A would-be action blockbuster loosely based on the true story of what almost triggered World War III but didn't, K-19: The Widowmaker could be deemed a nail-biter only if your nails are long and need clipping anyway. Particularly by comparison to more buoyant doomsday vehicles such as The Sum of All Fears, in which the nuclear obliteration of Baltimore is but a speed bump en route to the hero's wedding engagement, this submarine movie set in 1961 appears a little sunken.
Yes, red lights will begin flashing, sirens will be sounded, and levers will be pulled aboard the titular Soviet sub, whose crew barely manages to avert nuclear meltdown below the surface of the Atlantic. Gauges measuring depth and temperature--not to mention wristwatches marking the movie's mounting duration--will signify imminent disaster. Water, believe it or not, will leak into the boat. Men will vomit. Pet mice will perish. In an apparent nod to another big boat movie, the crew will dance in the narrow aisles and drink red wine in order to unwind between "action" scenes. All the while, we're told repeatedly, "the [nuclear] core is heating up."
But is there anything below the surface here? Not much, alas. Sometimes a submarine movie is just a submarine movie--despite being directed by Kathryn Bigelow, one of only two women allowed to play with the big boys' action figures. (Mimi Leder of Deep Impact and The Peacemaker is the other--and otherwise not worth mentioning.) Seven long years after the release of Bigelow's somewhat visionary Strange Days, whose prediction of catastrophe came true at the box office and nowhere else, the director's outsider status now reveals itself mainly in terms of how little money has been apportioned to her comeback. After taking the plunge for Harrison Ford's turn as an iron-fisted captain in the Soviet Navy (does that $25 million paycheck include the actor's lessons in how to speak Russian-accented English?), Paramount only needed to purchase costar Liam Neeson and a handful of CGI shots. And if K-19 looks a bit underfunded by blockbuster standards--the death chamber "Compartment Ten" looks suspiciously like compartments one through nine--its meager budget is enough to buy a measure of our approval. Four decades after the height of the Cold War, we Americans still love being reminded that the Soviet ship wasn't exactly in tiptop shape.
At the start of the film, a printed prologue explains that this tale of early Sixties-era Soviet courage is one that couldn't be told for 28 years--which is about how long ago its sympathy for the Red devil might have appeared radical. Certainly the movie takes pains to humanize its feuding comrades: Neeson's Captain Mikhail Polenin is displaced from the helm for caring too much about the safety of the crew; while his replacement, Ford's Captain Alexei Vostrikov, only endangers the men by way of proving that K-19 is fully equipped to unleash retaliatory nukes in the event of a U.S. strike against the Motherland. Still, it's telling that the movie's most heroic moment comes when the submarine is run like--yeah!--a democracy. Until then, the heroism of disobeying orders is never an option. As my screening partner put it, K-19: The Widowmaker is a Mutiny on the Bounty remake in which Captain Bligh turns out to have been absolutely right.
Befitting a film whose subtitle is there mainly to keep the kids on summer vacation from thinking that it's a dog movie, K-19 doesn't have much time for those characters who would be made widows. In fact, not counting the requisite wimp's distraught fiancée, whom Bigelow spies weeping as the ship leaves port, the film's only female is the one who tries unsuccessfully to break a Champagne bottle on the bow. Could it be that the director sees herself in one of these women? After all, both K-19 and K-19 were rushed out of dry dock before having been proven seaworthy. (The production was launched only after Ford made the mature decision to reprise the Sean Connery role from The Hunt for Red October rather than play Jack Ryan's sprightly patriot games again.) And Bigelow has a long history of reflexive filmmaking: The bikers of The Loveless, the vampires of Near Dark, and the gonzo surfers of Point Break all act out the dubious ethics of trading in bloody thrills--and mirror her own ambivalent involvement in the same.
Still, the epic failure of Strange Days--not to mention The Weight of Water, a smaller boat film that has been stuck on the studio sandbar for two years--seems to have encouraged the director to make a sub movie without much subtext. (Meanwhile, plans for Bigelow to mount her long-discussed Joan of Arc opus appear to have gone up in flames.) By default, the most revealing shot in K-19 starts tight on the ship's hull and tracks slowly backward, eventually indicating that the military "tension" of the film's first minutes has been a war game: The submarine is still up on blocks. What silly things men do with their big toys, Bigelow seems to say. Silly and...irresistible.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.