Ford's performance is top-notch. He easily coaxes viewers to first hate him, even if they can understand his motivations, then he gradually layers complex nuances of character until we finally turn our opinions about Vostrikov around and empathize with him--but after not a little skepticism, which lingers for most of the central portion of the film--finally rooting for him against those government meanies who just can't understand his decisions because they weren't there. The whole arc easily takes film viewers on the same emotional journey the K-19 sub crew would have had.
Neeson has a similarly complex arc, but much more subtle--fitting for his supporting role. He goes from being your best buddy to someone to be suspicious of, then someone to be disliked for being a hard-ass of a different sort, then finally he surprises the audience with a saving grace action just about the same time that we realize that Ford as Vostrikov was right all along.
The film would be worth watching for just these two fine performances. But the crewmembers featured are just as sympathetic, especially when they make their mind-boggling sacrifices.
The progression of the matrix of dynamic personalities, their judgments, reservations, disputes, and suspicions, their pressing on despite less-than-perfect circumstances, and their relation to edicts from on high resemble what is probably more the norm for any complex, formal organization--not the least of which is the film-making enterprise, and more than likely, wherever you earn your daily keep.
Most of us have been involved with vocation-oriented projects or tasks that have had to progress despite the fact that a lot of people (involved or not) thought there were problems with the project or task at a fundamental level. This happens in films all the time. Studios and producers demand that a film begins production, maybe because it has to meet a particular release date, maybe because of marketing tie-ins and on and on, yet there still might not be a finished script, or we still don't know who is going to be cast as the villain, or any number of potentially disastrous situations. Vostrikov is like a film director being told to turn in a product on a tight deadline. He's doing the best he can to get the film rolling, and that means getting the crew to stop goofing off so they're ready to shoot, especially if the pressure becomes greater. It's probably a good thing that films don't run on nuclear reactors.
Of course the more literal political dilemmas that arise later on in the film are equally fascinating. But the humanizing elements of the characterizations and the universalizing elements on the story are what make K-19 hit home so hard. They add to the intriguing historical drama, the great direction and the good cinematography, score and other technical elements to easily push K-19 up to a 10.
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