K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)


Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days, Near Dark) directs this Cold War-era true story starring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson as Soviet officers aboard Russia’s first nuclear-powered submarine. Moscow orders the ship to launch a nuclear missile to let America know they are within striking distance. After the successful launch, however, the vessel suffers a nuclear meltdown that threatens to kill all those aboard and potentially start World War III in the process.

If you can get past the cast’s unconvincing or altogether-missing Russian accents, K-19: The Widowmaker has a story worth hearing. It tells the courageous story of the men who sacrificed themselves to work without protection to stop a nuclear explosion. Why without protection? Because Russia sent the ship before it was ready — without radiation suits, proper medicine, or even qualified staffing for key positions. The film’s middle portion sees team after team of men entering the radiation chamber to repair the damaged cooling system. Everyone knows exposure means death, and K-19 explores this from multiple compelling angles — from the brave few who volunteer for the job, and those who cower from it, to the leadership whose decisions become haunting death sentences.

The screenplay also weaves a mutiny storyline into the mix, with second-tier officers threatening to remove Ford from leadership if he doesn’t put the safety of the men over government orders. Without trying too hard, the film ends up indicting the military industrial complex’s eager willingness to sacrifice human lives in the name of expediency and competition. The characters can’t talk about it for fear of reprimand, but the creeping awareness begins to haunt several of their faces, including Ford’s and Neeson’s. That all these men remain loyal to their country through to the end is as commendable as it is heart-breaking.

The third act goes a little overboard in canonizing the ship’s company, which feels a bit off in tone with the rest of the movie’s exercise in restraint. The film also feels a little too long at over two hours. But for the time it focuses on teamwork and survival, K-19 is good drama, and definitely worth a gander for anyone interested stories of true heroism.

With Peter Sarsgaard and Joss Ackland.

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