K-19: The Widowmaker

on July 19, 2002 by Paul Clinton
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   "K-19" romanticizes the crew of Soviet military men who averted a nuclear disaster in 1961 aboard their submarine. Based on the real-life incident, the story follows the U-boat as it sets out into the North Atlantic under the command of the unyielding Captain Alexi Vostrikov (Harrison Ford). Soviet leaders hope the sub, by launching a ballistic missile, can strike fear into "the Americans" at the height of the Cold War. But this test of Soviet muscle turns disastrous when the sub's nuclear reactor begins leaking radiation, threatening to poison the men--and, even more gravely, set off the missiles, thereby sparking nuclear war.

   Christopher Kyle's at-times maudlin script emphasizes the nobility and courage of these Soviet heroes as they avert the crisis and save the world from annihilation. With all the overblown theatrics underlining the heroism, it's a movie meant for men to cry at. But Kyle and director Kathryn Bigelow ("Point Break") haven't so much created a drama about valor as much as.a propaganda piece functioning like a recruiting poster. Without flinching, the two dredge up all the familiar details of submarine movies past--the cramped quarters, the tedium and the power struggles among the officers. It's all tired stuff, especially with the superior "Crimson Tide" and "U-571" still fresh in mind.

   As Ford's Vostrikov begins pushing the limits of the sub's capabilities--including a sequence when he orders it to dive to "crush depth"--former sub captain Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson) begins to question Vostrikov's decisions.

   Instead of a juicy, revamped "Mutiny on the Bounty," with Neeson's ruggedly handsome Polenin in the role of Fletcher Christian, "K-19" ultimately returns to familiar, safer waters.

   Ford coasts through the bulk of his role before squeezing out a few half-felt tears as the crew bonds together in crisis mode. Neeson, who is fierce and gripping, quietly walks off with what there is of the movie.

   Bigelow handles the nuclear crisis sequences evenly but milks drama when she should be building suspense, and drags out too many scenes toward the end that should move quickly. Klaus Badelt's overbearing score is loud instead of rousing.

   "K-19," seven years in the making, could be labeled as patriotic--a popular sentiment these days. But it bleeds for the wrong country. Starring Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson and Peter Sarsgaard. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Written by Christopher Kyle. Produced by Kathryn Bigelow, Edward S. Feldman, Sigurjon Sighvatsson and Chris Whitaker. A Paramount release. Drama. Rated PG for disturbing images. Running time: 137 min

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