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K19 The Widowmaker – film review

March 8, 2013


A celebration of Russian courage and ingenuity.

K19 the widowmaker

A United States, British, German, Canadian co-production. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Screenplay by Christopher Kyle. Story by Louis Nowra. Executive Producer Harrison Ford. Starring: Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson and Peter Sarsgaard. Released in 2002. Running time: 138 mins.

As with war movies in general, films about submarines have always held their place in genre cinema: Run Silent Run Deep (1958), Das Boot (1981), The Hunt For Red October (1990), Crimson Tide (1995). And so it should be no surprise these films were clearly on Kathryn Bigelow’s radar when she set out to lens her own take on     the genre, K19 The Widowmaker. Her handling of this material, particularly in terms     of realistically depicting the claustrophobia of the sub and representing the sworn enemy of the west in a sympathetic light, very much echoes Wolfgang Petersen’s portrayal of life aboard a German U-boat in Das Boot.

Partly funded by National Geographic and with a budget of $100 million, K19 is one     of the most expensive indie films ever made. A true story which remained hidden behind the iron curtain for twenty-eight years.

On July 4th 1961, at the height of the Cold War, the crew of Russia’s first nuclear-powered submarine face a radioactive nightmare when their sub’s crippled reactor suffers a catastrophic meltdown.

Rushed into service before she is ready, it becomes apparent from the outset the     sub is doomed when the champagne bottle used in the boat’s christening bounces harmlessly off the hull without breaking. Things get off to a shaky start when the sub’s reactor officer is found drunk on duty and is replaced with a less experienced Radtchinko (Peter Sarsgaard). The K19’s doctor is then killed in a dockside accident before he can reveal the sub has been consigned the incorrect medication for the treatment of radiation poisoning, should contamination from the reactor occur. As if this wasn’t enough, the boat’s much-loved original captain, Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson), is demoted to executive officer and replaced with Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford) – a stern taskmaster. The two men are at immediate loggerheads with regard to Vostrikov’s authoritarian attitude towards the crew.

Once at sea, a series of intense safety drills designed to test the limits of the sub and her crew are carried out, during which some of the 139 crew are injured. These drills culminate with a nail-biting extended sequence where Vostrikov (Ford) orders the sub to dive below 250 metres to 300 metres – close to ‘crush depth’ – the point at which the pressure becomes so great – the sub may implode. Successfully reaching the arctic circle, an unarmed test missile is fired and the crew is immediately given new orders to patrol the east coast of America. However, as the K19 heads south towards the US, the unthinkable happens and a coolant leak occurs within the reactor,  sending the temperature spiralling out of control. If the reactor temperature exceeds 1000 degrees Celsius, meltdown will occur – resulting in a catastrophic explosion which may also detonate the remaining warheads on board. The crew have only three to four hours to find a solution to repair the reactor’s coolant system or face a thermo-nuclear event with an explosive yield at least equal to that of Hiroshima. With a US navy destroyer (which has been shadowing them) offering assistance nearby, Vostrikov realizes that if a nuclear explosion were to occur, it could be misconstrued by the Americans as an act of aggression and inadvertantly spark an all-out nuclear exchange between the two superpowers – effectively triggering World War Three. Deciding upon a course of action, the crew set about creating a jerry-rigged cooling system (cannibalizing piping from the sub) with the hope of diverting thirty tons of water from the fresh water supply into the reactor to hopefully lower the core temperature and keep it below 1000 degrees. Vostrikov calls for volunteers to enter the radiation-flooded compartment in four teams of two (for no longer than ten minutes at a time) and carry out the necessary repairs.

K19 reactor compartment

With the discovery there are no radiation-proof suits aboard – only chemical spill suits (which are ineffective against radiation) – the fates of the men going into the reactor compartment are sealed; undoubtedly they are signing thier own death warrants. As Bigelow recalls of this particular sequence: “Even though there were probably five years between the point when I first heard the story and shot that sequence, you think that you’d might become a bit immune to it – I could not. I remember sitting     in that compartment and the hatch opens and out comes Christian Camargo in his radiation makeup and he’s shaking and there’s sweat on his face and there were tears coming down my face and I know I was shooting it and I know it was a set, there’s the crew, there’s the cast, there’s the lights and equipment – but suddenly it came to life and I realized it was the recreation of these men making this profound sacrifice for us! – people they didn’t know, generations that would come after them and if they didn’t do what they did who knows where the fate of the world would be. It was a real moving experience.” In lesser hands, this sequence could easily be melodramatic     or worse – unduly sentimental. Bigelow, however, provides just the right balance       of drama and pathos to make this sequence a profoundly visceral and intense experience.

Tensions aboard the stricken sub escalate further when it becomes apparent that radioactive particles have leaked from the reactor compartment into the boat’s air conditioning system and have spread throughout the sub. Now Vostrikov faces a   new dilema,  to either try to make it to the nearest Soviet base before the radiation kills them all –  or surface and face the possibiltiy of handing the pride of the Russian fleet over to the Americans.

Harrison Ford gives one of his best performances as Vostrikov. He pretty much nails the subtilties of a Russian accent without ever tipping over into caricature. So right is Ford for this role in fact, that he does indeed bear a remarkable resemblance to the K19’s real-life Captain, a man whose real name was Nikolai Zateyev.

nikolai zateyev K19 captain

K19 ford and neeson k19

It says much about Ford’s skill as an actor as well as his attitude towards his craft, that he is more than happy to shake off his leading man persona and tackle what could easily have been an unsympathetic character, imbuing Vostrikov (in spite of     his customary Russian stoicism) with a certain degree of likeability.

With the bulk of the story set within the confines of the submarine, the sense of claustrophobia is palpable. In order to accomodate the cameras in such confined spaces, specially built monorail camera rigs were incorporated into the sets to allow the cameras to track with the actors as they move about the submarine. The result being: the immersive quality Bigelow’s films are known for is very much in evidence here. The attention to detail, the staging of action, the intricate sets, is unmistakably Bigelow. Authenticity was a major concern to both she and executive producer Harrison Ford – hence the filming of the Moscow scenes in the very locations the events occured. Indeed, it was the first time ever a western film crew was granted access to the actual war rooms where cold war plans were made. A real Russian Juliet-class submarine from the era was also used to represent the K19 in dry dock and at sea. The sub was retrofitted with a 100 foot hull extension and an extension   of the conning tower, so that she more resembled the K19. The interior sets were   also built to the original blueprints of the real K19.

The luminous cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth is old school classical while       the lush romantic score by Hans Zimmer protege Klaus Badelt (he also cowrote     the music for Gladiator) has a suitably Russian feel thanks in part to his use of authentic Russian musicians; the Kirov orchestra and choir.

K19 The Widowmaker is a celebration of Russian ingenuity and heroism in the face   of adversity. It is a beautifully-made, suspenseful and engaging cold war drama   which does much to humanize a former foe and is well worth a look.

3.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos   and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes right-brained people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies.

From → film reviews

  1. Loved Harrison Ford’s performance in this one. I had also forgotten that Bigelow had directed this one. This might fall closely behind Point Break as my favorite of her films.

    My first time visiting your blog and I enjoyed checking it out. If you get a chance please return the favor and give our site a look.


    • gregory moss permalink

      Hey there! Yeah, I’d forgotten how good could Ford can be when given the right material. And that foot chase in Point Break is absolutely incredible isn’t it? For anyone who hasn’t seen it, you can check out this sequence on you-tube by typing ‘Point Break Foot Chase’. And thanks for checking my blog too, I usually post something at least once a week and I’ll definitely be returning the favor by checking out Cheers! Greg 🙂


      • Gregory, my favorite part of that chase scene is Bodhi tossing that dog at Johnny Utah. 🙂


      • gregory moss permalink

        That IS a great moment! A real LOL WTF! Bigelow can do no wrong in my eyes and I’d love to see her tackle a Bond movie – she’d be perfect for that. 🙂


  2. Nice write up as always Greg! 🙂


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