K-19 The Widowmaker

During the tense cold war era, the United States and Russia clung to a premise that the threat of mutual mass-destruction was the best strategy to prevent the other side from taking aggressive actions against them. By 1961, the United States had enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world ten times over, whereas Russia could destroy the world twofold. Such firepower caused for great tensions the world, and caused the Russians to fear a sudden strike from the U.S. that would leave them unable to respond in a timely fashion.

In order to combat this disadvantage, the Russian leaders created their first Ballistic submarine, the code named K-19. The K-19 was not only a nuclear submarine, but was armed with three nuclear missiles that would enable Russia to launch strikes against strategic U.S. cities while off the coast of the United States. It was hoped that not only would this help to level the playing field, but would send a strong message to President Kennedy about actions that were viewed by the Russians as provocative.

Based upon a true story, “K-19 The Widowmaker” follows the ship from its final days before launch to the fateful first voyage that was hidden from the history books until recently. At the start of the film, Capt. Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson), is overseeing the final stages of preparations as the K-19 prepares for launch. Polenin is under great pressure from the Russian leadership to not only launch on time, but to have the new flagship of the fleet ready for a successful missile test firing to get the attention of the U.S. government. The fact that some systems in the K-19 seem to be faulty and fail on a regular basis is of no concern for the government, and they believe that Captain Polenin has put the safety of his crew over the interests of the Communist Party and Russia and is not fit to command the ship. Since Polenin knows the ship and crew well, he is assigned to stay aboard the K-19 as an executive officer under the command of Captain. Alexi Vostrikov (Harrison Ford), a hard and determined man, who is a fiercely loyal party member and is connected via marriage to a member of the Polit Bureau. While this fact may endear him to his superiors many of the men under his command find him to be a taskmaster, and secretly claim that Captain Vostrikov only gained his rank via his marriage, and that Captain Polenin is their commander despite what the orders say.
Vostrikov quickly becomes at odds with Polenin when he relieves the ships reactor tech of command and accepts a new technician who is just out of college. Polenin pleads that his former tech is by far the best the Navy has to offer, but it falls upon deaf ears as Vostrikov claims that the new tech must be qualified as the party assigned him to the ship. The ship soon earns the nickname “The Widowmaker” due to 10 deaths in and around the ship prior to its launch. Whispers begin to circulate amongst the crew that the ship is cursed, and the recent death of the ships doctor in an accident has only encouraged this belief.

Despite the concerns posted by Polenin, the K-19 launches as planned and is assigned to test-fire a missile to show the effectiveness of the new vessel. The constant drills that Vostrikov orders and his seeming lack of concern for safety is of great concern for Polenin, as the two clash over the command styles and how to best handle the men. When the K-19 is ordered to crush depth by Vostrikov, and then to perform a rapid surface through an ice cap, Polenin leaves his post in disgust. It is only after a successful launch of the missile systems that he returns to his post and informs Vostrikov that he will be reporting his action, as Vostrikov is being reckless in his opinion.

The mood of the crew lightens as they are given some free time on the icecaps and an impromptu soccer game and picture sessions erupt to the delight of everyone, as they believe they will be going home soon. Delighted with the successful launch, the Russian government decides to send the K-19 on a mission to patrol off the coast of the United States and before long the ship is underway again.

Soon after the situation turns grim when the rear reactor breaks and has a leak. With the core temperature rising, and an American destroyer in the vicinity, a core explosion could be taken as a hostile action and lead both sides to war.

It is at this point that the film switches gears and becomes a very serious human drama as decisions and loyalties are tested and questioned as many lives hang in the balance. Unable to fix the leak, the crew is forced to send teams into the reactor core protected only by chemical weapon suits, (the supply depot was out of radiation suits and sent chemical suits instead), six members of the crew working in two man pairs are able to repair the reactor by facing temperatures in excess of 900 degrees and absorbing larges doses of radiation. The newly assigned ships doctor was the shipyard doctor, and as such, is not prepared to deal with radiation sickness, nor sure how to stop the spread of contamination amongst the crew. The doctor informs Vostrikov that he is forced to give the men aspirin and tell them they are well, when they may not be.

Eventually the reactor breaks again, and the threat of not only mass contamination of the ship and crew but a large explosion and loss of communications with Russia have driven tensions to the breaking point. Vostrikov is questioned by Polenin as the idea to scuttle the boat and abandon ship, as well as asking the Americans for help fall upon the deaf ears of Vostrikov. Vostrikov refuses to let the Americans near his ship nor have his people, and is determined to toe the party line at all costs even in the face of a pending mutiny and Polenin’s constant pressure.

What follows is a gripping and entertaining film about a hidden chapter from history, as the events around the K-19 were suppressed by the Communist government and it was only after their fall from power that the survivors from the ship were able to speak of the events that really happened. Ford is solid is his portrayal of Vostrikov as a hard a driven man who will let nothing stand in his way. What could have become a villain role by other actors instead becomes a versatile and complex character under Ford who never deviates from his characters intensity yet has moments of insight that let the audience see who is and why Vostrikov does what he does. Neeson is every bit the star as Ford in this film as he portrays Polenin as a man who is devoted to the mission and country, but not at the expense of his men. There is a fantastic seen towards the climax of the film where Polenin does something that people might not expect, but is fitting with his character.
The human drama and experience of the film is solid and moving and does not rely on to many sub movie clichés in order to tell the story. The story is of the ship and its crew and the FX are left to a supporting role to allow the actors to carry the film with great success. Director Kathryn Bigelow gets great work from her two leads and solid and believable performances from the supporting players and shows that she is a director of talent and great potential as she combines a distinctive visual style and human drama in an unforgettable story. The fact that the crew of the K-19 was at the time an enemy of the state is not an issue as the plight of the crew is touching as it is tragic and illustrates that while governments many not get along, people are the same the world over despite their differences, as they live, love, and suffer, and dream the same as we do, and this film underscores this well in a time where many of the nations of the world need to step back and take those lessons to heart.

4.5 stars out of 5