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'K-19: The Widowmaker'

Ford, Neeson add power to sub thriller 'K-19: The Widowmaker'

Friday, July 19, 2002

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When a woman attempts to christen the K-19 with a champagne bottle and it fails to break on the first swing, a sailor utters, "We're cursed."

The Widowmaker'

RATING: PG-13 for disturbing images (mainly involving radiation poisoning)

STARRING: Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson

DIRECTOR: Kathryn Bigelow

WEB SITE: www.k19movie.com


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The Soviet submarine, powered by nuclear reactors and carrying ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads, has suffered fatalities, mishaps and bad omens before leaving port. And the worst is yet to come, although it will take decades before the public knows the truth.

"K-19: The Widowmaker" is a tense submarine drama inspired by actual events, with some dramatic license taken. The story is set in 1961 during the Cold War, a time when the Soviet Navy furiously attempted to catch up with the Americans, and enough missiles existed on both sides to destroy the world a dozen times.

As the movie opens, the K-19 is undergoing tests in dry dock and it's evident the equipment is faulty and that the commander, Capt. Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson), will not blame his men for failure.

But higher-ups decide to bring the no-nonsense Capt. Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford) aboard to ready the flagship sub for her maiden voyage, which will include the launch of a test missile. And what a challenge Vostrikov faces: He finds the reactor officer asleep and drunk, the boat's doctor is accidentally killed by a truck that delivered the wrong drugs, and the new medical officer confesses he gets seasick.

"You know what the men call this boat? The Widowmaker. Ten dead and we haven't left dock," says Polenin, who has stayed aboard with the men he calls "my boys."

After requesting permission to "carry out defense of the Motherland," the boat sails on schedule. Vostrikov pushes the sub and the crew to their limits -- simulating accidents and ordering a descent to close to "crush depth." The commander with the iron will seems to have done the impossible by uniting the men and fulfilling part of the mission, but then the fuel rods look like they're headed for a meltdown.

"K-19" follows the attempts of the submariners, lacking expertise, proper protective gear and informed medical advice, to stem the leak in the cooling system, save themselves and avert a war between the superpowers since the vessel is perilously close to a NATO base.

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As directed by Kathryn Bigelow, "K-19" is told strictly from the Soviet point of view, and we even see real propaganda footage designed to make the United States look like the evil empire.

I knew nothing about the K-19 -- a ship later dubbed the "Hiroshima" -- and found this a fascinating look at a little-known, frightening chapter in world history. The movie is slow to start, but once it enters its second hour, the pace quickens and the story builds to a touching conclusion. After all, this isn't like watching "Saving Private Ryan," where you think of a grandfather or father storming those beaches; this is literally foreign territory, but in the end, these men emerge as more than a onetime enemy.

Although I found it jarring to hear Ford affect a Russian accent (which comes and goes a bit), I got used to it. And nobody delivers a look that could match the frozen ice like Ford; you can almost feel the force of his wrath from the back row. Neeson more than matches him in physical screen presence and power of performance.

The supporting cast includes some actors to watch, notably Peter Sarsgaard, now on screen in "The Salton Sea" and one of the friends turned killers in "Boys Don't Cry," and Christian Camargo, who has logged most of his acting credits on stage.

The "silent service," of course, is never really silent, and editor Walter Murch excelled in creating the sounds of a sub as the metal creaks and moans as it resists the pressure of the very deep, frigid waters. For the first time in its history, the Kirov Orchestra performs the score, and it sometimes becomes an overbearing presence.

For dramatic purposes, the movie compresses two disastrous incidents into one voyage. Although historians may quibble with that maneuver, the movie makes a strong case for the sacrifice and courage of the K-19 crew. Like the firefighters who walked into the Twin Towers knowing they might never walk out, the submariners ventured into harm's way by sloshing through highly radioactive water to try to fix the reactor.

It's no "Das Boot," the gold standard for sub movies, but in a summer of sequels and invented fiction, it ably rises to the surface.

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