Have you ever been on a vacation and gone to a place that
seemed so familiar? All of sudden, after only a little time
there, you stop and say, “Hey… I’ve been here before.” And
at that point, the once-new and exhilarating place suddenly
becomes merely a re-visit. Well, that’s K-19: The Widowmaker.
In Kathryn Bigelow’s ( Strange Days, Point Break)
newest endeavor, we find ourselves yet again confined to the
belly of a submarine; yet again confronted with the possibility
of mutiny and nuclear holocaust; and yet again distressed
that the submarine movie sub-genre appears to be as hollow
as the subs themselves.
The year is 1961. The cold war is raging, and the USSR is
utterly certain that the United States is planning a first
attack. Enter Captain Alexi Vostrikov ( Ford), the
archetypically stern Soviet sailor recruited to command the
USSR’s most valued vessel: the K-19 submarine. The Soviet
command is in such a rush to position K-19 off the States’
eastern shores that the sub goes into action with many of
its systems operating sub-par. Even worse for Vostrikov, the
vessel’s crew, save officer Radtchenko ( Sarsgaard),
is still utterly devoted to the ship’s former captain, Polenin
( Neeson). Thus, the stage is set (a la Crimson
Tide) for the less than conventional methods of Captain
Vostrikov to stir the crewmembers, and conjure whispers of
mutiny and subsequent global annihilation.
Ford gives a standard performance that will likely be remembered
with Six Days And Seven Nights or The Devil’s
Own, as part of the small group of his performances that
we’d all rather forget. Don’t get me wrong, a bad Ford performance
is better than, say, a good Keanu Reeves one; but Ford’s neglect
to utilize that which makes us love him—his intensity softened
by charm—is one of the key factors that holds this film back.
This film never seems to escape a dullness that comes from
its inability to re-create what this real-life, historical
event must have been like for the sailors.
I can’t help laughing when I consider that Ford—though many
years ago—and Neeson are both graduates of the Jedi Institute
for Acting. And, while they are wonderfully talented actors,
both (especially Neeson) could have used a little more of
The Force on this one. The heart of the suspense in this film
is the collision between the two captains, and Neeson can’t
carry his weight. Indeed, the entire time I watched their
sedative performances, I couldn’t help wishing it were
Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman ( Crimson
Tide) instead. After all, K-19 is essentially
the same, but with worse dialogue.
I went to this expecting to see a new twist on an old sub-genre.
With Bigelow (once married to James Cameron)—a director
notorious for her unconventional and determined methods—at
the helm, I thought K-19 would echo with innovation
and surprises. Indeed, her innovation has made Bigelow one
of the few successful female action directors in Hollywood.
But this film has no great battles—neither underwater, nor
on the surface, nor in the belly of the claustrophobic vessel.
By the end, you’ll feel like you’ve just disembarked from
a very uncomfortable cruise.
There is, however, an upside. Although the beginning rambles
on like a drunken Tom Arnold, and although—I’m warning
you—the end is anti-climactic at best, the perfect assimilation
of Cold War politics into the narrative, and the reminder
that the power of destructive technologies is only loosely
contained, forces the audience to reevaluate the idiocies
of human enmity. Thus, the film is worth a sit-through, even
if it is at times uncomfortable. If you want to see a real
sub movie, rent the granddaddy of them all, Das Boot.
At least that way, you might learn some German.
—W. Duke Greenhill