- The Washington Times - Friday, July 19, 2002

"K-19: The Widowmaker" segments a bit freakishly into a mismatched set of movies. Unless you decide to show up about 45 minutes late, it will be necessary to bear with hackneyed and inauspicious early reels in order to reach the exceptionally stirring and haunting episodes in the final 90 minutes or so. Ultimately, "K-19" proves a unique addition to the library of suspense thrillers about imperiled submarines, but patience is a prerequisite.

Once the movie hits its stride, a formidable amount of empathy and pathos accumulates around the courage of crew members who must sacrifice themselves to save the ship and their shipmates. Director Kathryn Bigelow and her collaborators achieve a belated recognition of awesome sacrifice at the dawn of nuclear-powered navies while fictionalizing the ordeal of an authentic Soviet K-19. It was rushed into service in the summer of 1961 to demonstrate a potency comparable to the American Polaris-class nuclear subs, launched several months earlier.

Like the recent combat spectacles "Black Hawk Down," "We Were Soldiers" and "Windtalkers," this account of exceptional bravery and suffering at sea draws on a "neglected" or "forgotten" chapter of military lore.

The incident that inspired the movie remained hostage to state secrecy in the Soviet Union for three decades, and the filmmakers had to negotiate their way through barriers of mistrust and misunderstanding while assuring survivors that their intentions were more sympathetic than mercenary. The results suggest that Soviet military annals might prove something of a mother lode if Hollywood filmmakers can profit from the most astute and appealing elements of "K-19."

The movie must weather a shakedown phase that starts to rival the mishaps and breakdowns attributed to the ill-fated sub as it departs Murmansk in a slapdash condition of readiness, trailing a jinxed reputation that accounts for the subtitle.

We're told that nine construction workers died while the ship was being retrofitted for the nuclear age. The ship's doctor becomes a traffic fatality while running after a vendor who has left him with the wrong stock of drugs for the voyage. On a less morbid note, the champagne bottle fails to break when the ship is being christened.

The new commander is a stern taskmaster, Capt. Alexei Vostrokov, portrayed by Harrison Ford. Reportedly, he enjoys enviable connections with both political and naval big shots. His mandate is to transcend all mishaps and excuses in order to get the K-19 under way and complete the test firing of an intercontinental missile at the Arctic Circle. It's meant to be sort of a "touche" to the Americans when detected.

Having completed that usefully threatening mission, the captain intends to take up a regular patrol along a sector of the North Atlantic between Washington and New York City. The previous commander, Liam Neeson as Capt. Mikhail Polenin, remains onboard as the executive officer and a sympathetic intermediary with the crew, which regards him as a pal. Their resentment of the martinet Vostrokov is mended somewhat by the success of the Arctic mission.

When a leak in the reactor chamber threatens to destroy the entire sub as it steams within range of North America, the commander experiences a profound change of heart.

Rather like Gregory Peck's Gen. Frank Savage in "Twelve O'Clock High," who inevitably begins to identify with the men of the struggling bomber group he has been ordered to improve, Vostrokov is overwhelmed by the sacrifice of sailors who agree to enter the deadly reactor chamber for 10 minutes at a time to rig an emergency cooling system. The role improves memorably as Vostrokov weakens.

The movies have never depicted a more agonizing process of pipe fitting and welding than the one gravely summarized during the pivotal episodes of "K-19." There is no protective gear designed specifically for radiation. It was regarded as superfluous cargo in the rush to complete the politically urgent first phase of the voyage.

The men enter an inferno protected only by standard foul-weather slickers. They emerge already livid and blistered, soothed to some extent by the available morphine but doomed within a matter of weeks. An uncertain aftermath of contamination clouds the futures of the men and officers who survive because of a supreme sacrifice by their shipmates.

The nature of this sacrifice transforms the whole movie, which wobbles at the outset with one of those tiresome fake-out prologues, already used this season by "The Sum of All Fears."

That's merely a prelude to sustained flailing around during the introductory episodes, which indicate that Miss Bigelow definitely has seen and admired "Das Boot" but may be way out of her league attempting to emulate it. This ill-founded skepticism is reversed when "K-19" finally concentrates on the crisis that makes it distinctive and heartbreaking.

Eventually, it's a submarine saga like no other.

A lot of threadbare characterizations and conflicts become expendable once the men are struggling to survive an unprecedented calamity. The antagonism between the two captains seems trifling, along with one's suspicions about devices that smack of fictional expediency a brief mutinous flare-up, for example, and the predictable redemption of a young officer, played by Peter Sarsgaard, who initially refuses to enter the reactor chamber.

There's even a touching epilogue set in the early 1990s, when the survivors reunite in a cemetery to mourn their comrades. The irresistible pathos is leavened by a certain bemusement at the way makeup artists have envisioned the cast members as elderly Russians.

Ah, you reflect, this is how Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson may look in another 25 years. The forecast seems at once flattering and true to the characters they have been playing.


***

TITLE: "K-19: The Widowmaker"

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional profanity; episodes illustrating severe danger and physical injury in a nuclear submarine)

CREDITS: Produced and directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Screenplay by Christopher Kyle. Cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth. Production design by Karl Juliusson and Michael Novotny. Costume design by Marit Allen. Editing by Walter Murch. Music by Klaus Badelt.

RUNNING TIME: 138 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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