K-19: The Widowmaker
Studio: Paramount Pictures
US Rating: PG-13 For Disturbing Images
Film Length: 137 Minutes
Video: Color / 1080P High Definition 16X9 - 2.35:1
Audio: English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, French 5.1 Dolby Digital, Spanish 2.0 Dolby Digital
Subtitles: English, English SDH, French, and Spanish
“For their courage I nominated these men for the title of hero of the soviet union. But the committee ruled that because it was not wartime, and because it was merely an accident, they were not worthy of the title hero. What good are honors from such people? These men sacrificed, not for a medal. But because when the time came, it was their duty. Not to the navy, or to the state, but to us. Their comrades. And so, to comrades!!!”
The Film: 3.5 out of 5
The sub-genre of submariner tales in film is replete with triumphs and shipwrecks, from the outstanding Das Boot to The Hunt for Red October, and from to Run Silent, Run Deep to Below. K-19: The Widowmaker attempts to dramatize a little known historical event of surprising significance with an aim of remaining more faithful to the reality of those events than other films in the genre have done (U-571 in particular having failed that). The result, unfortunately, is somewhat of a let-down.
The history-making Kathryn Bigelow, who became the first female in history to win an Academy Award for directing the powerful The Hurt Locker - an extraordinary film about the pressures and dangers of war - cut her (cold) war-film teeth with the story of the first nuclear powered soviet submarine.
The story of K-19 isn’t entirely unfamiliar, though the specifics may be. Captain Alexei Vostrikov, a last minute replacement for the popular Capt. Mikhail Polenin, is given command of the USSR’s flagship experiment, their first nuclear powered submarine, which is capable of sitting beyond the American sonar nets and destroying populous U.S. cities. The change in command is not entirely welcomed by the crew, though the former captain, who now must assume the executive officer position, is nothing less than a loyal, duty-bound officer.
As the K-19 sails on its maiden voyage, north toward the ice-laden Pole, and onward to brush against the American defenses and send a message of power and defiance, the reactor suffers a malfunction and panic quickly spreads. What was to be one of the finest hours of the Russian navy becomes instead one of the most dangerous and deadly tragedies. Capt. Vostrikov, fearless and stubborn, does not relinquish his original orders lightly, and only as the scale of the reactor malfunction, and the deadly radiation that affect the crew working to stifle a potential nuclear explosion aboard, does he decide that the mission must change to one of survival.
Harrison Ford, perhaps not the most obvious of actor choices, was cast as Capt. Vostrikov; equipped with a shaky Russian accent, and portraying staunch duty and belligerence rather than his more likeable and affable persona, he seems uncomfortable. Cast as his Executive Officer is Liam Neeson, who, being of European origins accomplishes the accent with far greater ease, and as such feels entirely more at home in the character, and in the film. The remainder of the cast is good (Peter Sarsgaard as Lt. Vadim Radtchinko in particular is terrific); an assortment of youthful seamen more prone to panic and fear, and older, more seasoned men in command of their experience, and in some ways as stubborn as the Captain with whom they seem unable to follow unquestioningly.
The direction from Kathryn Bigelow is solid. Bigelow is no stranger to tension fueled action sequences, as her achievements in unsung films like Blue Steel and Strange Days display, but something is still amiss. The events told in the film are historic, the caliber of actor talent is strong, and the nearly $100 million dollar budget should have produced even a modest hit. But K-19 failed to connect with American audiences (grossing a mere $35 million), and more surprisingly, European, Asian, and Australian audiences as well (grossing just $30 million in international territories). In searching for reasons K-19 failed as a movie-going experience, one has to look no further than the construction of the narrative, and the somewhat clinical execution of the material. The compelling history is told without the cinematic grandeur that the material, and studio production, would imply. Whether the decision resulted in a more accurate historical account versus an inflated Hollywood excursion in to over-dramatization I cannot say for sure, but being a co-production of National Geographic, one has to wonder if the commercial realities of such a film were understood. Where exactly was the market for this film. The protagonists were Russians from the cold war; the onscreen antagonists were Russian too, and the off-screen antagonists were Americans. American audiences have crossed that road before, but somehow, the retelling of an unknown incident aboard a Russian submarine that precious few people had heard of, seems like a hard sell – especially when the budget would be around $100 million.
Lovers of history, be it cold war, naval, or Russian, will find the big production, fascinating story (of a terrible incident), and the interesting characters, quite appealing. Those looking for a film that finds space in the shadow of greats such as Das Boot, or in the sticky pop-corn shadow of Crimson Tide, will be left underwhelmed.
The Video: 4 out of 5
Paramount Pictures releases K-19: The Widowmaker in 1080P High Definition 16X9, in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The image is surprisingly good; with grain structure intact, deep blacks, and a faithful spectrum of colors fitting of the material and era. This isn’t a wow image, but the level of detail – unhindered by unnecessary meddling – is better than expected, and superior to the DVD image released several years ago.
The Sound: 4 out of 5
The English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio delivers the tight quarter creaks, hum, and metal clangs deep beneath the ocean with ease. There’s clarity in the audio from all areas; the center channel ably delivers voices, the fronts deliver Badelt’s somewhat predictable score, the surrounds handle the dramatic and directional effects that ratchet up the tension during Bigelow’s action sequences, and the subwoofer rumbles comfortably with the sounds of the deep action.
The Extras: 4.5 out of 5
Commentary by director Kathryn Bigelow and Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth:An interesting if ‘stop-and-go’ at times commentary track from the director and cinematographer. I enjoy commentaries which recall the circumstances around what was created onscreen, and this audio commentary does that nicely. Having been to Moscow myself, I enjoyed hearing of how they discovered the beauty of the city, and the magnificent subway structures (where Harrison Ford’s first onscreen scene was filmed).
The Making of K-19: The Widowmaker (20:16):A standard marketing-style making of, it comes with some expected behind-the-scenes shots.
Exploring the Craft: Make-up Techniques (5:27):The effects of radiation burns, central to the dramatic power of the film, and how to recreate the illusion of those effects (and how it was tempered for the film) is discussed.
Breaching the Hull (5:11):A look at using miniatures to achieve some of the effects in the film – here the breaching of the ice-layer by the rapidly ascending K-19 submarine – is explored. As a fan of miniature effects, this is one of the better extra features.
It’s in the Details (11:50):A look at the effort put in to creating an authentic submarine set, and how the sets were built to the specifications of the original K-19.
Theatrical Trailer (HD)
K-19: The Widowmakeris neither a success nor a failure. It simply ‘is’. Perhaps destined to languish in the depths of the unremarkable, it is still worth discovering if for no other reason than the able hand of a gifted director, and a deeper understanding of little known events of the cold war. Hindered by its length (2 hours and 17 minutes), the odd casting of Harrison Ford, and the generic score from Klaus Badelt (who has produced superior scores for films such as Rescue Dawn and Beat the Drums), K-19 is adrift in the library of film. A rather good blu-ray version, however, helps.