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K-19: The Widowmaker

Starring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson
Screenplay by Christopher Kyle; story by Louis Nowra
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

IN SHORT: A meltdown. [Rated PG-13 for disturbing images. 135 minutes]

Once upon a time, a long time ago, we spent a year working on the No Nukes project. The thing we learned about "radiation poisoning" in that year is that you can't educate people about dangers that they can't see. What we hoped for was to get a huge crowd of people together, get 'em the information and hope that it cracked the brainpan enough to raise some awareness and stimulate action down the line. We did -- no nukes have been built in twenty years. Has what we tried to pipe down the line about the dangers of atomic power made an impact? Nope.

The twentysomethings in our audience, barely functioning organisms back around 1980, walked out of our screening of K-19: The Widowmaker smirking "Indiana Jones. Commie Hero." The thing is, K-19 disappoints on so many levels that we didn't disagree with the sentiment, if not the wording. The thought immediately crossed our minds that the film may have worked much better had the lead roles been switched, but that was never our call to make. More to the point, if you make a movie about a killing machine, and put "widowmaker" in the title, the expectation is among the target demo is that you're going to see it kill. It does. But not in the way you want. That's called "irony". It's tough to sell a film about irony.

K-19 was the first in what was to be the pride of a fleet of nuclear Soviet submarines, one that would balance the scales of power between the USSR and the United States. It was rushed out of dock before it was completed, Russians take pride in keeping schedules, and a leak in the cooling system crippled the ship. Left unrepaired, the damage came way too close to a nuclear meltdown of the sub's atomic core and, given its position near the East coast of the United States, could have taken out a hunk of population at the height of the cold war. July 4, 1961, actually. If the meltdown had occurred, the Soviets may have had about half an hour to enjoy the irony of the date. Of course

And if that isn't enough, you're damned lucky not to have known any of it. We're barely old enough to remember "duck and cover" drills in elementary school. We walked in to K-19: The Widowmaker with enough background knowledge that, if it had been a well told story, we would have been on the edge of our seats. We weren't. Your results may vary.

There are a lot of stories behind the true tale of K-19. Soviet politics. Military politics. Cold War politics. A story of a girl left at home. A story of a man and his hamster -- think "canary in a coal mine" and get your minds out of the gutter. One lifelong submariner, Captain Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson), the only commander to oversee the fabrication of this advanced weapon, and his last minute replacement, Captain Alexi Vostrikov (Harrison Ford - click for CrankyCritic® StarTalk). Politics. The conflict between these two men and the loyalty of a crew is almost enough to drive any story worthy of the A-list actors in this one. Trying to balance that against a story with the visuals of radiation chomping down on the sub's crew is a decision that didn't work for us. The human story is always the better one. By the time a preachy final scene designed to emphasize the human cost of the events has run its course that human story had been long lost.

There's little to tell about a story in which the "real" enemy is the invisible one. Yes, the US Navy makes an appearance and politics plays a role. Yes, we were aware of the politics and tensions of the time, though little of that translated onto the big screen. Yes, we think, the casting was backwards. At its center, K-19 is, to us, a story of two strong men brought down at the peak of their power. Sometimes, in this case the whole time, the memories of a strong character can bring down a performance in the minds of an audience. Repeat what the twentysomethings said a couple of 'graphs above. They were right.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to K-19: The Widowmaker, he would have paid . . .



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The Cranky Critic website is Copyright © 1995  -  2017  by Chuck Schwartz. Articles by Paul Fischer are Copyright © 1999 - 2006 Paul Fischer. All images, unless otherwise noted, are property of,©, ®, their respective studios and are used by permission. All Rights Reserved. Not to be used or copied for any commercial purpose. Academy Award(s) and Oscar®(s) are registered trademarks and service marks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.