K-19: The Widowmaker

tn_k-19Well, I was stupid to write off K-19 all these years. I don’t know why I did. I didn’t even know what it’s about. I think I knew K-19 wasn’t a mountain, it’s a submarine. I knew it had kind of an audacious name but was directed by this year’s #1 Oscar snub, Kathryn Bigelow. That should’ve been enough, but I never heard anything too good about it and didn’t feel the need to see it.

Maybe it’s the submarine thing. I know this is blasphemy to alot of people, but I never even got into that one submarine movie that everybody loves that’s by the director of DIE HARD and PREDATOR. I’ve tried and it’s fine and everything but I just can’t get myself excited about it like everybody else. Maybe I’m subconsciously rebelling against my old man, who worked on subs. I never went that way. I’m a proud surface dweller. Strictly a land man. Vote no on Atlantis.

K-19 is another Cold War nuke scare story, but this one based on a real incident back in ’61, instead of a fake book from the ’80s. And the real difference is that it’s not about Americans and Soviets facing off, it’s only about the Soviets. This is weird at first because the stars are Liam Neeson as the Captain and Harrison Ford as the higher-up-Captain who comes in to boss him around later, and we know those dudes aren’t Russian. Of course we know Neeson’s not German either, and he got away with German-accented-English-as-metaphor-for-German in SCHINDLER’S LIST. I actually think he works okay here because his normal movie voice is already an amalgam of Irish-accent and not-Irish accent. He has his own Neeson accent that absorbs and digests any other accent it desires. It can replace any accent but only for 99 minutes in sunlight.

Harrison Ford takes more getting used to, though. Accents don’t seem to be his forte. He gives it a shot, but he seems to slip in and out. It’s kind of a minimalistic accent I guess. I thought Peter “Li’l Malkovich” Sarsgaard would be more consistent portraying the last minute replacement reactor-engineer, but he also takes the minimalist approach, so maybe this was an intentional production-wide choice, like how in VALKYRIE they chose to have everyone use their normal accents and in BUGSY MALONE they chose for everybody to be children.

mp_k-19Once you can get past that conceit – it didn’t take me long – this is a compelling and unique drama. The Soviets are desperate to make a show of force to the Americans, as a deterrent, and they rush this K-19 sub into production like a PARANORMAL ACTIVITY sequel. It’s even got a release date. Get it to sea trials and fire off a test missile where those capitalist pigs will see it and shit their pants. I don’t care if it’s not ready! Make it ready!

Even while it’s being built there’s alot of bad luck. Something collapses on a guy, another guy gets run over on the construction site, shit like that. The bottle didn’t break when they christened it, that’s either an example of how wrong everything went or the reason for all of it. Way to throw a bottle, guys.

Then they get it out in the water. Submarine lowers, tensions rise. Neeson encourages a one-big-family, we’re-all-in-this-together type of attitude on the ship, but then grumpy old Ford comes on to boss everybody around, fires a guy, yells at everybody, pushes the sub to the breaking point in drills, comes real close to getting all of them killed, insists he was right to do it. Neeson goes back to his room to sulk.

The real challenge comes when they discover their reactor broken and heating up. They gotta figure out an emergency repair because if they don’t it’s gonna blow up worse than Hiroshima, take out the American sub that’s near them and possibly start a nuclear war. Which would be bad. The attempted repairs require sacrifice, and plenty of sailors line up to do it. They gotta go in with inadequate protection, basically stick their faces in the radiation oven, to try something that won’t even necessarily help. Meanwhile there’s a CRIMSON TIDE situation brewing, the captain and the commander have different philosophies, different loyalties, and a mutiny could raise its head. Dramatic sub shit, you know.

There’s so much going around in these young men’s heads. They want to prove their loyalty to the Communist party, do their duty for their country, for their brothers on the ship, but also they want to come home alive, not radioactive, to see their fiancees again. Sarsgaard has to deal with his own cowardice. He freaks out, misses his turn in the reactor, another guy takes his place heroically. The others look at him with some pity, probly some disgust, but they don’t say anything. They don’t have to. He’s sitting there knowing he might’ve saved his own ass, but also that he’ll always hate himself for what he did, and that his brothers will never respect him.

Here’s Kathryn Bigelow dealing with all these masculine themes in a movie where the most prominent female role is a woman behind a fence in one scene at the beginning. Bigelow’s one of a kind. And like with ZERO DARK THIRTY these complex ideas are suggested by the events and the expressions on the actor’s faces much more than they are pointed out or explained with words.

At first I thought Harrison Ford and his drifting accent were too distracting, that it was one of those things where they choose a movie star in order to get the thing financed but it ends up being damaging in the end. But eventually it won me over as a brilliant casting decision. On the surface it takes advantage of his grouchy, pouty bitterness. Most of the character is in his frowns, so aside from the Russian-ness it’s a natural fit for him. The strict, grumpy guy that’s scary enough that you don’t notice at first how honorable he is. Seems like a bad guy, but isn’t.

And then of course it’s using Ford’s status as an American icon, and even as Tom Clancy’s character Jack Ryan, even though he didn’t play him in the submarine one. Captain Vostrikov is equally dedicated to his country, but obviously it’s a different country and system than most of our movie heroes. It’s a perfect way to get across this truth about both sides having more in common than they realize. We never see the American sub crews except from a distance, but we know there are many values that both sides share, and that they have the same fears of the other side, the same need to assert their courage, to know that they are men, to make their country proud, to not disappoint their captain, to get home alive and see that woman in person instead of just in a little photo they keep in their pocket.

It’s an impressive production too. There are CGI shots here and there but mostly it’s real shit you’re looking at. I think there’s a shot of Ford poking out of the top of a real submarine out in the water. If it was fake it was good enough to convince me, anyway. The movie was actually produced by National Geographic, believe it or not. It cost about $100 million but wasn’t financed by a studio, so it’s one of the most expensive independent films ever made (and also a major flop). They got Walter Murch to edit it and the cinematographer is Jeff Cronenweth, who’s done some of Fincher’s movies. (His dad did BLADE RUNNER.)

And this is small but worth noting: I was impressed by the old man makeup in the epilogue. You don’t usually see good old man makeup. I guess it’s partly because it’s not real elaborate, it’s pretty subtle. Maybe it all comes down to the old man glasses they chose. I don’t know, but it’s good work.

I gotta say, I did not have high expectations for this one, it was a crossing-it-off-the-list type of viewing since I’d seen all of Bigelow’s other directorial works. But this is a really good, underrated movie, I found it very moving. I wish I could’ve watched it with my dad some time. He would’ve told me what was wrong with it, but it would’ve been fun.


This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 20th, 2013 at 2:52 am and is filed under Drama, Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

26 Responses to “K-19: The Widowmaker”

  1. There are but two truly good (for very different reasons) submarine movies. One is Das Boot. The other is Yellow Submarine.

    How do I know this? If I told you, it would blow my cover. Nuff said.

  2. THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER is not all that great submarinemovie, because you as a viewer is not entirely trapped with the crew for the entire movie, unlike DAS BOOT. That movie has tension most movies can only dream of.

  3. THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER is a great thriller of its type, and probably my favorite sub movie (though I haven’t seen Das Boot), but, as Shoot McKay says, it’s less a sub movie and more a character thriller with a lot of sub parts in it.

    That said, it’s easily my second-favorite McTiernan movie behind Die Hard, and was actually ahead of it for a long time.

  4. I always thought of the end spaceship battle in ‘Star Trek II : The Wrath Of Khan’ as being very submarine-movie-ish. The spaceships can’t see each other, they rely on pings or whatever; there is a reactor leak / associatedc sacrifice to save the ship; etc.

    But yeah ‘Das Boot’ is the nuts – a truly immersive (geddit?) experience.

  5. “Maybe it’s the submarine thing. I know this is blasphemy to alot of people, but I never even got into that one submarine movie that everybody loves that’s by the director of DIE HARD and PREDATOR.”

    Waitaminute..McTiernan didn’t direct Crimson Tide!

  6. Yeah I never got the love for Hunt for Red October either. I heard you had to see it on the big screen, that the subs looked amazing in the theater and it just didn’t look the same on video. Maybe that’s true but I guess (as a kid) I never could get on board with Connery snapping that poor guy’s neck for getting in the way of him defecting, or Baldwin shooting some unarmed defenseless schmoe at the end, or that we’re supposed to cheer that a whole sub full of poor innocent Russians get blown up at the end just so one selfish guy can come to America.

    As for K-19, I still can’t believe it was a big summer movie. Instead of rah-rah heroics, it’s basically (as Tango said) the end of Wrath of Khan stretched to excruciating feature length. As a July movie, it must have pissed audiences off, but as a quieter meditation on machismo, patriotism, and sacrifice, it’s powerful stuff.

  7. DAS BOOT.

    Oh, yes.

  8. No love for Down Periscope?

  9. Vern – To me K-19 comes off as Bigelow, using a true story and that whole ordeal, as her dramatic treastise really on why the Soviet Union state failed ultimately. An inefficient, corrupt, under-equipped bureaucracy run by fear. In some ways alot of the same mistakes that fucked K-19 would rear its ugly head again at Chernobyl.

    I saw it at theatres and I guess I thought it was merely OK, but rewatched it after Bigelow won her Oscars…and yes its a good movie.

    My favorite scene SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER is when you have the mutiny scene and you expect (by Hollywood) convention Neeson to join them, instead he sticks with the same Captain he had been bitching at. I suppose that scene reflects different values in different societies. And unfortunately in Russia, that loyal paternalistic value system is heavily installed there. Of course its not fair to compare Ford to Putin or any CCPR Secretary. I found it fascinating the way Neeson has sympathy for Ford, as if he understands that Ford is fucked in a lose-lose situation. The movie could’ve made him a MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY type of evil captain you know? SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER

    Amazing Larry – You know its funny but when I saw YELLOW SUBMARINE, I was expecting what I’ve heard about it for years, a drug-influenced cartoon movie. I was pleasantly surprised to find a rather witty, ambitious movie that seemed to want to be a bridge between the universal audience appeal of Disney cartoons with the fringe adult-oriented underground cartoons being made in the 60s/70s (FRITZ THE CAT, etc.).

    The fact it was also produced by the same people who made the cheap and goofy Beatles cartoon show (which the Beatles despised), the final result is even more outstanding. Also clearly it wasn’t made using drugs because if it was, no movie would’ve been made and if it was made under the influence, it would’ve been incoherent messy as fuck.

    ThomasCrown442 – My parents love that movie, seem to usually rewatch it whenever they’re going to bed.

    I remember watching HBO some shitty movie I forgot the title (thankfully) with Ice T and Ernie Hudson and William Sadler, and they reused the DP sub set for an American nuclear submarine. (Nevermind that set was for an antique diesel-powered old timey sub and not a modern nuke sub, but nevermind.)

  10. INSPIRED BY ACTUAL EVENTS

    Thank you for that modest prologue, K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER.

    This movie didn’t deserve to flop. I guess I pulled a total Paul the first time I saw this, because I remember being annoyed by the near-constant dramatic music and thinking the drama-hero shit was too drawn out, too high-pitched to carry a narrative that needed more valleys & lulls instead of constant emotional high-plateauing, so I didn’t enjoy it. This was years ago, and I didn’t remember this one well. I was possibly intoxicated and/or too preoccupied with college shit to get into the story, I guess.

    The theatrical release coincided with the opening stages of most of us Americans realizing that we weren’t achieving anything to get “justice” for 9/11, that we weren’t locating Osama, that we maybe didn’t know what the fuck we were doing in OEF, and then the K-19 dvd release date roughly coincided with the run-up to & invasion of Iraq, so this would have been around the time when Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld were hitting their peak evil levels, finding unique ways to shit on & destroy the notion of sacrifice & patriotism & duty for a cause you’re not so sure is just & good for the whole world. So I wasn’t trying to get into serious based-on-real-life geopolitical-patriotic conflicts set in now-nonexistent militaries in my action-drama movies at the time. I loved Rob Cohen’s xXx, but wasn’t feeling a 1961 nuclear meltdown/standoff drama. 13 DAYS was solid, but I wasn’t ready to be on a Soviet sub for 2+ hours in pretty much the same historical setting, facing the same stakes again. And, like Vern, K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER (great title) seemed to have gotten meh reviews and just didn’t much appeal to me for some reason.

    But I rewatched it this morning during my calisthenics (extending my workout to 138 minutes was a challenge – thanks, K-19), and this is a damn good movie. Good job, Respectable Bigelow.

    BELOW, the other 2002 sub movie (with a pedigree including Twohy & Aronofsky), is a little better and probably more Vern’s speed, but still, good job.

    The version I saw showed the christening bottle not breaking.

  11. I always wanted to see Han Solo and Qui-Gon in a flick but this one looked too boring for me to ever watch. It’s still the one K-Bigs (cheah!!!) joint that I’ve avoided. Coming from someone who loves NEAR DARK and STRANGE DAYS to death that’s not easy to say. But you fellas are so eloquent at times I might just turn around and give it a view sometime this week.

  12. Mouth – That bottle scene was always there. Maybe Vern got ahold of a bootleg copy from a foreign country where that scene was cut? I bet it came from the Middle-East, since you know those censors hate bottles.

    Broddie – Its a good movie. Its worth seeing. What more do you want dude?

  13. I second Mouth’s BELOW recommendation (in fact, I’ll even so so far as to add it to the “recommendation” section!). Good, weird sci fi/horror which subtly shifts our perception of the characters as it goes through the plot in a very clever way. Makes good use of the claustrophobic setting, but still manages some scenes of visual awe.

  14. I appreciate K-19’s weird propaganda film session – random footage of cute Nixonette dancers and then KKK footage and then footage of black Americans getting hosed by redneck cops while the submarine compartment’s OIC tells his crew that America is essentially a Potemkin nation.

    Reminds me of the best parts of recent documentaries KLITSCHKO and THE OTHER DREAM TEAM, when real Soviets/Ukrainians/Lithuanians remember visiting USA or Spain in the late 80s early 90s and were blown away by the luxury of free life in a capitalist society – owning multiple pairs of shoes, playing sports & chasing girls at one’s leisure, buying & eating overwhelming varieties of foods & flavors, having James Brown sing & dance on fight night to introduce your nation’s best boxer (Yes, Apollo was way better than Rocky.), etc..
    Fuckin’ brainwashing, man, how does it work?

    K-19 seems well-written & directed from a military accuracy perspective, too, like the part where Captain prompts the juniors – “I heard there were complaints… Hmm?”
    And one guy is about to speak up and say something complaint-ish, but his buddy mushes him down before Han Solo notices. “No complaints, sir.”
    That’s the right fuckin’ answer. Good scene, Respectable Bigelow.

    You never bitch or bring questions to Top. Always to your peers or to the first-line supervisor if you can’t handle it at the lowest level. Complaining to a higher echelon commander when you’re just a junior enlisted man would be like being a Microsoft employee who thinks the guy at the next cubicle has bad breath so he goes straight to Bill Gates to whine about it. I don’t care if Bill Gates personally visits your torpedo chamber and asks you face-to-face. Complaining to him is a big no-go.

    And then a follow-up scene shows Comrade Captain telling his boat’s officers (who outrank the lowly enlisted who have to suffer the most through the drills & mechanical issues & the Kremlin’s budget constraints) that *they*, the officers, are the problem. This is also the right fuckin’ answer. I’ve been in that meeting before. Not a good feeling. I was heartened by this filmed interpretation of a Soviet boat’s leaders doing the same thing 50+ years ago, reflecting something in military culture (no matter the country or branch, apparently) that still happens in real life – any grumblings or rumors or lower-level technical problems (or even legit complaints about a rash of casualties) that make it to Top’s ears tend to flow up-&-down to the shoulders of senior NCOs & junior commissioned officers, and they get blamed.

    As they should. In a meeting just like the one filmed here. Good job, Respectable Bigelow.

    I wish that scene had been longer, brought more attention to itself, because it’s very memorable when that happens, especially in a tight unit in the field facing major challenges. That kind of talking-to from HeadManInCharge is something that paints everyone’s behavior for weeks to follow. Careers are on the line; every move is measured — “How is this gonna reflect on what he told us in that terrifying meeting?”
    You don’t wanna convene with the head honcho for one of those meetings; he’ll go Alec Baldwin in GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS on your asses, but without the safety valve of a possible firing at the end of the month. He’ll go Nino Brown on you, menacingly skipping rope with his chain, asking uncomfortable questions, until he [figuratively] maims someone.

    Luckily for Qui-Gon here, it never quite escalates to that point. More urgent external problems intrude & facilitate acts of heroism that override the more personal mano-a-mano tensions, so he’s able to keep the family together at the end and maintain respect for the superior appointed over him. As he should. Treason & insubordination is bad. I wish Bigelow hadn’t gone on to allow Mark Boal’s idiotic scripts to change her understanding of how to film this kind of relationship, this type of tension. She/They went back to a stupid twist on “good guy who doesn’t play by the rules but gets results you stupid chief” instead.

    It’s cool that Bigelow’s evidently had a thing for filming men in protective suits going to defuse/contain explosives, though. Not a bad filmatical visual motif to explore.
    And reminding people of the end of WRATH OF KHAN (or the end of Angel the Vampire season 1 episode “Hero,” when Doyle SPOILERs himself) is not a bad thing.

  15. I also have a soft spot for BELOW. I’d def qualify it as an underrated movie, and a nice play on the haunted house genre.

    Vern – my dad worked as an EMT for 12 years. If you watch anything that involves accidents/paramedics/hospitals, then you will also receive a lesson in “what’s wrong with it.”

  16. I guess I didn’t catch the bottle thing in the movie for some reason, then I read about the real life incident on wikipedia. I’ll have to fix that in the review. (Don’t tell anybody.)

    I’ve always meant to see BELOW. I’ll try to see it soon.

  17. BELOW is okay, but it doesn’t really add up to much. It holds its secrets a little too close too the vest for a little too long, so when all is revealed, you’re like, “That’s it? After all that?” The psychological tension between the crew was good, but the supernatural angle felt tacked on. They didn’t do enough with it to justify it, in my opinion.

  18. yeah, I was confused because believe it or not I actually saw this in theaters and one of the only two scenes I remember is the bottle not breaking and the crew mooning the American helicopter

    anyway, I’m not gonna say it was a bad movie, but perhaps not a very memorable one, while granted it has been a long time since I’ve seen it there’s other movies I haven’t seen since 2002 or so that I remember a lot better, but maybe I should just give this one a re-watch some day

  19. also Vern, is that really true about that your dad? no offensive but I never can tell with you, you’re a man of mystery

  20. “Reminds me of the best parts of recent documentaries KLITSCHKO”

    hey, I saw that too, it was indeed pretty fascinating, remember when his father told him “that’s just the nice side of America you’re seeing”

  21. Nice little moment at the end about your dad I related to. On a seperate note, I think we should all congratulate ourselves – It’s been a cold, dark week for John McClane fans but we made it through.

  22. I know how you feel about your dad, to some degree (I think that was a genuine statement at the end there). I lost my dad about eight months ago, and there are definitely times I see something and think of how much he would’ve enjoyed it (most notably, this last Superbowl, ha ha).

    Anyway, this one was on my list, but sort of slipped off as the years went by. I’ll have to check it out.


  23. “Maybe it’s the submarine thing. I know this is blasphemy to alot of people, but I never even got into that one submarine movie that everybody loves that’s by the director of DIE HARD and PREDATOR.”

    Waitaminute..McTiernan didn’t direct Crimson Tide!

    Yeah I was gonna quote this same bit and make my own Wolfgang Peterson joke…

  24. U-571

    Just for the sake of completeness…

  25. The Original... Paul

    February 23rd, 2013 at 8:16 am

    So we’re taking pot shots at “The Hunt for Red October” now, are we? We’ve been reduced to that?

    I’m ashamed of you all.

    Can we at least agree that U-571 was bollocks?

    Anyway, on topic, this might be the very first positive review I’ve seen of K-19. I might check it out if it comes on TV.

  26. >K-19 seems well-written & directed from a military accuracy perspective, too, like the part where Captain prompts the juniors – “I heard there were complaints… Hmm?” And one guy is about to speak up and say something complaint-ish, but his buddy mushes him down before Han Solo notices. “No complaints, sir.” That’s the right fuckin’ answer. Good scene, Respectable Bigelow.

    Mouth,

    There’s a great scene in CATCH-22 about this same thing. Well, the book anyway; I couldn’t take more than five minutes of the movie.

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